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Out of the Ivory Tower

The 1-gigabit challenge was the catalyst for other deep changes that brought the research scientists at Almaden out of their ivory tower and into the real world of profits and losses. Almaden began to do regular joint development work with IBM’s Storage Systems Division, the product group down the hill. Soon, one-third of Almaden’s research budget was coming from the product division. Munce feels that the ratio of funding gives the research group clarity without compromising independence.

The change in funding has also created a new kind of thinking about innovation, Munce says. “Ten years ago the attitude here was: if I didn’t invent it, I don’t want to work on it, because I won’t get credit for it,” he explains. “Today we’re trying to say: If you invent it in the lab, or if you’re the first one to grab it out of someone else’s lab and make it relevant, we don’t care.”

Munce holds a joint managerial position that reports to both the research and the product divisions. It was a position created in the early 1990s to make the ties between the two groups even closer. He sits in on the meetings of the product divisions and then tries to figure what research is needed to serve their missions. Putting on his research hat, his job is to influence IBM’s product divisions to move in directions that take advantage of the work coming out of the labs. “My job really is to manage innovation,” he says. “We need to be separate so we can innovate, create and motivate people to do good research. But we need to be connected to get technology to market.”

A graphic example of how far the research team has evolved from the original vision for Almaden is the Advanced Magnetic Recording Laboratory itself. The lab, designed by research staff member Fontana, is jointly staffed by research and product groups. Two years after Almaden first opened its doors, Fontana convinced his managers to rip the guts out of one wing on the first floor. This renovation gave him a 5,000-square-foot lab to do prototyping work-the kind of work that used to be done by IBM’s product engineers instead of its research staff. This lab provides facilities for building components quickly, allowing the researchers upstairs-specialists in read heads, write heads, materials science and other areas critical to disk-drive technology-to test whether their innovations would work together.

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