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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Gorilla of Agile Business Innovation

S+B: Part of the answer seems to be connecting your best scientists directly to customers as they confront their challenges. That must be a very complex thing to manage.
Yes and no. Trust has to be built at the very beginning of the process, and that’s why we need to start with relationships at the highest levels, up to and including the CEO. There also has to be an understanding that we are there for mutual success.

Historically, businesses such as Corning tended to be very conservative about these types of relationships because it felt like we were giving away our technology. And conversely, customers have said, “I’m not willing to tell you what I need because you can use that information to sell to my competitors as well.”

S+B: How do you balance agility and speed with the discipline and rigor that research demands?
That’s a good question. I wouldn’t say we’re stopping our existing innovation process, but we’re distinguishing those cases where it is important to move quickly, and we’re taking more risks with them.

For example, with Gorilla Glass, we promised we would deliver a product in what was basically an emergency situation. Steve Jobs and Apple had announced a date for the iPhone launch. To make a running change to a new material with a new supplier was big. Jobs requested the deal in a one-on-one meeting with our CEO, Wendell Weeks.

Another example is our glass substrates for liquid crystal displays—our biggest business today. Working with the RCA Sarnoff labs, we established the ability to create liquid crystal displays, starting back in the 1980s, for watches. Then came desktop displays, which were relatively static pictures. In the 1990s, people said the technology would never work for television because the image refresh function was too slow and the colors weren’t defined enough. But by a decade later, in the mid-2000s, LCD TV had grown to be a huge business. It completely displaced conventional TV display technology, the cathode ray tube.

To keep up with these developments, we have to invest in long-term RD&E. We’re not alone in this. If you look at the companies in the United States that are strong—the Intels and the Qualcomms—they all invest heavily in RD&E. This involves some risk. There isn’t any short-term financial market that encourages Corning to make the investment that it does. It takes sheer force of will and a belief by our board of directors and our management group that we are first and foremost a technology company. One hundred percent of what we make is a result of research we’ve done. Wendell frequently tells management groups that we’ve been here for 160 years and we’re going to be here for another 160 years. It sounds like a throwaway line, but he is not kidding. It takes decades of steadfast commitment to create life-changing inventions.

S+B: Have international competitive pressures been a factor?
I think so. When we started the first cathode ray tube joint venture with Samsung, Corning had less than $1 billion a year in sales. Samsung was smaller than we were. Think about it. When Samsung, LG, and other Asian companies can turn themselves quickly into companies on the order of $100 billion a year in revenues, it’s important for us to be able to innovate along with them. They all have the time, money, and people to buy the best technologies. Someone has to invent those technologies and develop their applications. If we don’t do it, somebody else will. We have to be agile to keep up. A lot of U.S. companies are even more intense in the demands they make.

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