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William A. Swope is corporate vice president and general manager of Intel's Corporate Sustainability Group. In this role, he is responsible for driving Intel's environmental efforts in the areas of[…]

Will Swope details the essential role that innovation plays at Intel and how he manages it effectively.

Question: How do you create an innovative company environment?

Swope: The way we talk about it is informed risk-taking, right.  Informed risk-taking in that culture is fundamental towards supporting innovation and [to do that] there got to be an educated population.  If you’re working on something that you don’t quite understand, the probability of making it better by messing with it is reduced.  So, just think about those two tenets for a while, a culture that supports it, and then number 2 then enough education and knowledge and teamwork to be able to go build it.  There are a very few individuals any more that can understand one of our products and [sold] them half over billion transistors.  It is hard to know what each one of them does, right.  So, there are teams of people that create this and there are bigger teams of people that try to, you know, validate them and distribute them, etc.  So if I were thinking about the third thing, it would be about building that culture of teamwork and allowing teams then be innovative. 

Question: How do you allow for experiments in innovation?

Swope: At the Intel Fellow level, the top, the very top, approximately 100 scientists and technologists that we have, we told them they’re going to have half the time to themselves and they can go work on that.  Very few of them actually take us up on that, but the offer is genuine.  Now, it means in some area that they have some expertise, all right.  We actually haven’t really faced a lot of that difficulty because our products are so incredibly complex, beautifully complex, one can argue, and because there’s so much change that goes on all the time.  So, if you are interested in the field of computing, working for Intel is like just a great place to be, right?  And they have the tendency to work in that area.  Now, we try to go off and then there’s a pretty formal process for determining in the R&D labs what technologies still hold promise and when to kind of reduce the funding in an area and when to move it forward.  So we have a lot of process, Intel is a process [storing] company.  We have a lot of processes to do that.  But, fundamentally, the idea is that you can do most of the development in the area of expertise at some form of computing, and then in the research labs themselves, a very organized process to determine which ones we continue to fund and which ones we pass on.

Question: What’s the foundation of an innovative corporate environment?

Swope:    Well, the first one I had as tenets are the culture would be first.  You have to respect that and that means it doesn’t always work.  The second one is education.  We talked about that.  See if there’s a third one.  Oh, I think the third one is, really, you have to just feel eminently wonderful about the success.  So, if you step back and say, okay, you’re allowed to fail and then people are educated.  Then, do you really celebrate those people that can move it forward and sometimes the team moves it forward and then sometimes, you know, just one person makes a difference.  And we give away the Intel Achievement Awards every year and lots of times those are teams of people where, you know, a team has done something really innovative and we give them a little bit of money but we give them a great party.  But every once in a while, there’s just one individual who stands out and it’s so clear at the corporate level that that one person moved Intel and those are really special. 

Question: How do you reward innovation?

Swope:    We do throw the party but it’s, that’s not much of it.  Let’s step back and see what innovation really is.  Innovation is you build a new product or a new service in some way that betters the product line or hopefully is solving a customer need better than before.  So, we reward that first of all.  This is be careful what you ask for.  You know, really good design engineers have the tendency to then become group leads and they can certainly move up that engineering chain.  We allow scientists and engineers to either move up into a management chain or stay on their technical leadership towards an Intel fellow.  And an Intel fellow or Intel senior fellow is the same, you know, range in the company, same grades, same salary if not more than Vice Presidents.  So there is, you know, we kind of put our money where our mouth is and we recruit, retain and reward those people that can move this technology forward in a meaningful way.  And then the second thing, which I keep trying to say, what really makes it work?  You’ve got people around you that share this culture, that want to be doing it too, that when, you know, when you call them up at night, you say, yeah, I know it’s after work, but I just got to talk to you about this.  I’m so excited. And they don’t hang up on you.  So, I think it’s that combination of respecting the individual and dealing with all the management structures and changes and challenges and results.  But then, second of all, having a culture and being able to recruit other people in the organization that share their common goals.

Question: How can the United States move forward as a center for innovation?

Swope:    There are a lot of people that would say that we have lost some of that edge and some would argue with that vehemently.  So let me just point out the data, right.  The data are that we are no longer producing the most engineers.  We are no longer producing the most amount of new companies.  We have been the technological lead in the world.  We’ve really had technical supremacy for decades and our higher education institutions still have that.  We have the best higher education system in the world.  But if we really want to remain a technological powerhouse in the next 30 years, we need to start internalizing all the scores that are coming out to explain that we are in the 20’s in math and science.  Our children are not as well educated.  They don’t have the same work ethic, whether we like it or not, that’s what the tests indicate, and I think we have to look at the systemic issues that are causing that and go after it.

Question: What’s the best way to manage creative employees?

Swope:    Enjoying them.  If you step back and you say, all right, there’s our [art].  Creative people will always give you… you’ll spend most of your time on creative people, and that means that they will be the people that you, you know, you want to most embrace sometimes and then you’ll just most want to argue with the others because it depends on where they’re going at any given moment.  But most one you should just have to enjoy and respect their creativity.  If creative people believe they are liked and respected, then they will continue to be more and more creative, and I don’t necessarily relate creativity with lack of discipline.  You can be very creative within a discipline.  So, if we’re talking about how do you deal with undisciplined creative people, then I think that’s just a matter of trying to establish a common goal.