Solutions Seeking Problems

"Solutions Seeking Problems"

My employment for a year between undergraduate and graduate school was as an engineer at the Large Steam Turbine Generating Division of General Electric Company at Schenectady, New York. One of the experiences that had a lasting impression on me occurred one day on the factory floor (and it was an extremely large floor). The supervisor gathered a group of us together and announced, with tongue in cheek, that "today we get our yearly visit from the guys at the Research and Development Lab and they will come with their bag of solutions looking for some problems to solve." There was a real lack of enthusiasm for meeting with "those guys" and, in fact, most of the operational people on the factory floor felt it a total waste of time.

Several years later while I was a research scientist for the Central Intelligence Agency, our Office of Research and Development had utilized the new technologies spawned by the invention of the transistor and computer to produce a whole series of techniques and xxx. And, guess what? After the initial contracts for "proof of principal" and prototype development, we then had to generate support from the operational divisions of the Agency in order to obtain funds for continued development. Now, I was "one of the guys with a bag of solutions looking for problems they solved."

So where’s the disconnect?

Did something happen to me? Has it changed today? Is there something wrong with that system of R&D funding or management? How does a person or an organization keep from becoming just a bag of solutions? Is that good or bad? Should unfettered research be encouraged? How much interaction should there be between research/developer and the user community? Does this interaction then limit the enthusiasm for "pushing the envelope" in order to use mature technology and get some kind of solution ASAP?

Wait a minute! Let's not get carried away with these philosophical questions. The real challenge should be related to the capital budget available. I know: some of my readers are saying, "Here goes Sanders again. He always seems to wind up at that ratted money issue." But that's the determinant of how soon a potential solution must become a real solution. If there's umliminted capital, then you can invent forever. But the real world deals with the management of limitations, including money.

Therefore, the feedback from the market, whether it's internal or external to your organization, has to be related to where the financial support is coming from and how much there is. Ihappen to believe that interaction between the developer and the ultimate user cannot happen too soon or even too often. At least when budgets get tight, the developer has a strong market advocate who will support continuation of the project, if for no other reason than because the user has become identified with it.

You can see my bias in this discussion. Those events many years ago made a big impression on me.

I would appreciate comments; contact me at Technology Business magazine: phone: 703-610-8787; e-mail: john@johnsanders.com; internet: www.johnsanders.com.

prepared for the November, 1997 Issue of the FLC NewsLink