Customer Expectations Lab, a team of PhD marketers connects people and
Company 2/1997 Issue 07| Feb/Mar 1997 | Page 54
By: Steven Pearlstein Illustrations by: Allison Seiffer
Only a few
years ago, physicist Greg Blonder was probing subatomic particles for
the key to superconductivity. Chemist Amy Muller was researching a newly
discovered class of carbon. And biologist David Isenberg was hard at work
trying to figure out the human brain represents the sounds of human speech.
chemist, and biologist have reinvented themselves as corporate strategists,
bringing the scientific method to the gauzy task of anticipating the future.
At AT&T's Customer Expectations Research Lab, located in a bright,
airy corner of the old Bell Laboratories building in Murray Hill, NJ,
a group of 40 PhDs turned marketers search for fundamental truths about
the way people adapt to new technologies. Blonder is the resident futurist-in-chief,
guiding the mix of physical scientists, computer experts, engineers, psychologists,
mathematicians, and MBAs; Muller heads up the Opportunity Discovery Department
-- ODD, for short -- where Isenberg also works.
what we're doing doesn't quite rise to the level of Newton's first law,"
says Blonder. "But it's also a lot more fundamental than conducting
focus groups to figure out which breakfast cereal will be popular next
year. We have to begin to understand human beings as well as we understand
people who work there, the lab itself is a hybrid, a crossroads of change.
In part, its existence testifies to AT&T's recognition that the company
must change -- too often in the past, its approach to science has left
it "fumbling the future," failing to take commercial advantage
of a number of its homegrown innovations, from cellular technology to
C++ computer language. Its existence also demonstrates a shift in AT&T's
understanding of science -- that the game has changed from technology
to the way people use technology.
has allocated 10% of its research budget to the lab -- from Blonder's
view that's a "10% bet" that the legions of scientific researchers
employed by AT&T are researching the right thing. (The Bell Labs name,
along with two-thirds of its researchers, were transferred this year when
Lucent Technologies spun out of AT&T.) At 41, Blonder is a natural
for his new job. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in physics,
he joined Bell Labs in 1982. As the company's focus shifted away from
the physical sciences, Blonder found himself playing the role of mediator
between the company's researchers and executives who had come to view
each other with increasing suspicion.
he says, that when the typewriter was first introduced, most people recoiled
at the idea of communicating in a medium that seemed to offer no insight
into the writer's style or personality. Years later, when the answering
machine came along, people dismissed it as cold and impolite. In time,
both products were able to overcome people's reservations -- largely,
argues Blonder, because they satisfied basic human needs more compelling
than the obvious ones of speed and utility.
letter came to assign a special importance to a subject that a handwritten
note could not. And for many consumers, the answering machine satisfied
a latent desire that people had to screen their calls and protect their
By the same
logic, Blonder and his colleagues expect Caller ID -- the service that
gives your telephone the technology to identify the caller at the other
end of the line -- to become an integral part of everyday communications.
Blonder sees a commercial bonanza for the company that comes up with a
technology to use caller ID to screen out calls from the pesky job applicants
while sending through important messages from home.
is only one of the tests Blonder, Muller, and Isenberg apply to help determine
whether and how quickly people will adapt to new technologies. "Observability"
and "tryability" are two other factors. One reason new models
of athletic shoes catch on quickly, Blonder says, is that everyone can
see them on the street. In contrast, things like computer memories are
difficult to market because people tend to use them in private.
looks at history, Muller is applying anthropology. She's sent pairs of
researchers to dozens of sites -- including a bank in San Paulo, a charter
school in Minneapolis, an engineering firm in San Francisco -- to see
how the Net is changing the way people work. The aim is to identify chokepoints
where information backs up or holes where it leaks out. Are there places
where people have created low-tech paths around technological obstacles
or where informal networks have sprung up and subtly altered the protocols
and hierarchies within the enterprise? From these disjointed observations,
Muller and her team hope to match the changing nature of work with new
products designed to support it.
role is more that of the conventional strategist, using scenario planning
to generate alternative views of the future. He describes it as a search
for those areas of "critical uncertainty" facing the company.
In AT&T's case, uncertainty might involve a major shift in regulations,
the arrival of a new set of competitors, a restructuring of capital markets,
or an unanticipated technology breakthrough, like a technique for achieving
video compression at 10 times the present rate. Other scenarios are built
around social changes, like a dramatic jump in the numbers of telecommuters.
is pretty new and controversial stuff for an industrial research lab that
once saw its mission as extending the frontiers of basic science. And
it's still not clear, even to those who are predicting the future, what
the future of the Customer Expectations Lab will be.
say we're still in the process of developing credibility," Blonder
says. Isenberg acknowledges that it's still early in the Lab's development:
They have yet to figure out how to disseminate the Lab's findings or apply
them to particular lines of business.
on the edge of being unconventional, so we have to find more indirect
ways of insinuating ourselves into the process," says Muller. "We
can't just go around the building here and say we're really smart and
we can help you. We tried that. It doesn't work."
(email@example.com) is a business and economics reporter for "The
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