Designing and facilitating collaboration in R&D: A case study

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  • Designing and facilitating collaboration in R&D:A case study

    Jerald Hage a, Gretchen Jordan b, Jonathon Mote a,*, Yuko Whitestone a

    aUniversity of Maryland, United Statesb Sandia National Laboratories, United States

    1. Introduction

    Although the impact of co-location in research and technology or product development (R&D) istypically assumed to be positive, there are scant few empirical studies that provide an in-depthexploration of this practice (Kahn and McDonough, 1997). While a number of studies exist that focuson the related issue of collaborative networks (for example see Danilovic andWinroth, 2005; Johansenet al., 2005; von Corswant and Tunalv, 2002), often overlooked are the organizational mechanismsthat allow for integrating the diversity of cross-functional teams, bothwithin and across organizations(Holland et al., 2000; Susman and Majchrzak, 2003). Further, there is very little in the literature thatexplores the initial organizational decisions that formed the co-location effort as well as themanagement practices that sustain the ongoing unit. Finally, a great deal of the studies that do exist

    J. Eng. Technol. Manage. 25 (2008) 256268

    A R T I C L E I N F O

    Article history:

    Available online 5 November 2008

    JEL classication:



    R&D management




    Cross-functional teams

    A B S T R A C T

    This case study aims to highlight the strategic decisions and

    managerial practices in the formation and operation of a co-located

    research unit within a national laboratory. The empirical evidence is

    based on interviews with members of the research unit as well as

    responses from a research environment survey. The ndings of the

    case study suggest specic strategies that are conducive not only for

    the co-location of research units but also for research management

    in general. Principal among these are the need to balance increases

    in diversity and complexity withmechanisms of integration and the

    use of specic management practices and leadership qualities that

    support these activities.

    2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

    The opinions expressed are those of the authors, not the U.S. Department of Energy or Sandia National Laboratories.* Corresponding author at: Center for Innovation, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742,

    United States. Tel.: +1 301 405 9746; fax: +1 301 314 6892.

    E-mail address: (J. Mote).

    Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

    J. Eng. Technol. Manage.

    journal homepage:

    0923-4748/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.jengtecman.2008.10.005

  • focus primarily on new product development or the integration of design or marketing withmanufacturing, rather than the co-location of a research unit with another part of the R&D continuum.

    The motivation to co-locate is typically driven by the assumption that cross-functionalcommunication and teams lead to increased or accelerated innovation. In the organizationalliterature, the role of a complex division of labor, like that found in cross-functional teams, has beenidentied as a critical factor in facilitating organizational innovation. As Hage (1999) demonstrated ina comprehensive review of the organizational innovation literature, a complex division of labor is akey determinant for facilitating innovation, as it encompasses the organizational learning, problem-solving, and creativity capacities of an organization. But the practice of co-location highlights a centralissue in themanagement of R&D of how to strike a balance between increasing the complexity of laborto increase innovation, while at the same time ensuring adequate integration (Nooteboom, 1999,2000). As Leenders et al. (2003) discuss, integrated and active interactions among researchers plays akey role in promoting the cross-fertilization of ideas and creativity necessary for innovation.While theneed for integration is recognized as critical in the management of R&D (Allen, 1977; Leenders et al.,2003; West, 2004), the successful attainment of integration represents a challenge for managers(Nihtila, 1999; Sicotte and Langley, 2000; Holland et al., 2000). And while the use of co-location isbecoming more common, the limited evidence of the results of these attempts at cross-functionalintegration is often mixed (Kahn and McDonough, 1997).

    Further, it should go without saying that a co-location effort, or any research effort, cannot besuccessfulwithout strong leadership, particularly in the initialmanagement decisions. As Von Zedwitz(2003) discusses, the formation of new research units entails a series of decisions that impact thedevelopment of these units over time, including the selection of an appropriate manager. Andleadership practices and styles, in general, have been demonstrated to have a signicant impact onR&D performance (Oh et al., 1991; McDonough and Barczak, 1991; Green, 1995; Sicotte and Langley,2000; Stoker et al., 2001; Cordero et al., 2004). Yet, we would argue that there are few studies thatprovide practical insights on successful leadership styles or practices in the R&D literature.

    The objective of this paper is to discuss the issues of balancing diversity and integration andleadership in R&D through an examination of a case study of the formation and co-location of adedicated basic research unit within a manufacturing department (S&T MD) in a large nationallaboratory (hereafter NATLAB) in the United States. The research unit was formed to focus on themanufacturing departments single product, a component which requires extreme precision, exoticmaterials and highly advanced processes in its manufacture. It was anticipated that the integration ofbasic research in the production facility would result in fewer technical surprises on the productionline and quicker resolution of problems that do arise. Our case study encompasses not only the currentactivities of the S&TMD, but also the initial decisions and actions that led to the formation of the unit.In this manner, the case study provides a relatively more comprehensive investigation of a novelapplication of the use of co-location.

    But the case study should also have special interest to R&D managers for several reasons beyondthe issues raised above. First, the case study focuses on a co-location effort at the level of basicresearch, while most studies on co-location focus on efforts in product development. Second, the casestudy involves the co-location of a basic research unit within a manufacturing unit, which, to ourknowledge, is relatively rare. Finally, the need for scientic and technological research units formanufacturing is becoming greater because frequently radical innovations utilize advanced processtechnologies and the challenge of these manufacturing units involves addressing technicalcomplexities in the product and the manufacturing process.

    In the next section of the paper, we discuss the applied theory of radical innovation that underliessome of the assumptions in the analysis of the case study. After a brief discussion of the methodology,we discuss the efforts of the unit in developing complexity or diversity and how integration isperceived by the ve scientists in this unit, using both the interviews and the results of a researchenvironment survey. To provide some basis of comparison, the survey results of the units scientistsare compared to another experiment in co-location within the NATLAB, which we will refer to asCOLO, as well as the overall researcher perceptions for NATLAB. In the subsequent section, we discussthe management practices and leadership style of the units manager that facilitated the co-locationeffort, including a long-term scientic vision, cognitivementoring and providing emotional support to

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  • researchers. The study concludes with a discussion of the results and implications for further researchon R&D management.

    2. An applied theory of radical innovation

    One of the central issues in themanagement of R&D is ensuring a balance between increasing thecomplex division of labor needed to pursue radical innovation and maintaining integration amongthe research team (Hage, 1999). A complex division of labor is important because, as Nooteboom(1999, 2000) hypothesized, radical innovation ismore likely the greater the cognitive (or knowledge)distance there is within the team. Paradoxically, however, communication also tends to declinewithcognitive distance. Hence, the challenge is to strike a balance between complexity and integrationrelative to the goal of radical innovation. Perhaps even more critical is the need to maintainintegration as the diversity or complexity grows, rather than assuming the two remain static overtime.

    Although there is a considerable amount of research on the relationship between complexity andinnovation in the industrial innovation literature, there has been a surprising absence of researchabout the problems of integration (Hage, 1999). Further, Nootebooms concept of optimal cognitivedistance, which posits a successful balance between diversity and integration, has undergone onlycursory empirical examination to date (Wuyts et al., 2005). In recent qualitative studies ofbiomedicine, however, Hollingsworth et al. (in press) found integration does pose a serious challenge,particularly with regard to the recruitment of new competencies, which creates internaldifferentiation that prevents integration across these diverse perspectives.

    Internal differentiation and the challenge of balance are compounded when the need arises foradditional expertise during the course of a research project, a common occurrence as new researchissues emerge. For instance, in a study of some 20 research projects in the sameNATLAB,we found thatmost of them added new skills during the course of their 3 years and in the larger projects or programsof research sometimes had as many as eight different specialties (Jordan et al., 2005).

    One might think that the problem of maintaining integration is easily solved if the new skills arerecruited into the same unit but this increases the size of the unit, reduces its exibility, and, mostcritically, leads to internal differentiation as the specialists create occupational or disciplinary groupswithin the research project or program. It is this tendency for like-minded individuals to gravitatetogether that starts to inhibit communicationwithin cross-functional teams. To prevent the growth insize and the internal differentiation, another solution is to temporarily hire people to join the project.This has the advantage of preventing the growth in size and allowing for exibility but then thereother issues of whether the temporary people are truly becoming integrated into the project and theirdegree of commitment. After a brief discussion of the data and methodology, we turn to aninvestigation of the formation of the S&T MD to explore these issues.

    3. The methodology

    This study uses a single-case study design to explore a unique example of co-location, one that wewould argue can make a contribution to the existing knowledge and theory of R&Dmanagement. Theprimary data used in this case study comes from interviews and survey responses of the staffmembersof the S&T MD, which is located at a large national laboratory. The laboratory currently employsseveral thousand researchers in over two-dozen disciplinary centers and has a multi-billion dollarbudget. Such large laboratories are interesting settings to explore questions about R&D, but have beenlargely overlooked in the literature. The S&T MD is a relatively small unit in the laboratory, consistingof one manager, ve scientists, ve technologists, one contractor, and one support staff. Thedocumentation of the history of the formation of the S&TMD, aswell as its experiencewith complexityand integration, were obtained using the following three sources of data:

    (1) One face-to-face interview and two short qualitative interviews by phone with the unit managerabout management rationale and strategies for the formation of the unit.

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  • (2) One-half hour interviews with all the scientists (in person and by phone) and with several of thetechnologists in the department about managerial practices relative to three themes.

    (3) A survey designed specically to elicit information about specic aspects of a researchenvironment was administered to all scientists and technologists in the department.

    The rst set of data provided insight into the decisionsmade in the formation of a new departmentand the implications for evolution across time. The second set of data provided the scientistsperspective on management decisions, as well helped to identify specic managerial practices thatconnect to particular scores on the third source of data, the research environment survey. Discussionof survey results in the s provided in this paper utilizes only the responses of the scientic staff of thedepartment. The one-half hour limit on the qualitative interviews of course means that only a fewissues about managerial practices could be explored. For this paper, we focused on the issues ofcomplexity and integration, internal growth and external recruitment, and research unit size andexibility.

    The survey utilized in this analysis has been administered and tested in a number of R&D settings(Jordan, 2005; Jordan et al., 2003; Jordan and Streit, 2003b), including other national laboratories. Thetable survey covers key attributes of organizational structure and management practices within theresearch environment which were identied and dened through an extensive literature review andinput from 15 focus groups that included bench scientists, engineers, and technologists, as well astheir managers, across various R&D tasks (Jordan et al., 2003). In total, 36 attributes in four areas wereidentied as most important to creating an environment that fosters excellent research, and thesurvey attempts to determine the health of a laboratorys research environment by way of theresearchers perceptions. For the purposes of this case study, the survey offered a useful way ofmeasuring the perceptions of scientists in the S&T MD on various issues related to complexity ordiversity and integration. In addition, because the survey had recently been administered at theNATLAB, it provides comparative data to better understand the experience of the S&T MD.

    4. Initial decisions: managerial practices involving recruitment

    In this case study, the origin of the need for a separate department to conduct basic or fundamentalscience for improving the manufacturing processes resulted from the founding managers role in theanalysis group that oversaw the transfer of the manufacturing task to NATLAB. Gradually, he hadperceived that the basic science for manufacturing was underemphasized. In particular, much of thework concentrated...


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