Technology

An Interview with Toru Katsumoto,
Executive Vice President, Sony Corporation.
Creating Things That Don’t Yet Exist,
Five to Ten Years from Now

Several months have passed since we introduced our new R&D structure in April 2018. Toru Katsumoto was appointed head of R&D. What is his vision for R&D? What tasks does he see as necessary? We spoke with him about Sony’s new path to next-generation R&D.

Profile

  • Toru Katsumoto

    Executive Vice President

    Officer in charge of R&D,
    Medical Business

Twenty-Plus Years Focused on Technology

──Could you begin by telling us about your career to date?

Toru Katsumoto: I majored in electronics at university, but I also studied a bit about the physical properties of things like crystal resonators and optical fibers. So when I joined Sony I was put in charge of the things that someone with a background in physics or applied physics would do, such as developing magnetic tapes, magnetic devices for encoding signals on tape, and the first amplifier circuits to transmit signals to those magnetic devices.

After that, I was the electronics leader for the Handycam® for about ten years, frequenting production lines and other worksites. It was also during this period that I studied in the U.S. Over the next ten years, I was involved in TV. This was when the digitalization of TV was just beginning, and I went to the UK for that. Afterwards, I was in charge of home-use video equipment, interchangeable-lens cameras, professional equipment for broadcasting stations, and other products. Then, I shifted to the medical sector as the first president of Sony Olympus Medical Solutions Inc., and then was made responsible for Sony’s R&D in January 2018.

──Since the very beginning, technology has been at the very heart of Sony, part of our enduring identity. But from 2000 to the early 2010s or so, Sony seemed to stumble with repeated trial and error. What was the breakthrough that got us out of that phase?

In the mid-90s, as the age of the Internet arrived, Sony made an abrupt shift away from hardware to software. The company that had grown by focusing on hit single products was now forced to start thinking in a large ecosystem that was very different. Sony changed course to an omni-faceted strategy of launching both expensive and cheaper models and focusing on global sales. Emerging from that period, I think we are now in a place where we are concentrating on our inherent strengths. And concentrating once again on the areas where we distinguish ourselves at the top end, introducing a great deal of the latest technology, such as our 4K OLED BRAVIA®, our α™ interchangeable-lens digital cameras, and our high resolution audio, has, I believe, borne fruit.

Another important factor is that we are once again focused not just on consumer goods, but on our collective strengths as a Group in terms of, for example, our strength in live sports broadcasting systems and our expertise in entertainment such as pictures and music.

With regard to R&D, too, I think we tended to focus on development for creating hit products, while we are now thinking more of how our technologies can be leveraged throughout the entire Group.

Sony’s Future—Not Just Technology, But Technology for Business and People

──As we look ahead for the entire Sony Group, what do we at R&D have to think about, going forward?

Creators and other professionals, for example, want new tools they can use to make good content. I think we must look carefully at the types of technology that can make that happen.

Developers, however, love technology, and they tend to think that if they achieve function and performance in every aspect of the product they develop, there will inevitably be people who will buy it. This pursuit of function and performance is, of course, necessary, but that alone is nothing more than an exercise in self-satisfaction. You still haven’t actually scratched the user’s itch.

Our aim is to help creators by using technology to solve the inefficiencies or difficulties that they struggle with on the job, so they can make content more quickly without having to worry about anything extraneous. If we are not looking at the difficulties they face from the very beginning, what we develop will miss the mark.

 

──From that point of view, what qualities do engineers need for R&D?

Rather than a single pattern of specific qualities, I think what we need is diversity. Even when focused on one subject, you cannot develop anything highly differentiated unless you have a group of people with a variety of perspectives. Just having a group together who are intelligent on average creates something average; it’s not very interesting. In the case of TVs, we cannot assume that we should just move in succession from SD, HD, and 4K to 8K, 16K, and 32K.

There is diversity in terms of gender, age, nationality and disability, and there is diversity in ways of thinking. We want a group of people with a broader range of individual strengths, and essentially, people who are curious about many different things.

Also, in addition to being curious about digging deep into technology, I think we also have to identify the latent desires of people around the world. And all of these qualities do not have to be present in a single individual. I think it’d be great if the Sony engineering corps could solve a variety of different issues as a team.

Moreover, when it comes to solving problems, I think you have a better chance of achieving a breakthrough if you can come up with many different options. If you have a group of people who are all from the same country, occupy the same space, have the same lifestyle, are around the same age, have the same education and come from the same background, you are not going to have the wide range of ideas needed to come up with options. Of course, too-wide a range of ideas can also be problematic.

 

The Only Way to Understand the World Is With Your Own Eyes

──By the way, what is the process for launching projects in R&D?

There is no one established method. At Sony Headquarters, R&D must be looking five or ten years down the road, aiming to create something that does not exist yet. To that end, I think management, and I include myself in that, must think about the managerial course we want to set, and provide a vision: “This is what we want Sony to be like in five or ten years.” With that vision in mind, R&D at Headquarters has to reflect deeply on the types of technology we should have in our arsenal and then tackle the challenges involved through trial and error.

──Could you talk a little more concretely about what you mean by “something that does not exist yet”?

These are things that have still to be created, and that require a great deal of searching to come up with. In a company the size of Sony, it isn’t possible to sustain the company five or ten years out with anything at the idea level at the scale of a start-up, so it is necessary to identify what is likely in the future to grow into businesses on the scale at which we currently operate.

The Japan market is quite small in global terms. We have to think about the U.S. market and the China market, and, going forward, markets such as Southeast Asia, India, and Europe. I think that the shortest path in development is ultimately the repetition of trial and error as we closely examine each Sony technology and business asset for how it can be utilized and exchange information with people in different countries and different industries, including information on mega trends.

I don’t think this means we will discover something extremely different from the fields we operate in now, but I do think each one of us needs to make a concerted effort to get out into these places ourselves in order to understand what is happening in different areas around the world. There are so many things we cannot know without going out to meet and talk with our customers. You will never discover what will happen with the future with an Internet search.

──Related to this, does Sony have a system that assigns employees or sends them on long-term business trips to understand the trends occurring in different parts of the world?

Yes, and we are planning to increase the number of employees on assignments outside their home countries and to create a personnel rotation that includes Sony bases outside of Japan. Sony is already present at academic conferences and collaborates with many different universities and research institutes. Much of this, though, is focused on technology. So we also need to focus more on creating opportunities for engineers to get out and meet with people around the world, so that they can gain insights first-hand. Imagine yourself, for example, visiting America to figure out what’s happening in the U.S. market. What new lifestyles will people likely be living there five or ten years from now? Shouldn’t it be possible to create a new industry by helping professionals with some kind of tool or service? We want to help our engineers to access these kinds of insights.

Taking on Social Issues

──What is your view of what society will be like five or ten years from now? Are there any particular issues that stand out to you?

I would have to mention climate change, although I don’t know how large of a contribution Sony can make to solving this enormous issue. In any case, the SDGs set out 17 goals for the sustainability of the planet, which is an issue that affects all of humankind. So this is our top priority. The SDGs naturally provide opportunities for social contribution, but many, me included, believe that addressing those issues also provides business opportunities. As a company, I think Sony must develop technologies that help to achieve at least some of the SDGs.

Future Focus

──What priority issues have you been entrusted with since you took on your current position in April?

The past five years have been a difficult period for Sony. First and foremost, we had to increase profits, so R&D really had to provide the support needed to enhance product appeal. We needed to focus our R&D priorities on products that were to be released in the immediate two or three years to add performance features to those products. Our responsibility was to boost product appeal by bringing a great deal of technical capabilities into interchangeable-lens, cameras, television, high res audio, and other products.

After a few years of this, Sony finally achieved profits of about 700billion yen last year, and this year I have been asked to pivot our development efforts toward a longer-term view while maintaining the contribution to profit. Of course we will not stop working to boost appeal of immediate, upcoming products, but we are also expected to step up our medium to long-term activities.

Next, Headquarters R&D should be the R&D hub for the entire Sony Group, and as such, I think it is my responsibility to expand the range of areas to which we contribute, taking into consideration the scale of sales in each business segment, the scale of profits, the growth expected in five or ten years, and other factors. In more concrete terms, this is about maneuvering R&D so that we can make a greater contribution to BtoB, entertainment, and financial services.

The third focus is to acquire the talent, including from outside Japan, that we need for the upcoming ten years. In terms of recruiting human resources at Sony, hiring in the past has tended to concentrate in the areas of electronics, mechanics, and software, but we must take the view that we are no longer in an age when it is enough to just hone our technology. For example, to develop our business in the medical sector, it is critical that we hire people who have studied life sciences, physics, mathematics, and medical engineering. It is also my sense, however, that sometimes we should hire people who are extremely curious and able to quickly acquire skills in areas other than their own particular specialty.

Our talent must also be business-minded. Often I find it better for us to hire more people who are naturally business-minded, rather than those with specific educational backgrounds, since people who are motivated can pretty quickly become experts in their fields.

It is important to think carefully on a global scale about where we can find those motivated young people and how we bring in this talent—not just in hiring them, but in training them after they are hired and helping them forge a career path.

Being Innovative, Being Creative

──Finally, please tell us what you think the similarities and the differences are between being innovative and being creative in R&D.

That’s a difficult question. This topic came up when I visited a certain company, where someone said, “Creativity is about turning money into technology, and innovation is about turning technology into money.” I agree completely. Ultimately, innovation is not a matter of simply developing outstanding technology. It is only once you take that technology, develop a new business, and make a solid contribution to society, that it becomes innovation. Although you cannot come up with innovative technology without creativity, the most difficult part begins at the point it is created, when you build a business based on it. This is not something that just anyone is able to do. We cannot make this happen without having the right person in the right job, although that itself is not an easy process. It is true that we need a plethora of creative ideas, so creativity may carry more weight. Nonetheless, when working to achieve innovation, I think we’re likely to fail unless we put together our best team and stake everything on that effort.

When we’re looking at 100 different creative ideas to choose the one that will make for an innovation, I definitely want the people who developed the technology on the team. But I believe we must have the support of our existing businesses and bring many different types of people from throughout the company together, including those who are best at moving things to the next level and those with the leadership skills to bring these different types of people together. The reason we were able to get aibo done in a year and a half was because we succeeded in putting together a team like this, and I want to continue providing as much support for this kind of process as I can, as we move forward.

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