Corporations have occasionally posed the following dilemma to research departments: "Will we lose a competitive advantage by jointly developing new technology with university consortia and other open forums? If not, then can we rely entirely on outside innovations and avoid internal research and development?" Only two alternatives are considered: do away with outside research, or do away with internal research. In fact, you cannot benefit much from either without the other.
In a fast developing research area, any single innovation loses its advantage quickly. The greatest advantage comes from staying current with all new lessons and improvements. Ignorance of outside innovations cancels out the advantage of one secret internal innovation.
All who actively try to innovate and to advance a new subject will have shared experiences that are tacitly understood in any public discussion of new methods. An inactive bystander will miss these crucial assumptions and will therefore miss the significance of much that is revealed in open forums. Many years will pass before anyone can reconstruct the current state of knowledge from published literature alone.
Those companies who understand the fundamentals early will know best how to implement each new wave of innovations. Others must wait years until some contractor has carefully packaged these new ideas, when these ideas have already been superceded by better ones. Eventually, of course, the subject will mature, cease to be an area of active research, and we can rely on contractors to be up to date. In exploration geophysics, we have reached that point with many subjects active fifteen years ago.
We must exchange some of our occasional inspirations and lessons for access to many others. Companies who do not collaborate will be left out of discussions where many innovations originate, where enough experience gathers to create a new understanding. Those who do not explain some of what they are doing will not be warned when they are about to make a time-consuming mistake. The stubborn pursuit of mistaken leads and dead ends weakens the competitive position of many companies. Such stubbornness comes from isolation.
Those who explain some of their accomplishments in the new field will be seen as leaders of the field. Others will ask the perceived leaders for advice and will reveal what they are attempting and why. The "leaders" will have the broadest knowledge about the methods of their competitors. Leaders will know better than any bystander which methods have been attempted, and whether successfully or not. Leaders can most efficiently concentrate their resources on the most promising approaches. Isolated, every company can imagine itself a leader, but more often than not, the perceived leaders stay leaders because they know what opportunities must be investigated next.
One company may luck onto a brilliant idea that takes other companies years to arrive at. If this lucky group decides to isolate itself completely, it will be far behind in related topics when that one idea finally comes to light. Worse, the one exclusive idea may not turn out to have been as brilliant as thought. One need not make bad trades, but one should not fail to collaborate just because of a temporary advantage. There are very few examples of secret techniques that provided a competitive advantage for years. The successful implementation of a good idea depends more on understanding all possible pitfalls. The advantages of a sound implementation last for many years.
Bill Harlan, 1996
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