Offshoring usability

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 20
Digital Citation

IBM research in China

Chen Zhao

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IBM China Research Laboratory (CRL) celebrated its tenth anniversary on August 30, 2005. As part of IBM China's development strategy, CRL was the first research lab that multinational companies set up in China ten years ago as a part of a commitment to the Chinese government. Now there are hundreds of research and development labs started by multinational companies in China. What made IBM decide to build its first research lab in a developing country in 1995—a hard time in IBM history? What made IBM choose to become the first multinational company to start a research lab in China ten years ago? 2005 is also IBM Research's 60th anniversary. IBM invests $5 billion every year in technology research and development. It owns more patents in the past 13 years than any other global enterprise. In 2004 IBM patented dozens of accessibility-related technologies and opened 500 patents to the open-source industry in 2005. More than 3,000 top talents at IBM research made this happen. IBM research has eight research labs located in the US, Europe, and Asia. IBM built research labs around the world, because the company wants to attract the local talents as framers of IBM technology innovators. China definitely has a great number of talented professionals, based on its history, culture, and big populace. Another key reason for forming CRL was to have those technical talents on the ground in a very important emerging market for IBM. Increasingly, research is directly engaging with clients through IBM business units; having researchers on the ground locally in China with the combination of technical skills, as well as understanding of the culture, language, etc., helps IBM better serve this important-and growing-customer set.

CRL was given important missions at the beginning of the lab: innovating world-class information technology, attending to Chinese IT development trends and needs, training and developing local technology talents and leaders with management ability and promoting the collaboration between Chinese academy and top universities. CRL focuses its research on the interaction of people, information, language, and culture; key technology of future systems, service sciences, and enterprise solutions. In the past ten years, CRL has contributed more than 100 new technologies, from new analysis algorithms and basic theories to new industrial solutions. Those technologies have been applied to IBM products and services: the first Chinese voice continuous recognition system in the world, ViaVoice; the first Chinese Palmpilot in the world, WorkPad; the first Chinese knowledge management toolkit in China market; the first market intelligence information portal, and so on.

Additional work being done in China includes the development of Chinese technological capital. Until now, IBM has built collaborations with 55 Chinese universities, 25 technology centers, and 21 joint laboratories. Fifty joint projects have been completed with 22 universities. Three hundred thousand students took part in IBM technology seminars and training classes, and 37,000 students acquired IBM global technology certifications. IBM Extreme Blue Internship Program has been a top, well-known summer practice opportunity for students in China.

Looking at CRL's success in China, it's also helpful to review the challenges for developing a remote research lab and working on international projects and products remotely from China. As the first employee of CRL, Dr. Katherine Shen once recalled that there were only two PCs with an Internet connection at the CRL office back in the beginning, ten years ago. People had to wait in a line in order to check email. More difficult issues were how to attract talented people, how to find interesting work for them, and how to establish China Research Lab in terms of capability and reputation. People had no way to foretell the future of the lab, and students on the hunt for jobs had never had the opportunity to work for this kind of organization before. People didn't know how many years the lab could survive, or how it worked. Ten years later, CRL has more than 150 research staff members and grows at a rate of over 20 percent every year. Most researchers possess either masters degrees or PhDs from top Chinese universities.

What experiences can be shared about making a remote research organization a successful venture? The number-one tip is to ensure that the remote location works closely with headquarters and business units in locations other than China. CRL has the engagements with customers in China's mainland and Taiwan. Meanwhile, many research projects at CRL are joint ventures with IBM products, funded by IBM global research. The strong collaboration with senior labs made CRL learn and develop fast. IBM sent research strategists, executives, and distinguished professionals to visit CRL every year. They brought new research trends, new technologies, and new product directions, which gave CRL a good understanding of the worldwide state of the art. CRL sent staff to visit others quite frequently too; CRL makes the most oversea trips of any IBM China business units. This kind of two-way communication makes CRL a remote location only in terms of geography. Another useful tip is to develop local people. Several of CRL's earliest employees were sent to IBM research labs in the United States for short-term training. This program made them familiar with IBM research culture, processes, and practices. Another important factor was to help them get to know people there, which built a solid foundation for the future remote collaboration. This exchange program continues; CRL has sent people to work both in the United States and other countries, and the project partners in other countries also visit CRL for short-term engagements. Communication might be worthwhile to mention as well. Early-morning and late-night conference calls for CRL researchers are almost weekly work. It's harder if the meeting involves multiple time zones. It's our experience that face-to-face communication plus conference calls works better than only knowing voices over the phone. Face-to-face communication is necessary for building trust and relationships between team members who are located across oceans. Relationships play an important role in the remote collaborations.

Ten years ago, CRL was the first research lab built by a multinational company in China. There are now more than hundreds of research labs owned by global enterprises in China. Do you see the trend?

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Chen Zhao
IBM China Research Lab

About the Author

Chen Zhao received her BS in psychology from Peking University in 1997 and PhD in human factors from Chinese Academic Sciences in 2002. Before she joined IBM China Research Laboratory (CRL), she was a researcher at Honeywell Labs in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Singapore. Her expertise is in user-centered design, specifically human-computer interactive systems and user-interface design, user experience/user needs analysis, and usability engineering. Chen started and manages the User Experience group at IBM China Research Lab and leads the User Centered Design strategy at CRL. Her current research projects focus on collaborative business activities. Chen is also one of the founders and the secretary of ACM's SIGCHI China chapter.

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