Managing Global Innovation and Research in China

Much has been written about management of remote development teams that are building a product under the direction of a peer team located at corporate headquarters.

With the shift towards reverse innovation, global teams of innovators and researchers (located far away from corporate headquarters) function with greater automony. There is very little written about  management of these types of teams.

This is the situation I find myself in (as I introduced in a recent post). My role as Director of EMC’s global Innovation Network was recently augmented to include matrix responsibility for a research team in China. It is worthwhile to write down my impressions as I go through this new experience. This scenario will become more and more common (if there are readers out there who can refer me to resources in this area, please comment).

How did EMC arrive to have a research team in China? Like many high-tech companies, EMC opened an R&D center in China to take advantage of not only lower labor costs for engineers but also the growing high-tech market in Asia. We found that the competition to enter prestigious computer science programs in China was so fierce that the caliber of technologist being produced was extremely high. The Office of the CTO at EMC recognized that talented developers could also be applied towards research and advanced development without being tied to a particular business unit or product line.

So in 2007 a team was created. I had immediate interaction with this team in both 2008 and 2009. Two of my ideas from EMC’s Innovation Showcase contest were adopted and incubated by this team (see the picture of myself and technologists Roby Chen and Jake Li at the end of this post). Over the years their knowledge of EMC and VMware’s product line grew, and their engagements and publications at top tier conferences grew as well.

So how can I add value as a matrix manager located 12 hours away?  As I pointed out in my last post, I decided to conduct the NMAP process in cooperation with Human Resources, I gathered the results, and set off to China in person. What I learned through the whole process (and what has become my approach) can be summarized as follows:

The EMC Labs China employees all want to tackle problems that both (a) advance their career goals and (b) provide maximum value to EMC.

On my last day in China I chatted with China CTO Wei Liu and asked him how I can best help. He essentially echoed what I had learned:

“Map the best work that you can find to the right people on the team”.

I found this surprising, because it essentially means that I have to become quite familiar with everybody on the team, understand their skillsets, and have a good feel for the direction in which they would like their career to go. This is a significant amount of work.

In parallel, I need to use my connections around the globe (both internal and external) to start finding significant technology challenges that map onto the individual skillsets. I need to locate the stakeholders that want these problems solved (e.g. internal business units, external customers) and introduce them into all phases of the research life cycle. This is no small task either!

Fortunately I have a perfect use case to get me started. I have a challenge of my own: accelerate innovation around the globe, spark the creation of the next generation of high-tech offerings that will propel EMC into its future.

During my trip I found several EMC Labs China developers with an expertise in database technologies (Greenplum) as well as analytics (Topic Modeling, Natural Language processing). I talked to them about their careers. They want their contributions to bring value to EMC, and they want their expertise to be more highly recognized within the corporation as a whole.

I decided to simply leverage their autonomy by giving them a challenge, walking away, and re-engaging with them after a few weeks. Here is the challenge I gave them:

Which areas of knowledge are growing the fastest at which Center of Excellence?

In other words: what is Russia good at? Cairo? China? Israel? Ireland? India? Brazil? USA? I’ve been wondering if we can programatically answer these questions as part of the hypotheses that I’ve been writing about recently (look at Hypothesis #4).

What were the results? Is this way of “remote innovation management” appropriate and effective?

More to come in future posts.

Managing Global Innovation and Research in China

2008 Photo of Roby Chen, Steve Todd, Jake Li at EMC's Innovation Conference

image credit:;

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Steve ToddSteve Todd is Director at EMC Innovation Network, and a high-tech inventor and book author “Innovate With Global Influence“. An EMC Intrapreneur with over 180 patent applications and billions in product revenue, he writes about innovation on his personal blog, the Information Playground. Twitter: @SteveTodd

Steve Todd




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