Seventy-five years ago, research companies were insular and rarely shared R&D management best practices.
It’s quite different today, thanks in part to the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), which was created by the National Research Council to help companies find better ways to design and manage their research infrastructure.
The organization brings together the research directors of firms whose products range from airplanes to food to software so they can talk about how to successfully create new technologies. It also helps companies grapple with the rapid pace of change, including everything from promoting innovation to managing globalization.
“That process of how to improve industrial R&D is important to the economy, and it is important to our members,” IRI President Edward Bernstein says. “We provide the opportunity to collaborate and to generate new knowledge about how to best do that. We’ve been doing that for 75 years.”
At a diamond jubilee meeting and celebration in Washington, D.C., last month, IRI members came together to talk about what the organization has done through the years and to consider the future of industrial research.
In 1938, when IRI was founded, the government was encouraging academic science, and there was a desire to do the same thing for the industrial sector, Bernstein says.
IRI’s goal is to help companies learn how to successfully create and manage industrial research labs. “There was knowledge that there was a lot of science coming out of industry, but there wasn’t any place for industrial researchers to talk to each other,” he explains.
The group now has more than 200 member companies, including four of the 14 founding members: Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, Hercules Powder (now Ashland), and Universal Oil Products (now part of Honeywell).
J. Stewart Witzeman, head of research at IRI member Eastman Chemical, says the most important thing that IRI does is bring together R&D managers and give them thought-provoking lectures as well as time to talk about their own experiences.
“The environment that is created with IRI makes people feel comfortable sharing because it is their management practice,” Witzeman says. He consulted an IRI colleague from Kraft Foods when Eastman Chemical was setting up an internal peer review system.
“What is unique is that the vast majority of people here are practitioners who run organizations, have budgets, and manage people,” he says.
Ryan R. Dirkx, vice president for R&D at Arkema, an IRI member, says the organization has always been focused on identifying best practices in their member companies or the broader technology community and then helping to spread the word. Among the things the group has advocated for are using targets and metrics to guide research programs and encouraging research openness with other companies and academia. IRI was talking about innovation long before it was a buzzword for every chief executive officer and politician.
At 75, IRI continues to pursue efforts to help keep U.S. industrial R&D at the forefront of innovation. For instance, it is working on two projects that will help its member companies prepare for the future.
Innovation Economy 2020 is an initiative to encourage the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy to create a goal-oriented national innovation policy.
Bernstein is hoping that the government relations arms of its member firms will jump on board and encourage their congressmen to fund an innovation policy.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is sure to top any innovation agenda, Witzeman points out. “I think you will find as close to unanimity as you can with anything about the importance of STEM education.”
IRI is also exploring four long-term scenarios in its IRI2038 study, which may help companies plan for the future. The scenarios are the rise of Africa, the death of global manufacturing, the growth of megacities, and the importance of new models of research and innovation.
Looking back, Dirkx says, IRI has been important in how companies have evolved their research enterprises, and he thinks these forward-looking projects will help guide companies in the future.
“There are not too many places where you can get a reminder that R&D has a responsibility above and beyond just creating products for your company and bringing them to the marketplace,” Dirkx says. At IRI gatherings, there is a clear sense that “you can make a real difference to society and to people’s lives.”