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September - 2007 - issue > Cover Feature
Think-outside-the-box
Ambuj Goyal
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
As the IT industry enters the Information on Demand era, the role of the researcher is rapidly evolving to meet a convergence of new challenges and opportunities. At the heart of this transformation is the growing demand for technology and solutions that enable customers to make better, more informed business decisions by turning information into valuable insight.

To meet the requirements of these emerging market demands, researchers increasingly have to think “outside the box” to ensure that their work is useful to their customers. Unfortunately, many researchers are unsure about how to go about accomplishing this important goal. Hence, researchers need to draw a line to differentiate between what they have mastered and areas in which they have to explore further and seek collaboration to achieve their objective.

In order to fully appreciate and understand the needs of customers, I always remind my research teams to spend time with their clients discussing and assessing their business challenges. For an organization to become demand-responsive, it needs to integrate people, processes, and information across its functional units and its ecosystem.

This involves gathering information, designing processes, and then using them to empower the people who can solve business problems, thus allowing them to make faster, more informed decisions.

Today, so much of the work that goes on in research across the world is tied up with generating ideas and writing papers, which results in people eventually neglecting to put their important ideas into motion. Great research concepts and projects should break new ground and solve new and emerging business problems.

For example, I was a member of the team that led the supercomputing research at IBM. Today, many of the world’s fastest supercomputers and scalable commercial transaction processing systems are the result of the hard work done by this team. You may have heard of IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer which defeated the reigning chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. However, you may not know that many of the ideas developed during this project, for example, scalable parallel processing, game theories, and search algorithms, are the heart of IBM supercomputers that drive many of the scientific workloads in our industry. This team also developed parallel databases, super fast locking engines, and state of the art workload management systems, which drive world’s largest commercial processing workloads on IBM mainframe systems today. There exists no better, or more innovative, or more modern scalable transaction processing system in the world than the IBM mainframe system.

In 1999, we launched the Blue Gene project to take the supercomputing research to the next higher level. The goal of this “out of the box” research project was to design a supercomputer that would help us understand the mechanisms behind protein folding through large-scale simulation and explore new ideas in ‘massively parallel’ computing.

Leveraging existing ideas was necessary to create a powerful, chess-playing supercomputer like Deep Blue. However, our bigger challenge was to design a supercomputer in such a way that it made a difference to people involved in drug research, in car safety through crash simulations, and in better understanding of world financial trading systems through Monte Carlo methods. To accomplish this much broader research goal, we needed to rely upon ideas from an integrated talent pool from across the globe.

Similarly, when IBM developed the scoring system for the Olympics in 1996, we called upon our pool of global talent for a project which ultimately helped the company prove its Web bona fides. This strategy of consistently drawing upon research expertise around the world also has helped create an IBM research lab in India wherein local talent consistently contributes to important “out of the box” projects.

No matter where they are located, researchers need to understand the issues related to the community at large and need to accept the diversity associated with each community. This versatility is necessary because in a globally integrated world, research projects succeed with contributions from the entire talent pool – regardless of their physical location.

I developed a positive outlook on embracing diversity of ideas and contributions early in my youth. My father used to work in the irrigation department where he often had to move to different parts of the country. Due to this, I had the opportunity to experience and interact with people of different cultures in various regions. This benefited me as I quickly developed an open mind and universal outlook, which later helped me to effectively operate within the global talent pool at IBM and the industry at large. Today, people need to embrace and understand the benefits of global collaboration and to think “outside the box” to generate the greatest return on their research investment and make a difference in the world.
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