Posted by: John Erickson | February 3, 2010

Community as a Measure of Research Success

In his 02 Feb 2010 post entitled Doing the Right Thing vs. Doing Things Right Matthias Kaiserswerth, the head of IBM Research – Zurich sums up his year-end thinking with this question for researchers…

We have so many criteria of what defines success that one of our skills as research managers is to choose the right ones at the right time, so we work on the right things rather than only doing the work right…For the scientists that read this blog, how do you measure success at the end of the year?

Having just “graduated” after a decade with another major corporate research lab, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart! My short answer was the following blog comment…

I can say with conviction that the true measure of a scientist must be their success in growing communities around their novel ideas. If you can look back over a period of time and say that you have engaged in useful discourse about your ideas, and in so doing have moved those ideas forward — in your mind and in the minds of others — then you have been successful…Publications, grad students and dollar signs are all artifacts of having grown such communities. Pursued as ends unto themselves, it is not a given that a community will grow. But if your focus is on fostering communities around your ideas, then these artifacts will by necessity follow…

My long answer is that those of us engaged in research must act as stewards of our ideas; we must measure our success by how we apply the time, skills, assets, and financial resources we have available to us to grow and develop communities around our ideas. If we can look back over a period of time — a day, a quarter, a year, or a career — and say that we have been “good stewards” by this definition, then we can say we have been successful. If on the other hand we spend time and money accumulating assets, but haven’t moved our ideas forward as evidenced by a growing community discourse supporting those ideas, then we haven’t been successful.

A very trendy topic over the past few years has been open innovation, as iconified by Henry Chesborough’s 2003 book by the same name. Chesborough’s “preferred” definition of OI found in Open Innovation: Researching a New Paradigm (2006) reads as follows…

Open innovation is the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively. [This paradigm] assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as they look to advance their technology.

In very compact language Chesborough (I believe) argues that innovators within organisations can best move their ideas forward through open, active engagement with internal and external participants. [1] Yes, individual engagement could be conducted through closed “tunnels,” but for the ideas to truly flourish (think Java) this is best done through open communities. I believe the most important — perhaps singular — responsibility of the corporate research scientist is to become a “master of their domain,” to know their particular area of interest and expertise better than anyone, to propose research agendas based upon that knowledge, and to leverage their companies’ assets to motivate communities of interest around those ideas. External communities that are successfully grown based on this view of OI can become force multipliers for the companies that invest in them!

To appreciate this one needs only to consider the world of open source software and the ways in which strong communities contribute dimensions of value that no single organisation could… I’ll pause while you contemplate this idea: open-source like communities of smart people developing your ideas. Unconvinced? Then think about “Joy’s Law,” famously attributed to Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy (1990):

No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else

Bill Joy’s point was that that best path to success is to create communities [2] in which all of the “world’s smartest people” are applying themselves to your problems and growing your ideas. As scientists, our measure of success must be how well we leverage the assets available to us to grow communities around our ideas.

Peter Block has given us a profound, alternative perspective on the role of leaders in the context of communities [3]. In his view, leaders provide context and produce engagement. In Block’s view, leaders…

  • Create a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity, accountability, and commitment;
  • Initiate and convene conversations that shift peoples’ experience, which occurs through the way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engage them;
  • Listen and pay attention.

Ultimately, I believe that successful researchers must first be successful community leaders, by this definition!

Update: In a 4 Feb 2010 editorial in the New York Times entitled Microsoft’s Creative Distruction, former Microsoft VP Dick Brass examines why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future. As a root cause, he suggests:

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.

I believe Mr. Brass’ analysis is far too inwardly focused. Never in his editorial does Mr. Brass lift up the growing outreach by Microsoft Research, especially under the leadership of the likes of Tony Hey (CVP, External Research) and Lee Dirks (Director, Education & Scholarly Communications), to empower collaboration with and sponsorship of innovative researchers around the world. Through its outreach Microsoft is enabling a global community of innovators and is making an important contribution far beyond its bottom line. I think Mr. Brass would do well to focus on the multitude of possibilities Microsoft is helping to make real through its outreach, rather than focusing on what he perceives to be its problems


  • [1] One version of the open innovation model has been called distributed innovation. See e.g. Karim Lakhani and Jill Panetta, The Principles of Distributed Innovation (2007)
  • [2] Some authors have referred to “ecologies” or “ecosystems” when interpreting Bill Joy’s quote, but I believe the more accurate and useful term is community.
  • [3] For more on community building, see Peter Block, esp. Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008)


  1. John,

    While reading your response to Kaiserswerth’s blogpost, and subsequently reading your explanation further, it gained on me that one example where I have seen a “community builder” shape a topic, is in the Identity Management space.

    Kim Camron (from Microsoft) defined the “Laws of Identity”. The question though to me then is where do you draw the line between superior research/science and what is often termed (in the IT industry) as evangelicalism?

    Camron certainly meets your criteria of “community building” – and would get excellent marks for driving a domain and set of ideas forward. However, would more individuals like him be sufficient to sustain an industrial research domain — or is it that those like him are really the types of people that should be running the “marketing” or “communications” departments of a lab?

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