WASHINGTON—American companies can learn a great deal from the Japanese approach to research planning and the contribution it makes to productivity, a group of U.S. research directors have concluded after a visit there last fall.
But the two countries stand to gain even more from a full and continuous exchange of information, suggest a second group of American and Japanese officials that is in the midst of an extended discussion on issues of scientific collaboration.
"In all of Japanese industry there was unquestionably the feeling that technology is the root that supports the company tree," explained Thomas J. Savereide, director of 3M's Central Research Labs in St. Paul, Minn. who led 25 research directors on a tour of several Japanese companies last fall in an effort to learn how that country manages to translate research results into successful products. "The roots were well watered and taken care of."
The trip was sponsored by the Industrial Research Institute, a New York-based association of 265 major industrial corporations. The Institute held a press conference here last month to publicize its findings.
"We have to create new techniques within the corporation for planning and for technology transfer to bring research and development closer to marketing and manufacturing," Savereide said. "At the same time, we must transcend current manufacturing technology in the U.S."
Top managers in Japan, the Americans noted, are more likely to invest in long-term, speculative research and development because they have a technical rather than a business background. And they don't skimp. For example, NEC, a microelectronics giant, spends' 11 percent of its $13-billion revenues on research and development. By contrast, U.S. firms in 1985 spent 3.1 percent of their sales on R&D, according to a Business Week survey last year of 800 companies from several manufacturing sectors.
The willingness of the Japanese to spend money on research is matched by their eagerness to learn from others. "They have a worldwide approach to technology," explained F. Donald Roberts, vice president for scientific affairs at The Kendall Company. "They hold annual conferences with international experts from industry, technology and academia. It is clear they are on the leading edge of technology."
Their comprehensive search for answers leaves them feeling guilty, believes William Smith, manager of the chemical materials and structures branch at General Electric. "They read our journals and they make a lot of things happen with what they find. But they have a strong desire to contribute more to the world."
That contribution may be coming in the form of "symmetrical access." Such an approach would abandon the traditional Japanese attempt to absorb technology from other nations in favor of one that opens to all interested parties the elements necessary for commercializing new technology—including basic research, technology development, product markets and financing developed on both sides of the Pacific.
Real growth is possible only through such sharing of research, say a group of American and Japanese scientific, technical and business leaders brought together by the National Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Engineering and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The group noted that the best Japanese research takes place in federally supported institutes and industrial cooperatives not accessible to American researchers.
"In contrast, much of our forefront high technology research takes place in association with open research universities and is published in widely-read journals," said Harold Brown, delegation head and secretary of defense in the Carter Administration. "The answer is not to limit access at U.S. facilities, but to get symmetrical access to the best Japanese research results."
As one step toward this ideal, the group is planning a study to identify and improve access to the best institutions and people in both countries from six as yet unidentified research fields. The group also expects to host workshops on symmetrical access to research and on ways to improve research development and management. Another bilateral study will analyze the problems of developing countries along the Pacific Rim.
The group met last fall for two days in Kyoto. It was a follow-up to a 1985 meeting in the United States. A third meeting to begin work on its new agenda may take place this year.
From the Workers
Research managers in the United States have too often taken for granted the relevance of research, noted managers from the Institute tour. They must begin to sell the importance of research throughout the company, at the same time they work to dissolve the barriers to cooperation within their organizations.
Rather than isolating researchers in company labs, Japanese managers distribute them across positions in sales and management. This approach puts them in touch with customers and other employees and stimulates the flow of ideas. "The Japanese expect all innovative ideas to come from workers rather than from top management," noted Norman Johnson, vice president for research and development at Weyerhaeuser Company.
Japanese companies have also benefited from their long-term focus on technology. "They are convinced that development of new technology is critical for the company, the individual and society. That is very different from our point of view," said Kendall's Roberts.
"Their basic research philosophy is 'focus on today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,' said G.E.'s Smith. "The function of research and development managers is to make it work, and it is clear they are successful."
The research directors emphasized that American firms need to improve the way technical workers are trained and promoted to keep pace with the rest of the world. "We have to improve jobs for technicians," Roberts said. "We need to have corporations led by technical people."
The IRI study concluded that the Japanese success in transferring technology comes from a sensitivity to customer needs, a commitment to long-term planning, an intimate relationship between research and production, the high visibility afforded research, the exposure of scientists to the demands of the market, and a willingness to work for the good of the company. Each of those ingredients, it noted, should become a part of any American research effort.