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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

Science, engine of innovation

Unlike most businesses and organisations, CERN and its experiments operate on a completely different basis. All the experiments are conducted in a collaborative manner where every one has a lot of liberty in defining her or his role. There is no rigid top-down decision-making process. Each group and each individual has to find a way to contribute, balancing the needs of the experiment with the skills and interests at hand. Such a collaborative model leaves plenty of room for initiatives, creativity and innovation.

Innovation is what we are good at even though we never know in advance what might become useful at some point. Spin-offs are just incidentals to the scientific process. Take the World Wide Web: it was developed at CERN out of the need to provide a communication means for scientists working on different continents. The scientific process forces us to constantly push the limits ever further.

It is impossible to predict what will find some application, but it is easy to bet on scientific research. Science is the engine of innovation. And the business world is taking notice.

Unbeknown to most physicists working on these large collaborations, such collaborative models are now drawing a lot of attention from management and business scholars. So much so that the Strategic Management Society, a non-profit organisation for management scholars and academics, held a special meeting at CERN to take a closer look. They wanted to see how we operate under this strange, seemingly utopian, form of management.

Given the complexity of the tasks we are facing, collaboration is the only way to proceed. No single individual or even team could have designed any of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) detectors, let alone build them. It took the unbridled creativity of thousands of people to succeed.

Usually in statistical studies, businesses collect data, look for the strongest trends and ignore the “outliers”, that is, the data points sitting far from the average. But neglecting unusual behaviour may lead to missing out on interesting ideas, away from the pack. This is precisely what is catching the attention of the members of the Strategic Management Society who are looking for new ideas from non-textbook organisations.

The meeting brought 300 business and management scholars to CERN on March 21 for a sold-out conference. All of them were treated to a visit of the ATLAS detector, 100 m underground.

I asked a group of participants what drew them to CERN. “Innovation!” said one, explaining that the business world is good at repeating and reproducing known processes but often fails to innovate. Many echoed him while another said he was interested in Technology Transfer. All agreed that the opportunity to visit CERN after all the recent media coverage was an added bonus. As one of the many guides for the day, it was a pleasure to take such keen observers around, before they headed off for day two of the conference, in the more familiar surroundings of Lausanne’s International Institute for Management Development, IMD.

Pauline Gagnon

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  • http://arxiv.org/abs/1303.4351
    “Are Random Trading Strategies More Successful Than Technical Ones?” (No strategy beats insider trading by regulators and their good friends.)
    Promotion within hierarchal management is quantitatively worse than random choice.

    Management obsesses on what is measurable instead of promoting what is important. Discovery disciplines management rewarded for enforcing process not creating product (e.g., LHC supercon magnet dump ISO900x busbar brazes). If a levied penalty is less than profit in hand, it’s not a deterrent – it’s a business plan. Management exists to kill the future, for the only trusted employee is one whose sole marketable asset is loyalty. Rather than foster brilliance, we fund its suppression. “Whether you know it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back.”

    Compromise is a short broad path to failure. Succesful war is real time fought in the trenches, not asymptotically in a REMF’s padded chair.

  • Martin Smith

    I find this report troubling. CERN is responsible for the greatest engineering (scientific) achievement in human history with the LHC using non-hierarchical “utopian” methods and you are excited to bring in a pack of MANAGEMENT scholars and academics to appropriate what they can in service to capital? A quick glance at the Strategic Management Society’s web site reveals a page showing “interest groups” with such titles as “strategic human capital”, “competitive strategy”, “corporate strategy” and, gulp, “behavioral strategy” among others. “Management scholars” have convinced themselves that there is a science to MANAGEMENT. What or more precisely whom do they want to learn how to manage?

    It is bad enough that this is happening at CERN. It is even worse that Pauline Gagnon thinks the world will benefit from her guiding these vultures through this sanctuary of human creativity not under the control of managers!!

  • Dear Martin,

    you have a point. If what we do best is to be appropriated in service to capital as you put it, it would not be grand, I completely agree. But if it means that other organisations can learn how to use creativity for to benefit a collectivity, I am all for it. What I found exciting about this event was to take a step back and see how we work. We are so used to it, we do not even think about it. So it was certainly interesting to realise that others find this operation mode interesting too. I have to admit I did not question what they would do with it. Your concerns are completely valid. I guess I am so used to working within an organisation that has no greed in mind and is only interested in understanding how things work that I forgot my communist roots and assumed that the others also had noble motives. Scientists can be naive too!

    Thanks for making your point. Pauline

  • Martin Smith

    Thank you for your response, Pauline.

    I wouldn’t be so crass as to assign greedy motives to the folks you showed around CERN. Managers and the academics and politicians who collaborate with them aren’t consciously looking to pilfer scientific research for their personal gain. It’s much more complicated than that. And needless to say, though I’ve only done a quick check of CERN’s page on “technology transfer” I would be a fool to put CERN on a pedestal and fail to note the potential for a huge socialization of risk and privatization of profit inherent in the enterprise (typical of the state capitalist system). Your post just seemed to mark a turn in the relationship between the spirit of inquiry amongst you and your colleagues and the managing class. I would be curious to know how much the issue of technology transfer (into private hands) is debated or discussed amongst your colleagues. I would think that being set in the heart of the Euro Zone, cracking under the onslaught of unprecedented wealth transfer up the food chain would give the topic real world immediacy.

    In the meantime I have enjoyed your reporting from CERN and will continue to look forward to your posts in the future.

  • Harry Battam

    It seems to me that I hear the words ‘manage’ and ‘control’ far too often from ‘Managers’. People are led, not managed or controlled. Management is for business; leadership is for people. It is unfortunate that the Strategic Management Society use that abominable ‘corporate speak’, but that is how they have been trained to communicate in the corporate world. It is not the language of science, but some science administrators have succumbed and I expect that they see this as necessary to bridge the worlds of science and corporations.
    There is no need to invoke the vulture stuff (for one thing they are a most useful family of birds), and to appreciate the CERN operational mode it is necessary to understand the abilities of a bunch of people of this calibre working in the same environment. The CERN scientist are zealots with a vast range of specialities and capabilities. They do not need to learn teamwork: it comes naturally. They retain much of what they have learnt and their recall is spectacular. They have the innate ability to form associations and quickly lock on to related events. To me it sounds similar to nature; an unpredictable world where lots of unrestrained trial and error results in some highly successful outcomes.
    I expect that the Strategic Management push, if they did fold back the blinkers (maybe they do not have blinkers), would have picked up on some new and useful ideas, but at the very least they would have encountered much ‘food for thought’. I do hope that they understand leadership.
    I am very comfortable with and much enjoyed reading Pauline’s description of how research proceeds at CERN. Sounds like science utopia to me.

  • Hello Martin,

    thanks for elaborating on your idea. I think one problem is that the best inventions can always be used for bad purpose. We have no control over this anyway. Just like with the web: you can find wonderful things in there but horrible stuff as well, like child pornography. Technology transfer is important of course since CERN has all interest to share our best findings with the rest of the world. All we do is paid by public money so we have an obligation to give back. But CERN does not have the means and know how to commercialise its applications This is why it associates itself with companies willing to market new applications. That’s one thing companies know what to do. I somehow disagree when you say the risk is all socialised in that case. We are doing the research anyway. Spin-offs come at no extra cost.

    Again many thanks for having raised these issues. They are indeed extremely important. And glad to hear I have not lost your readership.

    Cheers, Pauline

  • Hello Harry,

    thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. But be careful not to overly idealise what we do, saying that teamwork comes to us naturally. We are all human and our human side and flaws come up in due time. Big egos get in the way and sensitive toes get hurt. We all need to learn how to work together and it is not always easy.

    Regarding the linguo used by management people, all text in my blog was my own, and this is not my field. I do not know how these people speak so you should not infer anything based on my blog.

    Finally, your point regarding vultures is well taken. We should not be insulting any bird here. I will make sure this is added to the Quantum Diaries policy.

    Cheers, Pauline