He Built It, But They Didn't Come

Fields Unharvested: MCC Should Mourn Mercurial Craig's Sayonara

Jerry Werner is president of Werner Associates, an Austin, Texas-based consultancy specializing in strategic planning for collaborative R&D initiatives. Mr. Werner was director of technology transfer for MCC's CAD Program from 1984 to 1990, during the tenure of all three MCC chief executive officers (Adm. Bobby R. Inman, Grant Dove and Craig Fields.)

Craig Fields' surprise resignation as chairman and CEO of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. in early March has left the pioneering consortium rudderless just at the time it needs strong and innovative leadership. According to the Austin American-Statesman, private-sector support for MCC in 1994 has dropped to less than half its peak of $60 million plus annually in the late '80s, while government funding for MCC programs has steadily risen from $0 to more than $10 million during the same period.

While the decline of private-sector support has occurred on Fields' watch, it would be inaccurate to say that he precipitated that drop. MCC's shareholders started seriously questioning their return on investment in the consortium during the 1987-88 timeframe, and by 1990 (prior to Fields' arrival) industrial support had begun to wane.

If anything, Craig Fields' appointment as MCC's president in mid-1990 gave the consortium breathing room to rethink its "vision" and to address the serious collaborative challenges that were the cause of its shareholders' dissatisfaction.

It didn't take Dr. Fields long to realize that it was taking too long for MCC's research to translate into improved shareholder design processes or new, innovative products.

Shareholder companies not only weren't realizing the promised 5:1 or 10:1 leverage from their research dollars, many felt they weren't even recouping their actual investment.

The output from MCC's research was often lying fallow in shareholder "receptor groups," not finding its way into mainstream engineering and product development functions. Something needed to be done.

Fields quickly instituted changes: Researchers were required to operate and think like business people, by defining their target markets and meeting project timelines. MCC's membership list was expanded, with growth coming in the ranks of Associate and Affiliate memberships.

Promising technologies that the shareholders chose not to adopt were "spun out" into start-up companies, often headed by former MCC staff members. MCC's shareholders would receive preferred access to new commercial products and thereby gain a return from their earlier investments, and the "spin-outs" would benefit from initial customer bases.

In one of his more controversial moves, Fields established MCC Ventures to provide early financial assistance for start-up companies, including spin-outs from MCC's research programs. According to the Austin American-Statesman, some MCC veterans saw a possible link between the special MCC board meeting convened this February in part to review MCC Ventures, and Fields' subsequent resignation.

Whatever the underlying reasons for Dr. Fields' departure, MCC must continue on the path of fundamental change. It's clear that its 20 or so shareholders ultimately run the show, not the much larger set of MCC's "members."

The new CEO must address the primary reason MCC's shareholders originally joined the consortium: to gain access to research that would ensure their future competitiveness.

While creating new models for public-private cooperation and investing in entrepreneurial ventures are important roles for the consortium, the fundamental issue of how to make a direct impact on shareholder bottom lines must be the highest priority.

The "pre-Fields" MCC suffered from an arm's-length relationship between MCC research staff and shareholder product-line people. The goals of many research projects were determined more by researchers' interests than by the shareholders' top-priority problems.

Potential shareholder "customers" of MCC's research were often considered too late in project lifecycles -- a severely flawed strategy if the ultimate goal is to foster widespread adoption of MCC technologies. The "post-Fields" MCC must continue the new directions he set while simultaneously addressing shareholder impact.

MCC's shareholders could decide that it's time to fold up the tent, after 11 years and a collective investment in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Or they could realize that MCC, if ultimately successful, will be much more than a source of leading-edge research and a shared investment in entrepreneurial ventures.

It will be a "learning laboratory" for new R&D strategies and processes designed to accelerate the creation of high-impact technology-based solutions to solve our most pressing real-world challenges.

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