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You'll often hear companies in the Milwaukee region talk about increasing Tim-Brown-square.jpgtheir research and development budgets to generate more value in their products and services. While investing tons of money in innovation and product testing is important, a satisfying and fruitful return on investment goes beyond the bottom line.

And with internet-based and computerized systems playing a much larger role in how companies deliver products and services to clients and their customers, Milwaukee-area tech executives are thinking outside the budget to build a solid, tech-driven R&D pipeline that constantly yields and complements new products.

The topic of tech-driven R&D is just one of many being deliberated by the area's biggest thinkers. In Friday's cover story, we share excerpts of responses to a Business Journal questionnaire to tech execs at companies like Northwestern Mutual, Kohl's Corp., WEC Energy Group and Advocate Aurora Health on a series of topics, from artificial intelligence to tech talent.

"Not to be overly simplistic, but the prime factor always boils down to people for me," said Michael Manos, chief technology officer at Fiserv Inc., the multibillion dollar Brookfield-based financial services technology company. "The industry at large is facing a huge talent shortage in technology, which makes this one of the core components to longer term success. The market for the most talented people is intensely competitive. Universities are having a hard time matching the demand, especially on a global level. Finding the right people, with the right talents and experience, and enticing them to what you have to offer is the biggest challenge we face in this area. You have to create the kind of company culture that entices the best people, and Fiserv has a laser focus on creating a workplace environment that allows our associates to bring their best for our clients each and every day."

For other executives, the special ingredients for having a strong tech-driven R&D pipeline include deep understanding, communication and leadership.

"We study what consumers are experiencing in their day-to-day lives and think about how we can take a new idea or technology so that we are making things easier for them," said Neal Sample, the recently appointed chief information officer at Northwestern Mutual. "We encourage innovation throughout the company and have a dedicated space, Cream City Labs, where curious minds, both internal and external, come together to find new opportunities. We encourage experimentation and exploration from our digital teams and provide opportunities for all employees to get involved, such as hackathons."

Tim Brown, the chief information officer at Racine-based Johnson Financial Group, echoed Sample's point of engaging all employees.

"I would argue culture and leadership commitment are critical," he said. "Sustainable R&D, or innovation, requires a 'CEO down to the mailroom employee' level of engagement. The best innovative companies have this culture. The best ideas are typically coming from the employees, not the R&D shop."

It also comes down to understanding customer and market feedback and the failure, or successes, of an idea.

"The key is to learn that early and inexpensively," he said.


Nathan Lasnoski, chief technology officer at Brookfield-based information technology services company Concurrency, Inc., said reinvention is also a key ingredient for companies.

"The most successful R&D pipelines are based on understanding the disruption occurring within the macro-trend ecosystem and how they apply to the strategic plan of the business," he said. "If a company was starting a business today in the market they live in, how would they execute? The ability of a company to accept the sunk cost of its current business and forbid placing blockers in front of the opportunity for innovation is critical to business survival and the thriving of the reinvention necessary in any market."

Article by Nick Williams - Reporter, Milwaukee Buisness Journal