Peter BigelowAre otherwise global companies putting all their R&D eggs in one basket?

Buying cars is not what it used to be. I was recently kicking the proverbial tires in search of a new automobile. This was the 18th time I underwent this process, one I approached with mixed emotions. It’s always interesting to see what new technology, appearance and driving experience has been packed around an engine riding on four tires. Yet it’s also concerning, as the cost always triggers a rethink of my priorities and change in my expectations.

This time around, the two biggest areas of technological interest also provided the greatest areas of concern. One was the lack of familiar knobs, dials and gauges. For the seasoned driver, this can cause initial, if not ongoing, confusion while navigating heat, air conditioning, music, and all the other things cars can do. The second was the lack of a spare tire. Many cars (or their manufacturers) are being touted as so reliable, spare tires are no longer necessary. Just deploy the tire repair/inflator (if you can find it on the knob-less dashboard) and away you go.

But concerns soon outweighed the wow of new technology. What if I cannot see an important piece of information because my electronic dashboard is in the wrong mode? What happens if I get a flat driving in a desolate place and the auto-repair option fails to inflate the tire?

Our industry has parallels to the state-of-the-art automobile. While we are familiar with what it does, we all must adapt to how it does it! In some cases that means learning new skills, such as how to program the dashboard, audio and climate control systems so they work as needed, when needed. The other is remembering some old skills, so if a system fails, you have a backup plan you know will work.

Our industry is one of the most innovative on earth. New technology, methods and processes are developed, refined and implemented at a pace simultaneously breakneck and yet accelerating. We should be duly proud. However, we should equally be aware that how we are going about these advances is also evolving, and may be creating risks that are not fully understood.

Recently, while reading a summary of activities taking place in our industry, it dawned on me that while the mix of companies initiating, sponsoring and developing new technologies was truly global insofar as the country of incorporation, the development work and innovation was being performed in a common place. All companies fully understood where they could get the best bang for the buck in R&D, and all agreed that was the place to base such activities. Have those companies thought through the potential concern of having too many eggs in one basket, especially when some global political leadership appears to not fully understand either the benefits or responsibilities of a truly global economy?  

Deciphering the tea leaves of risk and reward requires a solid set of gauges and controls that are not just dependable, but consistent and easy to read. Problems rarely pop up when the operating environment is known and consistent. Disaster can occur, however, when an unexpected event takes place and either the controls cannot be operated quickly or are so difficult to understand, they get ignored. Such concerns need to be thought through when committing resources of a business, not just in what it hopes to accomplish but how it plans to do so. What you plan to do may be repetitive and well understood. Yet if the manner or the environment in which you are going to do those tasks begins to change, extra effort has to be invested to fully understand the changing gauges and controls and avert disaster.

In a car, the learning curve to operate the infotainment system is real, and concerted effort needs to be taken to competently operate the system. I know too many people who wait until they are almost in an accident before deciding to take such actions for their own safety, if not enjoyment. The lack of spare tire should make everyone think just a little about “what if” they get a flat. Will the new high-tech system work as planned, or should there be a Plan B just in case? And if so, what would that be?

My new car required my adjusting. I had to read what seemed like a zillion pages of instructions to be able to listen to local news, traffic reports and see how much gas was in the tank. A web video explained how the spare-less tire “safety” system works. It also made me realize that as neat as it is, I had better pay more attention to road conditions where I drive.

Those with corporate risk management responsibilities also need to be thinking about adjusting. And they need to determine if they have the tools to be able to see, and ultimately understand, in the most timely and accurate way, the new risks they may have while conducting their business. Most important, do they have the necessary protection – the “Plan B” – in place to avert disaster should they find their emergency systems either have been removed or replaced with complex controls that are not easily understood. Everyone must adapt and be aware of change, whether it comes as a new car or as an evolving business environment.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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