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An Image of Innovation?

Room to grow is certainly important to the success of any young research operation, but Emmott’s words taken in combination with the generally fuzzy corporate rhetoric surrounding the Knowledge Lab’s mission beg the question: Is the lab more a showpiece than a hothouse for new technologies?

Michael Bove, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Object-Based Media Group, is one observer who has his doubts. “There have only been a handful [of technology projects] announced so far,” he notes, “and a number of these sound as if they were created to make NCR a good press release.” This is not an entirely critical statement, however. Explains Bove: “Given NCR’s recent history as a corporate entity, it had to do something. It’s a good start.”

Still, Bove questions the originality of Knowledge Lab concepts, and with good reason-his own work includes “Hyper Soap,” an interactive Internet soap opera which, like “Rei,” allows users to click on and buy featured products. And many manufacturers are using their research divisions to get in on the invisible-computing game: In October 1998, for example, Italy’s Merloni Elettrodomestici, Europe’s fourth-largest home appliances producer, unveiled a new line including washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators that can communicate with online assistance centers and with one another. Meanwhile, UK-based Electrolux has developed “Screenfridge,” complete with LCD touch screen, barcode scanner and Internet connection.

In the view of Alexander Linden, senior analyst for advanced technology applications at GartnerGroup, an international research and consulting firm, the Knowledge Lab has plenty of company. “Many companies now have similar operations in place,” says Linden. “Labs have become a highly competitive area of investment for all concerned.”

Bove believes that whether the Knowledge Lab turns out to be a good investment for NCR will depend partly on the parent company’s expectations-“to explore new opportunities or remake the organization. If it’s the former, anything they do will probably be a good thing. If, however, it’s the latter-this may prove problematic.”

The Knowledge Lab may get a grace period to prove its mettle, because NCR’s other shifts in focus are paying off. Last year, the company reported profit of $122 million on revenues of $6.5 billion. In the fourth quarter of that year it posted revenue growth for the first time in 13 quarters and improved gross margins by 2 percent. As the bottom line fattens, Knowledge Lab lingo is creeping into its parent’s way of thinking: A new mission statement, or “NCR Manifesto,” outlines the company’s future direction and shaped an international advertising campaign that premiered in May. “We are not a business-to-business company; we are a business-to-customer-to-consumer company,” the manifesto declares. “For over a century we have been managing the point of transaction.’ For the next 100 years, we are going beyond that point of transaction to the value and trust of relationships.” The next few years will show whether the Knowledge Lab can help its parent make good on these brave words by moving beyond corporate image-making to technological innovation.

Structuring Knowledge: Groups at the Knowledge Lab

Group Focus Researchers’ Disciplines Consumer Research Understanding the changing relationships between banks and other commercial providers and their customers by focusing on consumers, behavior, attitudes and use of technology Marketing
Human Factors Computational Modeling Developing new mathematical approaches to modeling, allowing providers to predict and manage customer relationships Biophysics
Language Acquisition
Statistics User Experience Future products at the intersection of computing, networks and everyday objects-particularly fashion and household goods-and their application to e-commerce Design
Interactive Design
Furniture Design
Industrial Design
Fine Art
Telecommunications Emerging Technologies & Lifestyle Engineering The convergence of computing and communications technology Philosophy
Electronic Communications
Computer Graphics
Machine Vision

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