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.
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