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Geoff Halls, director of technology and innovation, Roke Manor

Roke Manor continues to be a world leader in communications research, but commercial pressures mean it has changed enormously. Graham Pitcher finds out more from Geoff Halls.

Back in the day, the big industrial consortia maintained their own blue sky research establishments. GEC was probably the first to set up an industrial research operation in the shape of the Hirst Research Centre. Plessey then followed with the Caswell Research Centre in the 1930s, then Roke Manor Research in the 1950s.

While the golden years of UK industrial research are now long gone, one of those research centre remains – Roke Manor, set up by Plessey as a base for its radar and electronic warfare R&D.

Geoff Halls is Roke Manor's director of technology and innovation. He concedes Roke Manor is a different place today. "It is still fundamentally a technology company developing information systems, communications systems and sensors. What has changed is that competitive pressures mean customers now demand – and expect to get – services that make it easier for them to make money."

Halls believes there are many similarities with the Roke Manor of old. "We used to do lots of 'R'," he noted, "and we still do. But customers now want that work packaged in ways they can easily use, for instance as products or platforms."

That change in emphasis has meant the kind of person working at Roke has also changed. "The skills required to take ideas and turn them into professionally engineered products that arrive at the right time are completely different," Halls admitted. "And they are a different set of skills to those of the people who came up with the original idea. It's a layer of skills that has been added."

Nevertheless, Halls is adamant that Roke is still doing groundbreaking work. "We're doing world firsts, but products based on this work are available within months."

Like many companies, Roke has seen the balance between the R and D elements change over the years and it's no surprise to find that more D is undertaken at Roke than ever before. Even so, Halls points to what he calls a 'big grey area' between the two. "In some respects, it's a 50:50 split, but it depends how you define the two. Roke now has departments which offer customers 24/7 support and that would have been unthinkable only 10 years ago."

There is still a lot of communications work going on at Roke; it is, after all, part of the company's heritage. "We're still working on LTE, for example," Halls pointed out. "But the work now is researching what LTE might look like in 10 or 20 years."

And looking to the future is an essential part of Roke. "It's partly about having people fascinated by that," Halls continued, "but it's also about having a process that forces us to look at where technology is going. We certainly have a road map over the next three to five years; how that might affect what we can offer and what customers might want."

Asked about the balance of work, Halls said Roke is involved in many long term projects. "One example is the future of the web," he noted, "but much of our work nowadays is for the medium term. Everyone is worried about the short term – cash flow and whatever. Someone has to think about the longer term and people are prepared to pay for that work to be done. We call it technology scouting – asking what the future is for a particular area – and I can't see the demand for technical service in communications going away; it will increase if anything."

While much of Roke's work in the past was 'standalone', there is more cooperation today. "We work with universities," Halls pointed out, "particularly in EU funded programmes, but some of the projects we fund ourselves."

All of this is, of course, reliant upon having the right people. "The job market hasn't got any easier," Halls admitted, "and Roke is selective about who it employs. To be honest, there haven't been too many excellent people on the market lately, but one of the attractions of Roke is that it's fun working here; working on the latest technology with like minded people. Because of this, retention is good, but it's a continual battle for talent which doesn't get any easier."

Despite having the air of independence, Roke is wholly owned by Siemens and has been so for close to 20 years. How 'hands off' is the relationship? "We have the autonomy to carry out our mission, which is to be first to market with technology products, fast to develop rapid prototypes and technology demonstrators, and to tackle technically difficult problems." Hills said. "But we are working more closely with Siemens – and its central technology department in particular – than we have done in the past. Partly, this is because Roke is a Siemens profit centre."

He said this approach – open innovation – is an industry trend. "We don't just rely on our expertise; we network with others to share the benefits. This helps everyone and it applies across industry. The secrecy culture – lock them in the lab – isn't around any more, simply because it's inefficient.

Looking to the future, as Roke does, Halls believes the competitive environment will become more difficult. "Competition from low cost economies will increase, but our fundamental strategy of concentrating on difficult stuff and getting it into products is robust.

"Roke has been through big changes and this process of continual improvement will be important for the future. Whatever you do, you have to be 10% better each year. We wouldn't have done this a few years ago, but now it's hugely important," he concluded.

Graham Pitcher

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