Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, everyone knew about Bell Laboratories. A major employer and a company with well-publicized inventions, Bell Labs was talked about as a good employer and a place where things happened. There was always a kid who had a parent who worked at Bell Labs or whose company did business with Bell Labs. It was also a time when everyone used Ma Bell for their telephone. Bell Labs mattered.
And what did take place at Bell Labs? Inventions, discoveries, and thousands upon thousands of innovations. Jon Gertner provides a fascinating history of the company and the unit in his book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It was an extraordinary enterprise at a very particular time in American history. The results were astounding. Bell Labs was responsible for the semiconductor, binary information theory, lasers, glass fiber, communications satellites, and much more. Bell Labs monopoly status and special relationship with the federal government provided an ideal environment to enable this kind of research.
Bell Labs brought together tremendous resources, an ongoing commitment to top flight engineering, and opportunities for some of the brightest scientists in America. These men – and they were almost exclusively men – were consistently supported in their explorations and experiments. The history of these men and how they did what they did raises interesting questions about the nature of innovation, especially in a large business organization. The story of Bell Labs also illustrates how changes in the 1970s and 1980s reshaped American business.
How did Bell Labs do what it did? First, there is no way to get beyond talent. Thanks to its deep pockets, extensive connections to top institutions of research, and reputation Bell Labs was able to recruit and retain truly outstanding scientists. The question, however, of how to harness smart people and help them invent remains. The to right leadership – encouraging and challenging – with a willingness to invest for the year or multiple years, seems to have been an important part in the mix. The talent at Bell Labs did not work for quarterly returns; their time frames varied by project and opportunity.
Bell Labs’ mission was also essential to its success. Communication and its relationship to information technology is at the heart of 20th and 21st century technological innovation. Its importance and relevance cannot be underestimated, for it has touched virtually every other field of human endeavor, from medicine to the military.
What was not part of the recipe was a particular managerial structure or scheme. Bell Labs scientists were not incentivized with bonus plans or annual reviews. They did not do what they did because of management – they did what they did because they were curious problem solvers. The real organizational genius was in helping these incredibly smart scientists and engineers to find the right problem. It is a skill shared with very successful editors, academic mentors and teachers. Answering the question is hard. Knowing the best question to ask is really hard.