Keeping innovation alive at Microsoft

Hsiao-Wuen Hon, head of Microsoft's research lab in Beijing, explains why he believes researchers should be given the freedom and opportunity to explore new ideas

As managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, Hsiao-Wuen Hon leads a 10-year-old organisation that is the software giant's flagship research arm in the region, responsible for some 350 researchers and engineers.

Hon believes managing innovation in the Beijing-based facility is different from running an organisation with set goals, because often the magic 'spark' is stumbled upon accidentally.

His task in running the lab is a matter of finding the sweet spot between allowing the researchers enough freedom to find their inspirations, and making sure the organisation amasses contributions worthy of being included in Microsoft's final products.

The PhD-holder joined Microsoft as a senior researcher in 1995, and was appointed managing director of Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) last year.

Touching on the 200 or so innovations the lab has contributed to Microsoft's products, Hon told ZDNet Asia in an interview why he holds the conviction that the next wave of Microsoft's innovation will come from Asia.

Q: What research areas are keeping MSRA busy right now?
A: We are working on five main focus areas. First, on making a natural user interface, to incorporate gestures and handwriting into interaction with the computer — it's the holy grail of user interfaces.

Second, we're working on multimedia technology, like compression technology. MSRA has made its name in this area over the last 10 years.

Third, we're working on data-intensive computing, which is the fundamental backend for what's popularly known as 'cloud computing'. There is so much data to mine for research and functions like business intelligence.

Fourth is the current 'killer app' — search advertising. We all use search engines daily. The competition is fierce now with other players like Google and Yahoo. Microsoft wants to perfect this technology.

Fifth is what I classify into fundamentals: computing, networking, and so on. You need a sturdy foundation in this to support any R&D (research and development) in the lab.

Which of these areas is MSRA dedicating the most resources to?
Let me say first that the importance of research shouldn't be measured by the number of people working on it. Each of the five areas is as important as another. And everything intertwines, in R&D. For example, multimedia technology...

...may be used to search an audio clip for better indexing, giving a better search. So innovation may not come from just one area.

But with the competition, especially in the area of search technology, I'll say we have dedicated the most resources to… data-intensive computing and search advertising.

How do you manage your researchers? Do they have targets to meet?
Managing researchers comes with unique challenges. The most important discovery will usually be something that catches you by surprise.

We may put a lot of resources into one area, but we know that some time, somewhere, some kid will surprise us with the next big thing — hopefully, that kid will be at MSRA.

So every researcher should be given the opportunity to surprise. We need to give them freedom so that ideas can bear fruit.

Moreover, we know not every project can be successful. In fact, if you succeed every time, you fail, because it means you didn't take any risks. If you take every action knowing the outcome, that is not research, that is product development.

At the same time, Microsoft is a results-driven organisation. So I recommend that the risky projects, with no foreseeable outcome for the next year or two, be taken on by senior researchers — with the eventual responsibility of their project still belonging to them when the time comes, of course.

Junior researchers are encouraged to work on less risky projects, so that they can prove themselves and deliver results within a reasonable time.

Are there unique qualities to being in Asia for MSRA, compared to other Microsoft research facilities in the world?
I think the 21st century is an exciting time for research in Asia. We are transitioning from 'made in China' to 'innovated in China'.

Asia is full of smart and hardworking people, especially in science and technology, so talent-wise, it's a very rich research ground.

Also, because of Asia's growing population, it is just a matter of time before the market in the region becomes the biggest in the world. So it is very important for Asia to be at the centre of Microsoft's innovation strategy.

In fact, I believe the next wave of Microsoft's innovation will come from Asia.

As we move toward a knowledge-based economy, the growing of knowledge is a key success factor to maintain our edge for Asia's people.