When Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” he meant to emphasize the implications of any new technology (or medium) beyond the specific context of its use (or content of its message). The import of any medium inevitably goes beyond its contents to its effects on the work in which it is embedded. This message can be summarized, according to McLuhan and his son Eric, in four “laws of media”: each new technology, or “extension of man,” 1) intensifies or enhances something in the world, 2) makes something else obsolete, 3) retrieves some attribute of the past, and 4) at its extreme, reverses into a caricature of itself (McLuhan and McLuhan 1988).
These laws of media, which the McLuhans call “the tetrad,” can help one to understand and, perhaps, respond constructively to the new medium. They can help make sense of trends that might otherwise appear contradictory or just plain chaotic. As one of many examples in their 1988 book The Laws of Media, the McLuhans analyze the mobile phone. Some of the implications seem prophetic.
It is interesting to think about the tetrad in the context of digital media and their implications for the management of R&D. Digital media increase the speed of everything; they increase the potential for products as services; and they intensify collaboration and openness. They may, as a result, make the traditional R&D lab obsolete and (perhaps) redefine our current notions of intellectual property. At the same time, they have the potential to empower small-scale innovators by providing access to information and opportunities to invent. At the extreme, digital media can flip into hype, creating innovation bubbles or leading to the equivalent of patents as spam.
There are indicators that all of these “messages” of digitalization are playing out, and many are reflected in this issue of RTM. Most notable, perhaps, is the potential demise of the R&D lab as we know it. In their article “The Hollywood Model,” Alan Ayers and his coauthors propose that, in the future, R&D projects may be orchestrated in much the same way movies are produced today, with ad hoc teams brought together to undertake a clearly defined (often risky) endeavor. Digitalization makes this structure increasingly feasible by lowering the barriers to remote, distributed collaboration, increasing the ease with which talent can be accessed, and using public ratings systems to evaluate performance. In this model, R&D directors become producers and talent gets paid by the project (perhaps with residuals). Without digitalization of both coordination and the underlying activities (design, project management, staffing), this kind of approach would not be possible.