How Do R&D Organizations Need to Adapt?

October 5, 2020

Technology and the necessary skills needed to succeed are changing faster than our traditional organizational models can keep up — especially in our R&D organizations. 

Steve Rader, NASA

For years, the emphasis has been on recruiting and retaining deep expertise. However, it turns out that much of the innovation and advances in the R&D space is increasingly coming from other domains and industries. One MIT study noted an open innovation platform where 70 percent of successful solutions came from someone outside of the problem owner’s domain. The same study also showed that 75 percent of the time, the solution already existed and was known by the solver.

What used to be an advantage for R&D organizations has now become a hindrance. Open innovation methods are showing high success rates by using human networks to connect the dots to find and apply the latest and greatest tech to solve problems. But R&D experts are largely rejecting those methods. Maybe it’s because of ego or maybe it’s just organizational culture, but it’s dragging them down. The organizations that are going to succeed are the ones that start to understand the power of open platforms.   

There are a few things that R&D teams need to change about how they operate in order for an organization to keep up with competitors:

  1. They need to learn how to use open talent platforms like Toptal, Business Talent Group, and Maven to pull in experts in emerging tech and from adjacent/cross industries.   
  2. They need to learn how to use freelancers to do more effectively the things that they might not be good at (like creating great infographics, animations, and videos to explain their work).  
  3. They need to determine where emerging machine learning and AI can help them, and then find the appropriately skilled people to work on it. Over and over, I’ve heard specialized experts declare that there is no way data scientists with no domain knowledge can develop a useful tool for their domain… only to have that declaration shattered.  
  4. They need to learn how to use problem analysis and decomposition techniques to find specific problems to which they can then apply innovation tools and techniques and find solutions.
  5. They need to learn how to use open innovation (e.g., crowdsourcing) challenges on platforms like Topcoder, Kaggle, Innocentive, HeroX, and Agorize to more efficiently get lots of shots on goal, and find the ideas and technologies that provide a better starting point for their projects. 

The world has changed significantly over the past few years in many subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. Ninety percent of all scientists who have ever lived are alive today. The number of patent applications has risen from just a few hundred thousand eight years ago to more than 3.5 million per year in 2017. The number of PhDs in the world has similarly spiked, as technical education becomes more easily accessible around the world. The old approach of closed, siloed R&D labs with only seasoned experts is more often a hindrance to innovation than an aid. It’s time to embrace change in order to have a shot at making a difference in our new world. 


Steve Rader serves as the Deputy Manager of NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI), which is working to infuse challenge and crowdsourcing innovation approaches at NASA and across the federal government.

This piece is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.