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(No.1 High-Tech News Site in Japanese)


News from NET and COM '99
















  • Sony Computer Science Labs Flexes R&D; Might
  • February 16, 1999 (TOKYO) — Sony Computer Science Laboratories Inc. (CSL), a research arm of Sony Corp., is drawing more attention for its outstanding accomplishments in Japan.
    Research and development of information technology in Japan is comparatively behind that in other advanced countries.

    For example, Aperios, a real-time operating system developed by the research institute, was adopted last year by Tele-Communications Inc., a major cable television operator of the United States, as an operating system for the next-generation set-top box. Windows CE is another operating system that was also adopted by the U.S. firm.

    The laboratory also developed Navi-Cam, a novel interface technology incorporated into Sony’s notebook personal computer VAIO C1. The VAIO line of notebook PCs are the most popular notebook model in the Japanese PC market.

    CSL’s research results are also appraised highly by worldwide academic societies.

    The success in the research institute lies in its unique operating policy, which follows the one adopted by Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center in the United States.

    “CSL employs excellent researchers with substantial accomplishments and lets them pursue whatever interests them, without interfering,” explained Toshi Doi, chairman of the board of CSL (See photo on the left). However, the laboratory adopts more strict evaluation and contract systems than those adopted by other laboratories. President Mario Tokoro (See photo on the right) said, “We do not need second-rate researchers.”

    Nikkei Computer examined the CSL’s operating policy in terms of employment policy, research environment and evaluation and contract systems.

    Only Researchers with Outstanding Accomplishments Hired

    Currently, 23 researchers work in the CSL‘s office in Kita-shinagawa, Tokyo. All of them attained outstanding accomplishments prior to employment by Sony.

    For example, Jun Rekimoto, senior researcher and developer of the Navi-Cam, previously worked for a research institute of NEC Corp. While he was at the research institute, he was awarded a 30th anniversary commemorative award by the Information Processing Society of Japan for his outstanding research studies on the environment for developing a graphical user interface (GUI).

    Hideki Takayasu, a senior researcher specializing in complex systems, already was a well-known researcher before he joined CSL. A national newspaper reported when he moved to CSL from Tohoku University’s School of Engineering.

    CSL sticks to employment of well-known researchers with certain accomplishments instead of young researchers fresh out of a graduate school.

    Excellent Research Environment

    Selection of a research theme can be the most important factor for a researcher to produce significant accomplishments.

    At CSL, researchers themselves select a theme they would like to pursue. At a research institute affiliated with a manufacturer, in many cases, research themes are restricted to something related to products currently developed by the firm. Therefore, being able to select a research theme can be a great attraction to researchers.

    CSL also sets no limit on the research timetable. “No laboratory, including even those overseas, offers such a liberal environment,” commented Takayasu. Unlike university professors, researchers at CSL can concentrate on his or her own works, free from such time-consuming responsibilities as faculty meetings and guidance to university students.

    Ample research funds are also guaranteed. When Nikkei Computer interviewed four well-known researchers, all of them said that they have never had an issue of insufficient research funds.

    According to Tokoro, CSL was established as a separate company to maintain its independence from its parent company in terms of treatment and working conditions for researchers. The laboratory adopts its own wage structure under which it can provide the highest salary to the top researcher.

    Strict Evaluation System Creates Tension Among Researchers

    CSL has a very strict evaluation system for its researchers.

    Their research accomplishments are evaluated based on whether their studies are at a world-class level in each field, Tokoro explained. Based on the evaluation, the research institute also decides whether it will renew a contract with each researcher. Even if their contract term is renewed, it will be for just another year.

    The researchers are also evaluated by which academic society accepted their thesis, where they were invited for lectures and which outside researchers they invited to CSL for lectures.

    A series of evaluations are in principle made to individual researchers. If evaluations are made to an entire research group, some other better researcher may compensate for other members with relatively poor performance, but such paternalism is not allowed at CSL.

    If a researcher fails to show certain accomplishments, he or she will be given a one-year grace period. However, if he or she fails to produce any major accomplishments again during the grace period, then the contract will not be renewed. Evaluation systems adopted by laboratories affiliated with other makers are not as strict as CSL’s systems.

    For example, a university professor who has worked for both CSL and the Tokyo Research Laboratory of IBM Japan Ltd. said: “Although IBM’s laboratory evaluated researchers by whether or not their research accomplishments attained the world’s top level, the evaluations were not made annually (like at CSL).”

    However, many researchers at CSL take this one-year contract system more positively. They understand that it is an opportunity for better work for better pay by the year.

    Problems in Great Leap Forward to Future

    Even though CSL has been producing top-notch accomplishments, it will need to overcome two major issues to maintain and enhance its top position. First, the research center is required to train a successor to president Tokoro. Secondly, it will need to have a research arm in the United States.

    At CSL, a president has centralized authority. He or she is expected to be responsible for hiring researchers, evaluating them and negotiating with Sony for research budgets. Tokoro has performed these duties for the past 10 years, with substantial results.

    He is 52 years old, and is considered to be relatively young for a manager of a company. There is no one at the lab who is qualified to succeed him. It is rumored within CSL that more than a few researchers fear the day Tokoro will retire. If researchers are not convinced by a future successor to Tokoro, they may not be able to produce as superior research accomplishments as they do now.

    The research institute is also considering setting up a U.S. research arm to employ more excellent researchers. “In the United States, a mecca for the information and communications industries, we can hire first-rate researchers more easily than in Japan,” chairman Doi said.

    In fact, the research institute has already employed non-Japanese researchers. However, only two of the total 23 researchers are from foreign countries. The laboratory said if it has a U.S. base, it can recruit superb researchers who have difficulty acclimating to life in Japan.

    These are the two issues that CSL will have to overcome in the future to take a great leap forward.

    Related stories:
    Sony Proposes Basic Format For Entertainment Robots
    TCI Selects Sony Home Networking Module For Set-top Boxes
    New OS to Highlight Sony’s Software Assets: Sony Engineers

    (Eisuke Mori, Staff Editor, Nikkei Computer)



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