HP shakes up research labs, places 'big bets'

By , IDG News Service |  Business, HP, research

Hewlett-Packard is forging ahead with a revamp of its research labs that it hopes will put cutting-edge developments into its products much faster.

The shake-up, publicly announced in March, comes after an analysis that found its 23 research labs were spread too thin, tackling some 150 projects simultaneously. Now, the labs will only take on 20 to 30 "big bets," technologies that HP believes will meet the next wave of business IT demands, said Prith Banerjee, director of HP Labs.

HP threw open the doors to its Bristol, England, lab on Thursday, home to 100 researchers working on projects such as plastic replacements for the glass in flat-panel displays and the semantic Web, a way of labeling information that enables better searching on the Internet.

HP is one of the few companies that still funds extensive research, said Banerjee who quit as dean of the college of engineering at the University of Illinois in Chicago to take the HP job last August. The old way the lab was organized "made sense for its time" but didn't enable research to be incorporated quickly into products, he said.

Martin Sadler, director of the systems security lab and an 18-year labs veteran, said "we kind of drifted a little bit."

As few as two people could propose and approve a research project, Banerjee said. That's changed. Now researchers draw up 25-page proposals that are floated before an internal review board composed of technologists, lab directors and a new group -- marketing and product development experts.

It marks a closer link with the business side, one that Banerjee said is similar to how venture capital funds decide what technologies to invest in. "Our gut tells use it's the right approach," he said. "You have to be sure you don't make the wrong bets."

The new strategy for HP's labs hasn't resulted in higher turnover in an environment where competitors such as Microsoft, Google and IBM vie for talented researchers and engineers. "If people are grumpy, it's over the little things, nothing substantive," Sadler said.

The selected projects are centered around five themes: how to manage an ever-increasing amount of data; Web-based services; digitizing analog content; developing "intelligent" infrastructure that requires less human management; and sustainability, which looks at the environmental impact of IT.

HP lab directors, which get about $150 million of the company's $3.6 billion research and development budget, won't reveal exactly what projects they're working on. But they will describe the IT landscape that has made those areas a priority.

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