Chandrakant Patel is a storied inventor with 151 patents to his name, a pioneer in thermal and energy management, and a visionary when it comes to the application of IT for sustainable growth. He is also HP’s Chief Engineer, a legendary mentor, and an HP Senior Fellow, an IEEE Fellow (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), an ASME Fellow (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and an inductee of the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame. We spoke recently to the 30 year veteran of HP about the current state of innovation in Silicon Valley and how his office is helping support HP product development.
In this second part of our conversation, we explore a project that’s a major focus for the Chief Engineer’s office right now: growing technical communities within the company to speed multi-disciplinary innovation.
HP: Where did the idea for creating technical communities within HP come from?
It began in earnest in 2013, when I became Chief Engineer for HP. But it goes back to 1996 when I was a researcher working with chips and systems at HP Labs. I created an ad hoc group called The HP Cool Team that linked everyone I could find in the company – not just people working in my immediate project team – who had expertise in electronics cooling, fluids, heat transfer, power supplies, etc.. It worked very well as a vehicle to transfer research in thermal management to build our chips and systems – PA RISC and HP Unix servers, for example. And it even got written up in the Harvard Business Review.
Once I became Chief Engineer, I wanted to build similar virtual communities of interest around other important topics. It became clear, for example, that we needed to link everyone in the company in machine learning and data mining, and so we built a group that would do that. By the time of the split, we had five or six communities. Since then, we’ve gone full steam ahead and are building them for every major topic area. We’re now up to 19 groups.
To go back to the maritime metaphor of HP as a ship that I used earlier in our conversation, the value here is that someone on the ship’s bridge can ask, “what are the capabilities we have in the area of machine learning and data mining?” And then we can say with confidence that we have x many people working in the engine room in that area; they are based in these different units; and they have this kind of experience.
HP: How do the groups operate? What do they do?
We start by creating what we call communities of interest. These meet on a regular cadence and exchange ideas. But at some point, ideally, they cross a threshold where they begin to make more formal efforts to learn, and to teach and guide each other. We have enough highly skilled people here to be our own faculty, after all. They are world class. When groups get to this point, they can take on the role of teaching newcomers and anyone else in HP who is interested about the subject – we call them affinity groups.
Affinity groups have a more formal structure than the communities. They can create courses and then place them on HP’s learning and development program, so their effort scales.
HP: Is there cross pollination between affinity groups?
Absolutely. Anyone can be a member of whatever group they are interested in. And we also gather groups in teams to look at particular issues. Just recently, for example, we had a tri-summit where the Thermal Management, Materials, and Reliability affinity groups came together. The next one that’s coming up is Firmware, Security, and Open Source. Why those three? Well, in a cyber-physical world you don’t want somebody else to drive your Tesla, or to change your pacemaker, or change your medical device – and yet those products are all connected, or soon will be connected, to some kind of network and thus are at risk of being tampered with. So part of my job is to look at the trends, and then suggest how our communities can come together to tackle problems or issues that we want addressed.
HP: Where do you find the groups’ leaders?
That’s an interesting question. You’d think that we could use LinkedIn or another kind of social networking tool. But in my years of doing this, I’ve found that the best way to find people is to mine the real contacts you make in your job - what I call tribal knowledge. So what I do is find a person with a passion for the subject in question, irrespective of their title. And I’m very proud to tell you that some of the leaders of these virtual communities are early career engineers. Then that person is usually able to find like minded, equally passionate people with the same interest across the company fairly quickly, simply by reaching out through his or her network of contacts.
HP: Are group members available to offer advice or even to work on projects that could use their help?
They’re definitely available for consultation already – and that’s happening all the time. But our longer term goal is to use these groups as global pools of engineers from which we can pull people and bring them together on demand. From back in my days as a data center engineer, I’ve believed in the power of dynamic, on-demand provisioning. So our vision is that in the future, an executive in 3D printing, for example, could say, “You know, I want to look at reliability testing for my printer, given the environment in which it operates.” She wouldn’t have to hire ten reliability people to do that. Instead, she could mobilize this commando team, where people from the reliability community, and perhaps materials people from the materials community and so on, come together and go to get the thing done.
HP: How do conferences and hack-a-thons fit into this model?
To take hack-a-thons first, they’re definitely one way in which we’re addressing vexing multi-disciplinary problems. But you have to do them right. You need to go into them with a very clear problem that you are trying to solve. Say we are building a liquid coolant system. We might ask: how do we create a multi-chemistry liquid coolant system so you never have to change the coolant? That’s a very clear problem definition. The deliverable from the hack-a-thon should be a blueprint that I can give to a BU head, and then it’s for him or her to decide whether to take it to the next level. It’s not about brainstorming ideas that might be interesting for someone to explore some day.
Then with conferences, we’re about to change how we look at our entire conference strategy. At present, they are about sharing our research with each other, which is important. But they need to be directed towards problem solving, too. It’s about building that muscle that does the systemic innovation.
HP: How are these groups managed?
We work in partnership with the Global Technology Program in the CTO’s Office to lead and coordinate all the affinity groups and virtual communities.
Sometimes people starting an initiative like this will want to build the tools first and then grow the communities. But I don’t think that you start with tools – either as a way of finding groups or for keeping them together. I’ve yet to see a really good talent database that works in a corporate, technical situation, so we continue to use our tribal knowledge, based on real connections with each other, to form the groups. And then we use Office 365 to maintain the connection. Each community has a Microsoft SharePoint, and we created a portal for the communities too.
We are also adding the educational materials that affinity groups generate to BrainCandy, HP’s learning portal. So now when a newcomer comes in, they can easily find the content created already by any group they are interested in. Again, it’s about the speed, agility, and scale we can bring to addressing pressing multi-disciplinary challenges.
HP: How are HP’s customers reacting to this new model?
It’s very interesting, because when our customers visit and we tell them about this, they get excited – especially customers who are working deeply with physical systems. Last week I was with a major customer and she told us that her company was very siloed but understands that systemic innovation is the way to go – she found what we are doing very inspiring. So I think the message is getting out there that we have this system in place. And our customers tell us they haven’t seen anyone else doing anything like it, so I think we’re ahead of the game.