The Management of Research When Research-Technology Management Was Born

By Michael F. Wolff, Executive Editor, RTM (1983-2010)

(This throwback article appeared in RTM twice, first in 1983 and again in 2007 as part of the journal’s 50th anniversary. This year marks the 60th year that RTM has been in continuous publication. #Happy60thRTM!)

In 1958, the industrial boom fueled by the technical advances of the World War II period was only temporarily interrupted by a recession year. The earlier dramatic research advances in computers, chemistry and electronics continued to contribute strongly to the growth of R&D management as a profession—one that brought with it concerns that resonate with those that confront the profession today.

It was the conviction of the Industrial Research Institute’s (IRI) president, Thomas Vaughn, that the new Research Management would be “a powerful force in the continuing development of proficiency in research management.” Thus, the first issue was devoted largely to case histories of research which had been presented at the October 1957 IRI Meeting “for the purpose of illuminating the research organization and the research management decisions required.”

Creativity in Research

Appropriately, the very first paper was titled “Creativity Techniques in Action.” Three National Cash Register chemists related how creative research techniques had been used to produce a successful product called NCR (No Carbon Required) Paper. Development of new products was described as “a carefully organized procedure” at National Cash, and this program was no exception. For example, an extensive orientation program acquainted researchers with an understanding of the company’s product so they could appreciate the market for their as-yet-undeveloped new product. An Applications Research group was brought in to determine market potential and translate to the research people the technical requirements for the carbonless copy paper.

The team approach was a major technique from the beginning, and it yielded results. “We have found that a sense of urgency is not a deterrent to creativity when the problem is well defined, the leadership is sincere and impartial, and a realistic goal can be discerned. Under these conditions there is group harmony that stems from understanding—not only understanding of technical problems, but of ‘where we are going’ and ‘how’ and ‘when’.” The authors said that they secured team play by “recognizing a basic human requirement for dignity at work and recognition of achievement.”

Communication lines from top to bottom were kept extremely short. “Regular and informal trips through the laboratory by supervision kept management’s finger on the pulse of progress. The updating to supervision was worthwhile, but it was a second order benefit—the real reward was in having the research man [researchers were then invariably men—Ed.] at the bench tell his own story about accomplishments and know that management knew about him. It was not unusual to see our Company President in the laboratory, following a call by the Vice President of Research, listening and looking with the man who had punched out a problem solution only the day before. It is repeated again—this technique pays off.”

Another important creative research technique was “Open Project Time,” in which “the researcher is given freedom to investigate any solution to a problem which is compatible with company goals.” Indeed the NCR project was triggered in just this way. Explained the authors, “Advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Productivity in research is measured not just in man-hours. Morale and enthusiasm created by open project time is believed to be far more valuable than the time itself in terms of creative productivity.”

Apparently it worked, because research discussions continued at “semi-social” evening sessions at the homes of researchers.

Another technique the authors valued was that of “giving the research man the opportunity to personally demonstrate key advances to all supervisory personnel. This is time well spent by supervision. It aids in keeping such personnel posted on important advances and also aids in giving promotions and merit increases, it gives the researcher satisfying recognition for his efforts, and, finally, it provides rapid communications and understanding between management and research personnel. This can be done regardless of the size of an organization. It is one of the most important functions of Management to give time for this purpose.”

This and other more prosaic means of communication kept management close to progress throughout the “long and trying years” required to develop the NCR product.

Another new product—an X-ray image amplifier—was described by a Westinghouse Electric Company research manager. He noted that the creation of the group to pursue this problem “had a rather far-reaching influence on many of the Company’s activities. I believe this has occurred for three reasons; first, the group required a large organization which could take advantage of any of a number of possible results; second, they maintained intimate contact with the effort in the operating divisions; and, third, they took a rather broad interpretation of the task which was set before them.”

Good advice that would be heeded at some companies but disregarded at others during the succeeding 50 years.

A third article dealt with statistical techniques that the U.S. Rubber Company was using to design polymer experiments in order to get the most information at the least cost. The author observed that “it seems unfortunate that so many of our graduate schools are turning out Ph.D.s in physics and chemistry with so little knowledge of these time-saving and cost-cutting methods.”

The final article described a pioneering attempt at Atlas Powder Company “to upgrade literature search to full creative research status by staffing an Information Research Group with creative, technically trained personnel.” Fifty years later, few research directors would argue the author’s premise that “to rely on the individual efforts of laboratory scientists to provide the intangible research tool—information—for both program planning and individual projects, does not appear to be the answer to the research director’s job of focusing the right talents at the right time on the jobs in hand.”

The remaining three issues of Research Management during 1958 initiated exploration of a number of the major concerns of research managers that remain as relevant today as they were then. Among them:

How Much Freedom for the Industrial Researcher?

Two General Electric (GE) managers admitted that “proper balance between free inquiry and programmed research is almost as difficult to determine as the amount of research that a company should do. The answer must be found by each company on the basis of its own particular solution.” Notwithstanding, they made the following observations:

  1. Research scientists working on long-range problems need some—not total—isolation from current business problems.

  2. Don’t institute an industrial research program unless the sponsor is firmly committed to put its successful results into practice and has the plans and organization to do so.

  3. Free inquiry in research requires organizational flexibility. “It must be easy to set up new projects quickly, to carry out preliminary investigations, and then to concentrate activity where opportunity has been disclosed.”

  4. Research leaders are particularly important. “The best scientists without leadership are likely to make only indifferent contributions in industrial research, and poor leadership will jeopardize even those. The head of an organization, whether he is the president of a company, the director of research, or the leader of a research group, tends to set its character. In general, an organization will be no better than the man at the top.”

In contrast to such free inquiry, a General Motors (GM) manager emphasized the importance of research toward specific goals. Nevertheless, “even on projects where the general objective is specified, research personnel are given full responsibility and authority for selecting the methods used in accomplishing that objective. In most cases a time limit is not imposed. This is particularly true of long-range exploratory projects where the aim is obtaining basic information necessary for executive decisions. Each project is closely followed and frequent appraisals are made as new information is obtained. The course of the development and the amount of effort allocated to it are determined by the results.”

Succeeding in Long-Range Research

The factors in the research environment which he believed necessary for successfully carrying out a long-range research program such as that which led to a then-new family of glass-ceramics at Corning Glass were outlined by S. D. Stookey (winner of the IRI Achievement Award in 1979). Wrote Stookey, in our Autumn 1958 issue:

“First, every member of management from the Research Supervisor through the Research Director to the Chairman of the Board of Directors must be genuinely convinced of the value of long-range research and ready to support it actively.

“Second, the atmosphere throughout the laboratory should be such that free interchange of information is possible, the research man is confident of recognition of his work, and constructive application of the results is made.

“Third, the company should be large enough to support long-range research and make use of its results; but not so large that the research man is too small a cog in the machine.

“And finally, promising research men should be given fruitful fields of study with sufficient scope, and given sufficient freedom, time, and independent responsibility to encourage their best efforts.”

Human Relations

In discussing how to improve the professional environment for research people, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company R&D vice president observed that the solution to most of the problems that arise between management and research workers “lies in understanding the human attitudes involved.” He placed the burden for this task squarely on the shoulders of the Research Director: “He and his supervision must know and consider the individual researcher, his aptitudes, his experience, his aims, and his attitudes, just as the scientist must know the composition of the materials with which he deals and the energy changes involved in their modification. He must utilize this knowledge to balance his project teams. When this has been accomplished, he will find it relatively easy to encourage and aid his staff in additional activities which will enhance the prestige of both the organization and the individual and which will add to the confidence and sense of achievement of his scientists.”

Two contrasting views of the first-line research supervisor appeared in the Winter 1958 issue. One was a panel discussion (from the Fall IRI meeting) where seven research chemists from Hercules Powder Company presented their views of the supervisory staff. Among conclusions as pertinent today as they were then:

  1. Each individual must know where he stands in the organization and where he can hope to go.

  2. The supervisor should act as both a research leader and consultant and, furthermore, “be a leader of individuals first and only secondarily of a team.”

  3. Communication downward is just as important as communication upward.

  4. The Research Director should look “for the opportunity of individual growth with all its ramifications, and we add, further, that growth of the research function as a whole is not possible if individual growth is neglected. Furthermore, growth will be accomplished only if the desire to grow is present and if the environment for growth is provided. Research and company management have a large role (in reality the principal role) to play in regard to both these points. We would like to emphasize, however, that the crucial meeting ground of management and the research chemist is at the level of first-line supervision, and that the personal relationship at this level will often decide the extent or nature of growth in the research chemist. A further point of emphasis is that individual growth is an individual problem which can never be solved by blanket proposals, but only by individual treatment of the people involved.”

The senior executive’s view was expressed by James Hillier, RCA’s vice president for research and engineering, and in 1975 the IRI Medalist. In summarizing the conclusion of three IRI study groups on “The Responsibilities of the First Line of Supervision and Research,” he noted that the basic responsibility of research management could be translated into two general types of operating problems: 1) the establishment and maintenance of an appropriate communications network, and 2) the establishment and maintenance of a creative staff in a creative environment.

The first-line supervisor plays a key role in handling both of these, Hillier continued, with the result that his responsibilities could be listed as follows:

  1. To participate in the selection of creative individuals (appropriate for the company’s interests).

  2. To manage his team to provide maximum freedom of action within existing boundary conditions.

  3. To participate in the formulation, interpretation and acceptance of realistic research objectives (a major communications problem).

  4. To maintain appropriate and realistic pressure toward accomplishment.

  5. To assure appropriate recognition of contributions made by the individual members of his team.

  6. To maintain communication between his group and the other parts of the laboratory in the company to provide knowledge of stimulating activities and to provide association of stimulating individuals.

  7. To play an appropriate role in the provision of adequate facilities and technical assistance.

  8. To understand and stabilize the personnel problems involving creative individuals.

Salary Administration

“So far, even in the age of Univac and Sputnik, no one has yet come up with a scientific means of determining what constitutes real equity in salary compensation,” wrote an American Cyanamid administrator in the Summer 1958 issue. The salary administration used in the Cyanamid research division is based on the philosophy that “the job should not dominate the man, but rather the man does and must make the job,” he wrote.

At the point to which it had evolved in 1958, eight levels of performance competence were specified and “our scientists, as they grow with confidence, can move up from level to level without changing the areas of their jobs.” However, each level carried a 40 to 50 percent salary range—“ample room for a man to receive merit increases as he is developing within such a range.”

Starting at level five, there was also “a choice of two avenues to further growth and higher compensation . . .the concept that a scientist, working as a scientist, can make fully as great a contribution as is made by a supervisor is, I believe, receiving more and more acceptance by research managements. In short, we seem to be leaving behind the era in which many scientists were forced into the field of administration to get more money and recognition.” (Fifty years later some might argue this point.)

It was through such a system as this that Cyanamid tried to ensure that “the men are not hemmed in by a series of narrow job descriptions. In a sense, they can carry their jobs upward with them in their professional growth. The developing scientist may ‘grow like a tree,’ with his roots spreading ever deeper into his chosen area of professional interest.”

The dual ladder was also discussed by an Esso Standard Oil Company consultant/sociologist in the Autumn issue. Even then it was recognized that there were “certain difficulties” associated with its use, such as using the technical ladder as a “convenient shelf for senior staff members whose managerial or technical skills are outmoded or wanting, but who occupy influential positions.” However, the author considered the most important issue to be “the problem of organizational influence or power.” He concluded that, “There is needed a new concept of research management which helps nominally professional workers to acquire the self-image and skills required before they can accept professional responsibility. Unless scientists are able to participate responsibly in decision-making, to use each other’s resources, to engage in mutual evaluation, and to work autonomously, a controlling, centralized management is necessary.”

Patent Policies

In 1957 the IRI surveyed its 140 member companies regarding their patent policies. Replies from 104 companies revealed, among other things, that:

  1. 76 percent of the companies gave inventors a dollar or less for specific inventions, while 13 percent gave special bonus awards of up to $5,000. Two companies used royalty participation as an award.

  2. 97 percent of the responding companies indicated that income from patent licenses was less than 5 percent of total corporate income.

  3. 60 percent of the respondents “seldom or never” decide against doing research and development work because patent protection does not seem to be obtainable.

(By 1978, a survey of 87 of the IRI’s then 275 member companies revealed that 84 licensed in or out, and that foreign licenses made a significant contribution to the profits of 35 of the companies.)

The Research Budget

How Esso Research and Engineering Company prepared its annual budget was described by IRI past president E. D. Reeves in our Autumn 1958 issue. Noting that “there are today quite a few research organizations with more than 3,000 employees conducting an annual business in excess of $50 million,” Reeves stressed that “budgets are serious business with us,” and that division heads were expected to stay within them.

There was a problem, however—the extreme difficulty of measuring research productivity. “It is one thing to control expenditures according to a budgeted plan, but it is quite another thing to know whether or not you are making or losing money by following the plan.” Reeves explained that his company was trying to approach the problem by (1) developing methods for measuring productivity and (2) developing techniques for performing research services (laboratory analyses, etc.), at the lowest possible cost. He stressed that “our budget is an effective measure of the financial responsibility of research management. Such a budget not only indicates the ability of the management to plan an adequate research strategy for the company but also, by comparisons between budgets and actual performance, it acts as a good index to the soundness of the plans themselves and of the extent of management control over its operations.”

The Research Environment

Research Management’s Winter 1958 issue initiated coverage of a theme that has remained important ever since—the external environment in which R&D managers must operate.

Reprinted was the keynote address to the IRI Fall meeting by the first Presidential science adviser, James R. Killian. He described the work and program of his new office and of a reconstituted President’s Science Advisory Committee, and called for more basic research, better technical education, strengthening of engineering, “special kinds” of research institutions separate from universities, and institutes within educational institutions “which make possible a multiple-discipline attack on a problem.”

Warning that, “The needs of the U.S. require us, for the first time except when we were at war, to bring our total scientific and technological effort up to concert pitch,” he concluded that, “This means unremitting effort to strengthen education, to marshal the technical resources of the free world, to improve and speed of communication among scientists, and to achieve new levels of competence and foresight in the public management of our science and technology and its subtle uses in policymaking. It means that our defense technology be bold, imaginative, and advanced, and that our civilian science always have before it the incentive of excellence, the reassurance of stability, and the freedom and ardor to adventure joyously. These are the requirements to survive in the technological contest ahead.”

Killian’s address could have been given in 2007!


Michael Wolff was the executive editor of Research-Technology Management from 1983, when it was Research Management, until 2010. This article appeared twice in RTM, first in the July-August 1983 issue when the journal was still called Research Management and again in the January-February 2007 issue as part of RTM’s 50 year anniversary. This year (2017) marks the 60th year that Research-Technology Management has been in continuous publication.

See the current issue.

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