EMC’s Innovation Steward: CTO Jeff Nick Talks Company Strategy Amid Soaring Profits, Rumors of Big Acquisition

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and how EMC’s culture compares to IBM’s. (Before joining EMC six years ago, Nick spent 24 years at Big Blue. The experience no doubt informs EMC’s innovation and research strategy.)

But first, the primary topic of our chat: EMC’s innovation conference yesterday. This event is all about connecting different parts of the company around the theme of innovation—and surfacing potentially transformative ideas from all corners of the globe. It’s part of what Nick calls the “Web 2.0 model of research,” which is crucial when you’re talking about a company with 45,000 employees worldwide. The event culminated in a showcase competition between ideas proposed by EMC employees; this year, the finalists were culled from some 1,900 ideas company-wide (as compared to 400-plus at the inaugural event in 2006). The winners: a low-cost data storage system for developing nations, a framework for software application deployment in storage devices, and a home entertainment storage system.

The main point of the conference—and EMC’s innovation network more broadly—is to “connect the dots” between internal and external (e.g., academic) innovation and research, Nick says. It’s also to get EMC employees thinking about ideas and products that might cut across existing business units, he says—and to highlight ideas that should be nurtured by Nick’s office or by EMC’s Centers of Excellence, a cluster of advanced technology development groups in Brazil, China, India, Ireland, Israel, and Russia.

I wondered how this really differs from other corporate innovation approaches—and whether it represents an important new model for big tech companies. To Nick, though, that’s beside the point. “We want to make innovation a vital part of one’s existence at EMC. We didn’t start out to invent some brand new model for innovation in the industry,” he says, acknowledging that other companies are pursuing similar strategies. Instead, he says, the virtual network and conference act as “a lightning rod for the innovative spirit at EMC.”

Indeed, the firm’s innovation strategy has evolved over the past few years as EMC has become more of a global tech leader—as exemplified by the geographic extent of the conference this week. Nick says EMC’s international operations and expansion are “fundamental to the company’s future. The industry has gone through a transformational process. Being a U.S.-centric company, you build out from your strong point, and then farm out function and responsibility to other regions where there’s economic benefit in terms of cost of labor, and also a beachhead for an expanded market…Then you start to realize the talent you’re attracting makes up a significant talent pool that can be leveraged as first-class R&D organizations…[that are] reaching out to universities and strategic partners.”

I also wondered how Nick would articulate EMC’s strategy for working with startups and smaller companies—other than buying them, that is. “We have a strategic view and a number of … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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