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Bureaucracy in industry March 26, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research.
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A little while back, GEARS wrote an interesting post about how slow academia can be.  His argument is that industry is not really that faster, and is, in fact, rather short-sighted.

This post came to mind because I’ve noticed something in my experience with industry as of late.  If you don’t have something ready for production or there’s any question that the product may not pull in significant bucks, industry is actually slower than academia.

I’m sure there are exceptions.  For instance, I was recently talking with a person whose company really likes to be on the cutting edge and is willing to fund a lot of crazy ideas.  This company, however, is really a technological leader.  Most companies are, at best, fast adapters.  They want someone else to try out the cutting edge stuff and work out all the bugs.  Then everyone else will quickly jump on the band wagon and see if they can play catch up.

This is what happens when bean counters become responsible for all of your technical direction.

The other thing that bugs me is the characterization of academia as being bogged down by bureaucratic routines and paperwork.  I actually have to shake my head at that.  I realize that I may be at the university that is an exception, but my observation is that large companies are far worse in this regard.  In academia, if you have someone who wants to work on the project, they pretty much let you know, and once the money is in place, they’re ready to go.  In some ways, working with big government funding agencies is actually less painful than working with companies: they will give you a yes or no.  A lot of companies will hem and haw, say to get back to them once things are farther along (because they don’t want to invest in something that may not pan out), and then have to get the approval of the bean counters once they hesitantly decide that they might be interested in working with you.

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1. Bradley Gawthrop (@talldarknweirdo) - March 27, 2012

At the end of the day, both varieties of slowness come down to risk aversion. The measure of that kind of risk aversion isn’t what type of institution you are (private / public / academic) but what your institutional culture is. One thing I’ll give the academic over the private sector however is that academics have (on average) a better understanding of what real R&D looks like. The last private company I worked for before going into business for myself hired me to do research and development, which sounded good to them until they realized that it costs money and takes time to do research and development. It was a further shock that not every idea is guaranteed to come to fruition quickly (or, in fact, at all). Academic institutions spend enough time around real research that these sorts of things don’t take them by surprise.

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