Over the years, at many R&D-driven companies, there have been official/unofficial policies that researchers could spend some percent of their time pursuing their own ideas, versus their official projects and goals. You hear different figures, especially when it comes to past glories, but there are definitely companies that have made this a stated policy: Google, for example, with 20% quoted by its founders when the company went public (which is definitely the highest I’ve heard). On the other hand, I don’t know if the old Bell Labs had any formal percentage or not, but people sure seemed to do a lot of their own things there.
Here’s a short article on Google’s situation – some people say that it used to be that way at the company (but isn’t any more), some say it never really was that way in the first place, some say that sure, you can work on your own stuff, but only after you finish all the (long) hours of your regular work, and so on. The take I found most interesting was that the key thing was that people thought that the policy was there if they wanted it. That was what actually made a difference in the culture.
In the past, some drug companies have had similar systems (notably Upjohn, which takes us back a few years). What I’m wondering is whether any companies have a formal, stated policy like this now? People at my first company talked as if that had been a rule in the past, which had been abandoned, but I never knew if it was an official thing or not, and it was hard to tell if this was just the usual “Man, you should have been around here when things were better” sort of talk. That’s not to say that in many cases things were better in the old days in the drug business – the sheer number of layoffs and amount of turmoil over the last twenty years will speak to that. But laid on top of that is a general human tendency to talk about the good old days, either last week when the fish were really biting and you shoulda been here all the way to back in the distant Golden Age past when the gods spoke directly to humankind. (A digression: if you’ve thought at all about that last part, which is common to a whole list of human cultures, you really should have a look at Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which some forty years later is still one of the great unprovable (?) hypotheses).
Back to the present. I hope to hear in the comments about any current your-own-research-time schemes that might exist, but even if some do, there are several ways that they could go. The nastiest would be a company that announces such a policy, but has no real intention of ever making good on it (and whacks anyone who tries over the head?) Then there could just be a situation where the policy exists, but no one has ever, to anyone’s knowledge, taken advantage of it. That might partake of the Google effect mentioned in that above link, or might not, depending on the culture. Finally, there could be a place – although there must not be too many of them, especially on a large scale – where this is not only an official policy but has been seen in action and rewarded when it’s worked out. In a related vein, I have heard of companies awarding time and funding to people for unusual projects after a more formal proposal process, and I’d be glad to hear of more examples of that sort of thing as well.
But in the end, the whole idea of working some on your own ideas isn’t necessarily a matter of stated policy. That article on Google mentioned that the company had found at one point that only about ten per cent of its employees had ever done any such work, and to be honest, I think that’s probably about the right percentage (even at a place like Google). Not everyone is a bubbling fountain of ideas. If you went around and proclaimed that as of Labor Day, everyone in the R&D labs would be forced to devote (say) ten per cent of their effort to ideas of their own, relevant to the company’s general goals but having nothing to do with anyone’s current project, the result for many people would be panic and dismay at having to come up with something. And they wouldn’t be entirely unjustified in those feelings – the worst way to get ideas is to tell people that they damn well better come up with some and quotas will be enforced.
Some of the best ideas, I think, are going to come from people who are going to work on them no matter what. And that’s what I think that it’s important for a company to allow and encourage – whether there’s an official figure or not, and no matter how many people actually ever use it, when some people get a good business-relevant brainstorm, they should be able to mess with it some. If your company’s culture allows for such, and allows for someone to go up and down the hall asking for a little of this and a little of that on the side in the service of the occasional weird idea, then I would say that’s good news. On the other end of the scale, if the answer to an interesting idea is “Too bad”, then pretty soon everyone will be out of practice in having any at all.