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R&D Revival

IT research and development is making a comeback, but the rules have changed.

By David Geer
October 17, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Despite the dot-com fallout that pulled the plug on IT at the end of the last millennium, IT R&D is staging a revival. But today, it has a new mission, a new culture, broader sponsorship, a different profile and a new emphasis on partnerships.
Late in the 1990s, the typical IT R&D mission was to move ahead to the next technology no matter what. Research often went almost directly from experimentation into production without proper testing, without any justification of the value of the technology to business, without plans for properly engineering it into the environment and without a design for deployment, says Vijay Sankaran, IT manager for enterprise technology at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich.
"There was no formalized, architected approach to introducing new technologies," says Sankaran. This led to unfocused technologies such as multiple company Web sites that weren't even linked together, he says.
As a result, many dot-com IT R&D initiatives ultimately failed. "Projects were late; they didn't do as expected, and even if they did work as expected, they didn't deliver the kind of revenue gains people expected," says Martin Reynolds, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
"In the dot-com days, R&D efforts were consistent with that period's land-grab mentality," says John Baschab, co-author of The Executive's Guide to Information Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Companies were focused on increasing their Web real estate by using technologies like scalable Web architectures to grow their Web presence, visual design techniques to draw people in and back-office systems that could support millions of customers, he says. But for the most part, these plans did not materialize. "IT R&D today focuses more on practical, pragmatic issues," Baschab says.
While today's IT R&D still has to innovate fast, it also has to innovate in the right way, says Sankaran. The focus has shifted from research for research's sake to meeting business needs.
For example, in the late 1980s and into the '90s, as much as 50% of the IT R&D budget at The Procter & Gamble Co. went to pure emerging-technology research. "Now, about 80% of it is spent on doing engineering against business problems," says Robert Scott, vice president of IT and innovation at the Cincinnati-based consumer goods maker.
Innovation has always played a critical role at P&G, Scott says. "But as we looked toward the future, we knew that we needed IT R&D to play an even larger role to maintain our edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace. For that to happen, we needed to change how IT worked and how it integrated with

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