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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Gorilla of Agile Business Innovation

S+B: Do you see any technology-based competition emerging from China?
I haven’t seen it yet in glass. I can’t point to an industrial lab in China—at the Corning level—that was not established by a U.S. company. China is extremely skilled at manufacturing, but I haven’t seen this other part emerge yet.

Today, I see China as more of an opportunity. How do you adapt the Corning product to the Chinese market? Corning is the largest supplier of optical fiber in the world, and China is the largest user of that. China is a huge manufacturer of cars, and they need our cellular substrates for catalytic converters. And of course, China is a huge consumer of displays—and that’s our largest business.

S+B: Innovation has been slow in some large companies because scientists have to run a gauntlet of review by marketing, manufacturing, and sales. How do you manage that problem?
Putting our scientists in the customers’ operations is one way. But it’s also critical for senior leadership to understand what the people in the lab are doing. Launching a product shouldn’t be like having a gauntlet to run, but rather having a series of people holding water for the person running the marathon, getting behind them, coaching them, and participating with them. Personally, I’ve always believed that the function of technology management is to enable those people. We work for them. We should make sure that the smartest minds we have can succeed. This includes knowing what they are doing, giving them resources, and exposing them to the needs of relevant industries.

S+B: But the rap against scientists in the lab is that they want to pursue the frontiers of knowledge, not respond to the mere commercial needs of the marketplace.
Actually, part of the culture of this lab is the way we combine basic science and successful product introductions. That’s one reason people work here into their 70s and 80s. Even after they’ve retired, they come in every day. We are all encouraged to do science. We have a program called Safe Haven, for instance, in which people write research proposals and send them to senior scientists in our lab. We pick some, just like the National Science Foundation does, for funding. “Sure, take a year. Go research that.” There are ways to allow individual researchers to respond to an itch that they have and still feel that we are being responsible in spending the company’s money.

Our researchers have experience as successful scientists, but they’ve also had the thrill of seeing some of their technology reach the marketplace. They teach that sensibility to others. It becomes part of the culture. It’s fun to succeed financially when you do it through invention and technology. Take Dr. George Beall, a scientist who has received every award ever given in ceramics or materials. I interviewed with him when I came to Corning. He’s world-class academically. When we bring in people just out of school, he can convey not only the science, but the excitement of seeing your inventions reach the marketplace. His walls are not only lined with certificates and awards; they’re also lined with products. That is the tenor of this lab.

S+B: How do you break down the silos between different scientific disciplines?
In the 1990s, when we were in an acquisition mode, we acquired labs all around the world. We had great people working in them, all very smart. But the integration of these remote labs proved to be extremely difficult. Then came the telecom downturn, and we couldn’t afford these labs dispersed any longer. I strongly argued that we should bring them together in one place.

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