Strategy: Research Portfolio Planning and Management

Strategy: Research Portfolio Planning and Management

Competitiveness in the market is dependent on exploiting new technology opportunities. Identifying and developing new technology requires effective investment in long-term research and development. Yet at the same time, there is the perception that research investments are not producing sufficient market returns.

Corporations need to maximize market return on investment in research efforts through effective research portfolio planning. This requires optimizing the balance between short-term and long-term research effort, incremental and breakthrough research results, risk and reward. Effective research portfolio planning can deliver optimum research results and maximum return on investment in research efforts.

Challenges of Research Portfolio Planning

Effective research portfolio planning goes well beyond simply balancing risk and uncertainty against technical opportunity and potential market reward. For a research portfolio to be effective it must meet the business needs of the sponsoring company and produce results that are able to be transferred into the company’s product lines once mature. The research organization and its associated business units must overcome the following challenges:

  1. Asynchrony between the corporation’s business strategies and research strategies

    1. Business strategies lacking the potential vision of research direction

    2. Research strategies not aligned with business direction

    3. Ineffective communication between business units and research

    4. Research project selection not informed by long-term business direction

    5. Out-of-touch “ivory tower” negative perception of research within business units

  2. Short-term research pressure from business units

    1. Assembly-line research mentality

    2. Resistance to investing in risky, uncertain, long-term research

  3. Balancing long-term and short-term research

    1. Breakthrough technology potential

    2. Developing foundation for short-term research

    3. Embracing failure as a useful research result

  4. Technology transfer challenges

    1. New technology disruptive to existing product lines

    2. Incomplete amortization of previous research through existing product lines

    3. Markets not ready for new research directions

    4. Research results out-of-sync with product line strategies

    5. Lack of product engineers’ experience with new technology

  5. Research management challenges

    1. Lack of communication and collaboration between business units and research organizations

    2. Technology transfer management challenges

    3. Marketing the research organization within the corporation

    4. Developing pre-product market development campaigns for forthcoming research results

Asynchrony between the corporation’s business strategies and research strategies

Working on leading edge technologies, research organizations are often able to envision new directions for business units and the markets they serve. However, these new visions are often not reflected in the long-term business strategies of the company. Of course, the flip side of this same coin is that just as often research strategies are not aligned with business direction of the company. Such disconnects can limit the influence the research organization can have on increasing long-term revenue and profits for the company. Without effective influence on product directions, the return on investment in research is limited.

The first step to mending this disconnect is to define a research mission in cooperation with business units to provide a research direction consistent with long-term business strategy.

Based on this cooperatively defined mission, the research organization can then define a research vision to guide research project selection based on research and business strategies. The business units can also update their business visions to accommodate future potential research results. With a mission and visions in place, it will become easier to continue and improve communication between the business units and research organizations.

By improving communication and defining a mutually acceptable mission, research directions and project selection can be informed by long-term business direction. Research efforts, particularly short-term research, can then satisfy near-term business priorities and deliver an acceptable return on the overall research investment. Such improved communications can also curtail the impression that the research organization is out-of-touch with business reality or operating in an “ivory tower”.

Aligning strategies between research organizations and business units is a two-way street. Not only should research be informed by business strategies, but business strategies should be informed by and evolve based on research directions. As Joseph Hellerstein of IBM Research commented: “It’s extremely important for research to have a strong “bottom up” element. I’m a strong believer that researchers should have a lot of flexibility about choosing what they work on, although bigger bets clearly require a top-down element because of the size of the investment.” Many companies and markets have been reinvigorated or reinvented as a result of research results that dramatically diverged from the traditional business focus of a company.

Short-term research pressure from business units

One can’t fault business units for desiring quick market results from their direct or indirect investments in research. The goal of any for-profit company is to deliver value to the share-holders. For public companies the quarter-by-quarter financial expectations of the stock market drive business units to deliver monthly improvements in revenue and profits. In addition, for most high-tech companies, competition has driven the adoption of shorter product development schedules and shorter overall product life-cycles. The faster pace of new product development and desire for improved short-term revenue results in pressure for researchers to adapt to a faster pace of research results on which to base new products.

However, over-focus on short-term results undermines the development of an effective and well-balanced research program. Taking an assembly-line approach to research, even just short-term research, will curtail innovation across the entire research organization. Of course, decreasing investment in long-term research decreases the potential for major technological breakthroughs. However, in addition to that risk, the overall research program is dependent on incrementally accumulating knowledge in new technology – a process that starts with early long-term research. Short-term research projects are dependent upon the square and level foundation created by a healthy long-term research program.

Balancing long-term and short-term research

Long-term research provides the foundation for short-term research by revealing viable technology directions and by identifying technology “dead-ends” that are inappropriate for further research and product development. To develop this foundation the organization must support risky and uncertain long-term research projects until it is clear that further useful results are no longer forthcoming. Since identifying inappropriate technology directions can be as valuable as identifying useful new technologies, the organization must embrace the value of failure as well as success to encourage innovation.

For long-term research, failure can often be a successful result for a project. While we all yearn for long-term research to result in major technological breakthroughs that create new product and market opportunities, a failure can also be a corporate success by identifying research directions that are no longer worthy of immediate corporate investment. By identifying these technology “dry wells” you narrow the focus for future research investment. With so many potential research directions, it is helpful to “prune the tree” as a result of failure in a particular direction. However, care should be taken when pruning, not to abandon some research areas altogether. History is full of research failures in areas for which we simply did not have enough knowledge to be initially successful. There are many examples of abandoned research in areas that years later resulted in successful products.

It is tempting to focus on near-term research investment to reduce risk and enable earliest potential moderate return on investment in research. It is equally tempting to focus on long-term research investment in hopes of creating major breakthroughs that create large long-term return on investment. Successful research portfolio planning finds the balance between short-term and long-term research appropriate to the sponsoring corporation. The research portfolio plan must keep in mind that, ultimately, product line sales deliver the return on investment for research.

The challenge, of course, is how to achieve the balance that offers hope for major break-throughs, while also delivering sufficient near-term ROI in the market. Win Treese has made the excellent suggestion that “it might be useful to draw out the portfolio metaphor, using the financial investment strategy more explicitly”. I believe this approach is worthy of a complete article in its own right and will address it in a future blog post.

Technology Transfer Challenges

A successful research portfolio is a successfully transferred research portfolio. Without successful transfer, there is little potential for product sales based on those research results. Without associated product sales, there is little potential for return on investment in that research. Unfortunately, technology transfer between research and business units is challenging.

New technology is often disruptive to existing product lines – disruptive to existing product plans, disruptive to existing pricing and business models, disruptive to existing distribution mechanism, and/or disruptive to existing manufacturing processes. In addition to the challenges presented within the corporation by new technology, it can be disruptive to the markets into which existing product lines are being profitably sold. Thus the potential disruption that comes with new technology acts as a “speed bump” slowing adoption and transfer of the research results within business units.

Some companies closely track amortization of previous research investment through sales of existing product lines. In these companies there is resistance to abandoning products based on old technologies until that investment has shown a positive return. This variation on refusing to “eat your young” can slow adoption of new technology based on recent research results.

However valuable the new technology created through research, if those research results are out-of-sync with long-term product line strategies, they are unlikely to be incorporated in products. One could rail against perceived short-sightedness on the part of the business unit, but often there are broader market and customer issues that drive business strategies.

Failure to effectively position new technology through pre-product market development can result in markets that are not ready for new research directions. While it is often important to keep new research developments secret to hinder your competition, there is often much value in going public with research results at the right time to help create demand for resulting products. I will discuss this topic in greater detail in a forthcoming article on “Pre-product Market Development for Research Managers”.

Within research groups we are comfortable working on new technology with limited or incomplete infrastructures. The very nature of research draws people with personalities that revel in the unknown and who are comfortable with the risk and adventure that goes hand-in-hand with developing new technology. However, we must be sensitive to the more robust needs of product development groups when attempting to transfer new technology. Research results that are under-developed or perceived to be too advanced for immediate use by business divisions will have a difficult time being adopted by their product development organizations. The flip side of this same issue is that sometimes the product development groups, as a natural result of their focus on previous technology, lag too far behind research in knowledge of new technology for research results to be effectively transferred.

This lack of product engineers’ experience with new technology can pose a stumbling block to adoption of the technology within a product development group – particularly with new breakthrough technology. Product development engineers, like research scientists, invest significant time, effort and ego in their expertise in specific technologies. When research produces new technology it can be perceived by development engineers as a threat to their personal investments in previous technologies. Moreover, depending on their personality type (viz. Human Dynamics), some engineers require significant experience with a new technology before they feel comfortable developing products based on the technology.

A research portfolio planner must consider technology transfer from long-term to short-term research as well as from research to product development. Individual research projects rarely map 1-to-1 and onto with other research projects and individual products. Groups of long-term research projects often spawn short-term research and advanced development, which in turn spawn individual products. One hopes those products spawn entire product lines to maximize the return on investment in research.

Successful technology transfer is one of the most challenging aspects of most researcher’s jobs. For individuals with personalities suited to investigating the unknown, the skills required to successfully transfer new technology to product groups and to prepare a potential market for the technology are unnatural at best. The basis for successful technology transfer is long-term communication and collaboration within the research organization and between the research organization and the business units.

Once research projects have identified potential new technology it is critical that the technology be developed sufficiently through prototypes and advanced development to be complete enough for product groups to adopt it. Collaboration with product development on such advanced development can help train product engineers in the technology, reducing resistance to adoption within the business unit. (And, such collaboration may also result in shared costs – a benefit in a tight budgetary climate.)

Engaging product development groups in collaborative technology transfer is easier if the technology delivered by research projects is tied closely to market demands, product plans and business unit strategies. This requires close communication and collaboration between the research organization and the business units in the definition of the research mission, vision and strategies.

Finally, it may help to think of the internal business units as just another market that needs to be prepared for introduction of the new technology. Business unit managers and technology leaders need to be educated in the potential of new technology to contribute to their product lines and bottom-lines well in advance of technology transfer. As Joe Hellerstein notes, “there is no substitute for a BU management team that is committed to the research relationship and has a past history in which BU employees working with research have been successful and rewarded. It’s also vitally important to engage top technical leaders in BUs who will then be advocates inside the BU.”

Managing Research

Research cannot be managed the same way one manages product development. With the exception of some short-term research and advanced development, research is a journey of discovery rather than a trip to a known destination. As such, it is difficult, if not impossible to accurately schedule for a specific result in a specific time-frame. Thus research project management is exercise not in “manage to schedule”, but rather in “manage to probability of results within an acceptable time-frame.”

In addition, it is important to manage long-term and short-term research differently. Long-term research must be able to be pursued unfettered by market demands yet still in sync with the corporation’s long-term business strategy. While short-term research, advanced development, technology transfer and productization should be tied more closely to market demands, product plans and near-term business tactics.

Finally, the research managers must be sensitive to the different personalities and personality types of their researchers. They must respect and understand that researchers that are comfortable exploring the unknown may not be comfortable with the necessary internal and external marketing required to gain approval for their research projects and then successfully transfer their research results within the corporation and in the product markets. Joe Hellerstein, Senior Research Manager at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Labs, suggests “the best way to manage researchers is to challenge them with important problems that will have great business impact and, that also has at least some element that is publishable.”

IBM and other major centers for corporate research have research portfolio managers who act as advocates for specific strategy areas. These positions provide great intersection points and focal points between research and the business units. It is, however, a challenging position – requiring a combinations of scientific and technical knowledge; managerial leadership; and political acumen to effectively influence all parties and ensure a properly balanced portfolio. An effective research portfolio manager must possess the skills and personality to:

  1. work closely with business units to understand their business strategies, market and technical challenges and potential research needs;

  2. work effectively within their own research organization to share this business unit insight and influence long and short term research directions; and,

  3. market the results of their research organization to internal and external markets to ease adoption and technology transfer of research results.

In addition, effective reward systems need to be in place to reward research successes and business unit technology transfer successes. Care should be taken when creating such programs that rewards are meted out in a manner that encourages appropriate balance across both short and long term research, as well as properly recognizes and rewards technology transfer and advanced development within the business units.

Through effective research portfolio management the research organizations and business units can maximize the return on investment in the research program.


Effective research portfolio planning can deliver optimum research results and maximum return on investment in research efforts if the following steps become an integral part of research and business planning:

  1. Improve communication between R&D and business organizations

  1. Define research mission

    1. in cooperation with business units to provide R&D focus consistent with business strategy

  2. Define research vision

    1. to guide research project selection based on research and business strategies

  3. Balance long-term and short-term research investment

    1. Synchronize long-term research strategy and business strategy

    2. Synchronize short-term research and long-term product planning

  4. Model integration and technology transfer

    1. between research projects and follow-on research projects

    2. between research projects and product development projects

  5. Work closely with affected “down-stream” projects to improve technology transfer follow-through

    1. between research projects and follow-on research projects

    2. between research projects and product development projects

  6. Recruit appropriate research portfolio managers

    1. build closer relationships with business units through communication and collaboration

    2. ease technology transfer between research projects and between research and product projects

    3. market the research organization within the corporation

    4. develop pre-product market development campaigns for forthcoming research results

Acknowledgments: My grateful thanks to my reviewers: Joe Hellerstein, IBM Research; Win Treese, DEC Research alumnus; Stan McConnell, Xerox; Jon Coleman, PracticalMarkets; Brian Brodeur, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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