This week I am attending IBM's Corporate Technology Recognition Event (CTRE). The CTRE is our annual event to recognize and reward individuals and teams who made significant technical contributions to IBM and to the world of science and technology. We also nominate our newest IBM Fellows, the company's most prestigious technical honor.
I love attending these events and generally hanging out with my colleagues in the technical community. One way or another, I have been involved with science and technology through my 35 years at IBM, and prior to that, as a physics student in the '60s at the University of Chicago. But I can honestly say that, from my own experience and what I hear from others at IBM and everywhere I go around the world, there has never in our lifetime been a more exciting period to be a scientist or technologist.
This is a major reason why any country or company that hopes to compete in the 21st century had better have an active program to support research and education in science and technology. The emerging regions of the world are waking up to this excitement -- and this economic opportunity -- and they are pursuing it a lot more aggressively than are many of us in the developed world, including America. Support for research and education were among the major recommendations in the National Innovation Initiative. And you should check out Tom Friedman's book, The World is Flat, if you want a sense of the urgency of this challenge.
Why are science and technology so important today? We are living in times of intense change, a point I tried to cover in my post on Innovation last week. In any kind of system or organization, the more components the system has, the faster those individual components are changing, and the more integrated the components are, the harder it is to predict how that system or organization will evolve into the future. The system becomes "emergent," a term used to describe highly interactive, complex systems whose behavior -- indeed, whose very nature -- is essentially unpredictable.
It is not hard to see how our world, its institutions, perhaps even our personal lives are becoming increasingly "emergent", that is, hard to predict. Technology is changing at a prodigious rate, new products and services are born almost every day, and to top it all off, ever since the Internet hit in the mid '90s, we are living in an increasingly interconnected, global world. If your business and/or your life feel more chaotic . . . . it is because they are. (Or, at least, they look chaotic through the lens of our familiar paradigms.)
To a good scientist or engineer, all this complexity and seeming unpredictability is fun. It's in times like these that the most important innovations happen. Scientists love to explain what is going on in a complex world in the simplest, most elegant way possible, so you can analyze the options, make sense of what is going on, and take the proper actions. Engineers love to solve problems and build things, and the more sophisticated the problem or thing you want to design and build, the more good engineering you need.
I have seen the huge value of the technical community to IBM over and over through the years. In the early '90s, for example, as CMOS microprocessors were becoming increasingly powerful, you could build mainframes and supercomputers using these micros at a much lower price than before, when you needed unique, much more expensive bipolar technologies.
This transition almost killed IBM's mainframe business and IBM itself. However, our technical community in our research and development labs had been anticipating this transition for several years, and had been designing and prototyping both the microprocessors and parallel architectures needed to transition the mainframes, along with all the software and installed base of customer applications. The transition was very rough and exceedingly painful, but we survived it, while our competitors did not. And at the end of the day, not only did we end up with a healthy mainframe business, but we also emerged as the leaders in supercomputers as the key competitors were not able to keep up.
My point is this: businesses that hire and nurture their technical talent by investing in research and development will be in a much better position to cope with technology and market changes than their competitors. And those countries or regions that have first-rate technical talent will be in a much better position to cope with, adjust to and thrive in a fast-changing, emergent world.