History of R&D Management  - and Key Themes

In 2000 Brockhoff and Pearson wrote "Even today the work of historians of technology or of companies is largely neglected by the community of R&D researchers" and "There is evidence that there is less knowledge of prior research by both academics and practitioners than one would like to see."

To begin, why is managing R&D different from managing other functions?  A major factor in this is the nature of the people involved.  Most have been educated to graduate or postgraduate level.  They are used to thinking both creatively and independently and they are willing to accept that the outcome may be both uncertain and even unexpected.    Much research, particularly in industry, has a commercial focus but at the basic level research may be more geared to finding out rather than developing a new or modfied process or product.  Those who elucidated the shape of the water molecule were not a party to selling more water.

Publications relating to the management of R&D date back to at least the 1920's.  However, recognition of the need to organise science, as a discipline, started in the UK as far back as the middle of the 17th century.  Prior to that there were insufficient scientific workers for organisation into groups or associations to be feasible.  One of the first proponents of science organisation was Frances Bacon (1561-1626) who proposed a scheme for the investigation of nature by observation and experiment through the formation of research institutes.  Bacon's ideas were that the research institutes would be manned by Fellows. 

In November 1660 a small group of men began meeting at Gresham College and formed a society to promote experimental knowledge.  This stimulated the formation of the Royal Society in 1662.  With this science was on the road to organisation with a meeting place and through the Philosophical Transactions as a vehicle for publication.

Clear recognition of the need to manage R&D and technology stretches back to the 1920's, much of which concentrated on economic and industry issues with, for example, work by Marshall (1927).  Studies gathered momentum after the Second World War with books from Carter and Williams (1958) and Schmookler (1966).  Jewkes, Sawers and Stillerman (1958) were among the first to study individual inventors, corporate R&D and several R&D based inventions.  Study of production processes dominated early research followed by research into new products.  Mansfield (1971) and others made several empirical studies into the impact of R&D and the importance of corporate research and the timing of developments. 

In the early post war period much of the R&D was concentrated in industries producing commodities, such as bulk chemicals and steelmaking where there were substantial economies of scale and in government organisations such as NASA and on the related suppliers.  As the size of plant for commodities approached the minimum efficient scale, R&D in those industries switched to matters of quality.  At the same time, there was a massive increase in research in pharmaceuticals.  This was followed by expansion of R&D in situations such as microelectronics and communication techology where the production process involves replicating the same unit rather than large tonnages. 

Within the last decade there have been major changes.  These include the growth in biotechnology and the recognition of the value of R&D in the service industries.  More recently, government funding agencies have attempted to manage research in educational establishments (Ball 1997).  Concurrent with these changes there has been a massive escalation in both books and academic journals within which R&D/innovation management is a central theme.

This shift in focus is exemplified in the comparative study of new technology by Sharp and Holmes (1989) who selected telecommunications, consumer electronics, electronic industries, biotechnology, the regulation of pharmaceutical markets and the process of monitoring, regulating and controlling food additives.  Later, in identifying new product success factors Cooper and Kleinschmidt (1960) surveyed firms from the electronics/electrical sector, from light and heavy equipment, and in joint third place chemicals and computers.  Academics in the field of R&D management have not been slow to focus on the recent expansion in biotechnology.  The fact that this is an industry subjected to intense public scrutiny brings an additional parameter to the process of selecting future avenues for research.

In addition to the newer industrial sectors where R&D has been establishing itself, industrial R&D has been undergoing a fundamental restructuring since the early 1970's (Whittington 1991).  The centralised R&D laboratory characteristic of the large diversified corporations of the immediate post-war period is being challenged by a new fragmented model more responsive to client demands.  R&D activities are increasingly being disintegrated to independent subcontractors or decentralised back towards operating divisions.  Whittington suggests that the professional control strategy emergent after World War II is now being challenged by market control strategies.  R&D organisations under market control are shown to enjoy marked productivity advantages.  This may be in return for a move towards short termism.  Within the research organisation the key issues in the period 1950 to 1970 were producing an environment to promote individual creativity and innovation in groups.  Over the next 20 years (1970-1990) the focus shifted to coupling of research laboratories to business operations and this has continued.  In addition, the focus in the 1990's has also embraced interdisciplinary group working.  Edge (1995) claims that in the mid-1990's central and distributed R&D resources were seen as alternatives.  This attitude led to the destruction of some well-known and effective central R&D laboratories in the name of a return to core business.  Edge suggests that some R&D functions are properly undertaken in a central shared resource and others in product oriented divisions.

In the 1990's there has been a growing realisation that innovation in the service industries is beginning to rank alongside innovation in manufacturing.  Alongside this is that approaches to innovation developed for manufacturing may not be appropriate when applied to services.  A notable example of this is in healthcare management (Aldridge and Jones 1997).  There has been extensive R&D in relation to medicine itself but much less in relation to patient delivery.  This leads to a central question of how to use R&D to develop a culture to influence the nature and resourcing of healthcare delivery.

The management of research has now extended to that undertaken by academic institutions.  Academics have now found themselves subjected to management strictures, which for so long they advocated for others.  One of the largest research management exercises anywhere in the world has been the assessment of research performance in UK universities as a basis for allocating research funding by government (Ball 1997).  The consequence of this is that in higher educational establishments there is an increasing emphasis at managing research with the aim of maximising the income allocated within the research assessment exercises.

Research into R&D/innovation management cannot be of use unless it is disseminated.  Within companies much of this is done internally.  For academic research the eventual value lies in its use.  Although not a measure of this, publication is an important vehicle towards achieving this end.  It will be aided if those publishing research into R&D/innovation management demonstrate there is relevance to a managerial problem.  It is not an easy task since many scientists/engineers taking on their first managerial role do not see management as a discipline (Ball 1998).

Traditionally, research into innovation has been on investigative studies of either the inventive activity or the diffusion process (Brown 1981).  According to Boone (1969) it was the latter area that first stirred the interest of marketing academics almost forty years ago, when the influence of opinion leadership in new product diffusion was addressed (Opinion Research Corporation 1959).  Diffusion has subsequently remained the more fasionable of the two research areas both within marketing and other disciplines.  Knox and Denison (1990) go some way towards redressing the balance by considering the need for dedicated R&D centres as transfer agents to manufacturing.  Many academics publishing in the field of R&D/innovation management are drawn from traditional departments.  However, the period since the early 1970's has been characterised by the emergence of groups within universities principally devoted to studying R&D/innovation management and the management of technology.

Books on managing R&D itself date back to at least the 1920's.  The first edition of "The Organisation of Industrial Scientific Research" by C.E.K. Mees was followed by a second edition with J.A. Leermakers in 1950.  Published in 1956 was "Laboratory Administration" authored by E.S. Hiscock and in 1957 by "The Direction of Research Establishments".  Since then there have been many books such as Roberts (1964), Collinson (1964), Walters (1965), Cockroft (1965), Dean (1968), Burns and Stalker (1968), Stuart Monteith (1969), Thomason (1970), McLoughlin (1970), Francis (1977), Lane, et al (1981), Glasser (1982), Bergen (1986), and Twiss (1974), now in its fourth edition published in 1992.

Since the early 1980's there has been considerable growth in books dealing with the management of scientific personnel (see for example Badawy 1982, Miller 1986, Raelin 1986, Johnston 1987, Allen and Katz 1992, Anderson 1993).  Many of these draw attention to the belief that management of creative and knowledge people is different but necessary.  For example, Badawy (1982) differentiates between the role of technical managers as opposed to technical specialists.  R&D engineers and scientists are concerned with keeping up with the pace of technological change: they may not be as concerned with keeping up with the pace of business change and this is reflected in their very low readership of management journals.  Peacock (1993) reports that low level R&D managers are insufficiently market oriented.

A high proportion of the literature on R&D management which followed during the 1980's focused on the role of government in directing R&D policies, allocating funds for R&D programmes, organising R&D and instituting administrative arrangements in which research was to be carried out or commercialised.  The management of professionals was not a common subject in the management literature (Tuininga 1990).  Miller (1986) claims that little is known about the subject and management principles useful elsewhere have only minimal success when transplanted to knowledge-based organisations like R&D.  He points out that it seems the absence of management is what the professional wants.  Brockhoff (1998) itemises the three ways in which managers in research laboratories have sought to improve their methods as follows:

  1. Experience from the management of academic research institutions.  For many years this was more a hindrance than a help as it led to the choice of structures based on disciplines.
  2. "Learning by doing" or "On the job training", the assessment criteria for which were creativity and the achievement of technical successes, so that scientists who performed above the average in their disciplines rose in the management hierarchy on the assumption that their management skills would show a positive correlation with their scientific abilities.
  3. An exchange of experiences with executives performing similar work, although "the not invented here" syndrome was surprisingly pronounced, vis-a-vis accepting insights from general management or general management science.  These managers laid emphasis on the special features of their responsibilities compared to those of other corporate functions.

At the same time, Ball (1998) drew attention to the high proportion of first-time R&D managers who attended courses on the subject given by consultants either in-house or elsewhere.

Rothwell (1992) neatly captures the development of innovation processes over the period 1960 to 1992 by dividing them into five generations.  The first four more or less represent the dominant generation during periods from 1960 to 1992.  There is an evolution from a simple linear sequential technology-push and need-pull models of the 1960's/early 1970's to the more interactive coupling model, the dominant model up to the early to mid-1980's.  During this time much emphasis was on the R&D/marketing interface.  This coupling model demonstrated the catching up of theory with practice.  The fourth generation model of the late 1980's represented a move away from considering innovation as a mainly sequential process with development shifting from one function to the next, i.e. R&D to prototype development to manufacturing and so on.  This model considered innovation as a parallel process involving simultaneously elements of R&D and prototype development and manufacturing etc.  The 1980's saw increased emphasis on integration across the R&D/manufacturing interface and on closer collaboration with suppliers and customers.  The fifth generation model, involving system innovation and networking, represents a development of the integrated model but with added features.  Traditionally, managing R&D has been concerned with the choice of project and resourcing the research, but increasingly the scope has been extended to examine other ways of developing and acquiring technology.  This has involved forming partnerships and alliances.  Following on from the five generations described above the move has been towards core competences and of regarding R&D as a business (Ganguly 1999).


Aldridge, S. and Jones, O. (1997) "From Metal Bashing to Community Healthcare: Transitions in the Management of R&D"  The 1997 R&D Management Conference, Manchester.

Allen J.T. and Katz, R. (1992) "Age, education and technical ladder" IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 39,3,237-245.

Anderson, P. (1993) "Towards exemplary research in the management of technology - an introductory essay" Journal of Engineering and Technology Management, 10,7-22.

Badawy, M. (1982) "Developing managerial skills in engineers and scientists", New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Ball, D.F. (1997) "Quality measurement as a basis for resource allocation: research assessment exercises in UK universities" R&D Management, 27,3,281-289.

Ball, D.F. (1998) "The needs of R&D professionals in their first and second managerial appointments: are they being met?"  R&D Management, 28,3,139-146.

Bergen, S.A. (1986) "R&D Management" Blackwell, Oxford.  Revised and updated edition published in 1990.

Brockhoff, Klaus and Pearson, Alan (2000) "Technology Management - Where do we stand?" Readings in Technology Management, Twente University Press, p18.

Brockhoff, K (1998) "Technology management as part of strategic planning:- some empirical results" R&D Management, 28,3,129-138.

Burns, T and Stalker, G.M. (1968) "The management of innovation", Tavistock, London.

Boone, L.E. (1969) "Diffusion of Innovations", Southern Journal of Business, 4,3.

Brown, L.A. (1981) "Innovation Diffusion: a new perspective", New York, Methuen.

Carter, C.F. and Williams B.R., (1958) "Industry and technical progress, factors governing the speed of application of science" London et al, Macmillan.

Cockroft, J. (1965) "The organisation of research establishments" Cambridge University Press.

Collinson, H.A. (1964) "Management for research and development" Pitman, London.

Cooper, R.G. and Kleinschmidt, E.J. (1990) "New Product Success Factors: A comparison of skills versus successes and failures", R&D Management, 20,1,47-63.

Dean, B.V. (1968) "Evaluating, Selecting & Controlling R&D projects, American Mgmt. Assn.

Edge, G. (1995) "Thinking about the technology future" R&D Management, 25,2,117-128.

Falkingham, L.T. and Reeves, R. (1997) "The four schools of thought in R&D mgmt. and the relationship of the literature to practitioner needs", Annual R&D Mgmt. Conference, Manchester.

Francis, P.H. (1977) "Principles of R&D Management" AMACOM, New York.

Ganguly, A. "Business-driven Research & Development - Managing knowledge to create wealth" Macmillan Business, London, 1999.

Glasser, A. (1982) "Research & Development Mgmt." Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Jewkes, J. Sawers D. and Stillerman, R (1960), "The sources of invention", London, MacMillan.

Johnston, D.J. (1987) "Management for Engineers", Peter Perigrinus Ltd., Southgate, UK.

Knox, S.D. and Denison T.J. (1990) "R&D centred innovation: extending the supply side paradigm," R&D Management, 20,1,25-34.

Lane, H.W., Beddows, R.G. and Lawrence, P.R. (1981) "Managing large R&D projects" Suny Press, Albany, N.Y.

McLoughlin, W.G. (1970) "Fundamentals of Research Management" American Mgmt. Assn.

Mansfield, E. et al, (1971) "Research & Development in the Modern Corporation", London & NY.

Miller, D.B. (1986) "Managing Professionals in R&D", London, Jossey-Bass.

Opinion Research Corporation (1959), "America's Taste Makers:  A Strategy for Predicting Change in Consumer Behaviour", Opinion Research Corporation, Princetown.

Peacock, N. (1993) "Communication between R&D and its Customers: a study of BT Laboratories", R&D Management, 23, 4, 303-312.

Raelin, J.A. (1986) "The Class of Cultures: Managers and Professionals" Boston, Harvard Business School Press.

Roberts, E.B. (1964) "The Dynamics of Research & Development", Harper & Row, New York.

Rothwell R. (1992) "Successful Industrial Innovation: Critical Factors for the 1990's" R&D Management, 22, 3, 221-239.

Schmookler, J. (1966) "Invention & Economic Growth", Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ. Press.

Sharp, M. and Holmes, P. (Editors) (1989) "Strategies for New Technology: Case Studies for Britain & France", Philip Allen.

Stuart Monteith, G (1969) "R&D Administration", Iliffe, London.

Thomason, G.F. (1970) "The Management of Research & Development", Batsford, London.

Tuininga, E.J. (1990) "Social Management in Professional Organisations: Searching for New Impulses", R&D Management, 20, 2, 139-153.

Twiss, B. (1974) "Managing Technological Innovation" Pitman, London.  Subsequent editions in 1980, 1986, 1992.

Walters, J.E. (1965) "The Management of R&D", McMillan, London.

Whittington, R. (1991) "Changing Control Strategies in Industrial R&D", R&D Management, 21,1, 43-53.


  • Idea screening
  • Intellectual Property
  • Time to Market
  • Technology Transfer
  • Project Selection
  • Project Management
  • Environmental Scanning
  • Open Innovation
  • Systematic processes
  • Early involvement of all functions
  • Overlapping parallel working
  • Appropriate management structures
  • Cross functional team working
  • Emphasis on learning and development
  • Early supplier involvement
  • Involvement of leading edge users in product development
  • Flatter, more flexible organisation structures
  • Developed internal databases
  • Effective external data links  

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