Infrastructure
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6/3/2005
01:51 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Business Technology: Build Your Company's Receptor Capacity

We need to build our capacity to understand new ideas, the co-CEO of Research In Motion says, so we'll be better prepared for a future that's rushing toward us.

When's the last time you heard someone speak passionately and movingly about "receptor capacity"? For me it was last week, and like so many great ideas, in hindsight it seems perfectly obvious. And indeed, after someone else does the breakthrough thinking and then shares it with us regular mortals, then it certainly is obvious. In this case, it's a perspective everyone in this tumultuous business ought to think about.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend a lunchtime talk given by Research In Motion president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis to a small group of executives and regional-development officials, hosted by the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Wanting to get a sense of what Lazaridis might be discussing -- and it turned out I couldn't have been more wrong -- I did a little research beforehand and found that in just the past three months, the company's been awfully busy:

  • Spurred by soaring enterprise sales , RIM's BlackBerry ousted palmOne as the leading supplier of handheld computers in the first quarter as RIM sold 711,000 units, up 75.6% over the year-earlier quarter (May 4).
  • With more large companies adopting the devices, mobile employees are being given access to enterprise apps such as CRM (April 11) via their BlackBerrys, and RIM is planning to add support for Web services (April 8).
  • RIM began offering beta copies of new technologies designed to make it easier for corporate clients to develop mobile enterprise applications (April 5).
  • The company announced stellar financial results s for the period ended Feb. 26, with annual revenue more than doubling to $1.35 billion from $595 million, and total Blackberry subscribers reaching 2.51 million, up 135% from a year earlier.
  • The company wrapped up a long-running and potentially distracting patent-infringement lawsuit by agreeing to pay a Virginia-based company $450 million (March 16).

But Lazaridis didn't talk about any of that. Rather, he spoke informally but eloquently about leadership, innovation, community development, public libraries, rigorous higher-education in engineering and math and science, philanthropy, and the delicate but often-unhealthy give-and-take that goes on between universities and the business communities around them.

And central to that talk was the theme of "receptor capacity." Given both that theme and Lazaridis's background -- while still a kid, he became the first person in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario, to read every science and engineering book in the local public library; he holds more than 30 patents; and he and his wife are the principal philanthropists behind both the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing -- I hope I can be forgiven if I thought we might be treated to an overview of trends in passive components such as capacitors, thyristors, and the like. Thank goodness that hunch wasn't even close.

Rather, Lazaridis' construct of "receptor capacity" is, in fact, a call to open up our brains to new and untested ideas, and to lower our dependence on things that are known, comfortable, eminently predictable, and mostly rooted in the here and now.

OTHER VOICES
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"Universities today are leading industry, not the other way around," Lazaridis said. And that's precisely how it should be. "Industry needs to build up our receptor capacity to understand the research that top university students are doing today. Often we don't understand it, and we somehow make that the students' problem. But maybe the reason we don't understand it is that we just don't understand it. And these students are decades ahead of us, and it's not their problem that we don't understand what they're telling us."

If we're able to achieve that fresh understanding of new ideas, Lazaridis says, then we'll have a greater ability to be prepared for a future that's rushing rapidly toward us while we know very little about it. "As industrialists, the way we think is that we say, 'This is what I need to do today and build today.' And that's OK, but it's also limited -- it's a sense of what's already needed, what's needed to satisfy current or past conditions.

"But students have a sense of something very different -- of what will be needed. And we need to have the courage and wisdom to invest in them, to invest in the future." As an example, Lazaridis said, RIM has hired students from more than 350 schools around the world, including a highly sought-after student from Shanghai University whose primary professor shortly thereafter joined the company as well. Following the professor's arrival, Lazaridis spoke with him, and their discussion turned to the former student. "Do you know who you got?" the professor asked. "Do you understand who this is?" Lazaridis said the professor revealed the new RIM employee was the top-rated university student in the entire country of China, a country of 1.2 billion people.

"Now why would a student like that come to Waterloo, Canada? There's nothing there -- no oceans, no mountains, nothing unique like that. But our company had built a reputation among top engineering and computer-science students around the world as being a place that funds great and sometimes crazy ideas, that supports the unconventional research that these top students are doing. And word of that type of commitment gets out." Lazaridis said this spectacular Chinese student heard about RIM from a German student; in today's battle for brilliant ideas, such viral marketing can be a massive competitive advantages.

So companies that can create that type of culture and cultivate that special receptor capacity, and that are then "willing to invest in some of the craziest ideas you ever heard of," well, "some of those ideas are gonna hit. Not a lot, and probably not right away. But if you do it right, some will hit."

Lazaridis concluded by saying that he'd enjoyed his lunchtime chat with Pittsburgh Technology Council CEO Steven Zylstra on whether universities should pursue commercialization of their ideas, their research, and their intellectual property. "Should we commercialize universities? In my view, probably not," Lazaridis said. "Rather, what we need to do is create that receptor capacity to let students do what they do as they build for the future, not for what we already know and what already exists."

Questions of the week: How would you describe your company's RC (receptor capacity -- c'mon, get with it)? And along those lines, what's the craziest idea your company's pursuing? Best answers get a complimentary registration to the InformationWeek Fall Conference , "Business-Process Innovation: Using Technology To Redefine and Reinvigorate Competitive Advantage."

Bob Evans
Editorial Director
bevans@cmp.com


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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