Test for big business: Collaborate or fall behind the competition

They are teaming up in Europe to build a computer research lab. They are getting together in the US Congress to encourage joint research and development (R&D) in the private sector.

Who are they? Companies and countries around the world that do not want to lose their way in the highly competitive technology-intensive fields of tomorrow.

Not suprisingly, the key to all this is information.

''People are just beginning to realize that the information revolution is going to be far more important than the Industrial Revolution - and they want to jump on the bandwagon,'' says Michael L. Dertouzos, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's renowned Computer Laboratory.

Here is what's happening:

* Early this month three of Europe's biggest computer companies - ICL PLC of Britain, Siemens of West Germany, and France's Compagnie des Machines Bull - announced plans to launch a joint-research lab. The aim: to keep Europe from becoming too much of a distant third (behind the United States and Japan) in future computer technologies.

* In the US, at least seven bills seeking to foster joint R&D in the private sector are before Congress, a response to government-supported offensives in other countries, primarily Japan.

* Guidelines are being sketched by British officials for spending some $270 million on cooperative research in microchips and advanced computer systems.

In their search for ways to promote innovation, countries are examining everything from new tax incentives to beefed-up spending for education. But one other key strategy emerging in both Western Europe and the United States is joint research among companies.

The idea of firms pooling resources to probe frontiers of technology isn't new to Europeans. Consider, for example, the international collaboration that went into the building of the Airbus, now a competitor with US aerospace firms.

But in the United States it has been pushed more in spirit than in practice - and remains controversial. The two most visible examples - the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC), a consortium of 13 companies that will do in-house research, and the Semiconductor Research Corporation, a cooperative that underwrites university brainstorming - are gearing up to try to establish a US beachhead in advanced computer and semiconductor technologies.

Yet few other companies have followed their lead. The reason, certainly, is not lack of interest. Indeed, resource-pooling has become a central tenet in the high-tech-promoting blueprints of many Republicans and Democrats alike. It is also the type of industrial cooperation that theorists such as Harvard's Robert Reich and MIT's Lester Thurow have long championed.

The holdup, businessmen contend, is US antitrust laws that prohibit collaboration. The proposals now before Congress are intended primarily to reduce the risk of lawsuits when companies combine know-how. These range from attempts to establish a relatively simple self-certification procedure - in which firms themselves, from government-devised guidelines, decide whether a venture is within bounds - to a review process under which the Justice Department in effect gives its ''blessing'' to a cooperative effort.

The Reagan administration proposed a version of its own last week as part of a package aimed at lowering the antitrust risk for joint research, copyrights, and patents.

Sticking points remain - including whether any legal change might apply to ventures outside the high-tech arena. After all, textile firms and automobile makers are developing technologies in the face of global competition, too. But, either way, high-tech industries are expected to make the most use of any liberalizing of antitrust laws. Rapid product development is the touchstone of these businesses.

Proponents of greater collaboration among companies argue that basic research has become an expensive and risky proposition - best done, it increasingly seems , by the biggest and flushest corporations. Pooling resources would help fatten the research kitty, spread the risk around, and avoid duplicating efforts.

It also allows firms to focus on the long-range idea-hashing required for many of tomorrow's technologies - without worrying about profit-minded shareholders. ''We are the only country in the world that has antitrust laws that prohibit cooperation in research,'' says Dr. Bruce Merrifield, assistant secretary of commerce for productivity, technology, and innovation.

Japan is said to have put joint research to effective use in snaring a lead in robotics and some computer chip areas. Now they are using the group approach in the high-stakes race to develop a ''supercomputer'' - one that mimics human intelligence.

But critics - including some small businesses - worry about firms that might be excluded from cooperative ventures. There is also the danger that collaboration could lead to illegal pricing or marketing exchanges. Some lawyers argue that antitrust laws don't discourage pure joint research ventures, anyway. Why, asks Boston University Law Professor Joseph F. Brodley, change laws if they don't apply?

Even if procedures are changed, there probably won't be any rush by companies to join hands. That would require something of a shift in managerial thinking: US firms, by nature, are more individual and entrepreneurial in style. Skepticism about sharing information runs deep.

''There are not all these companies there waiting with bated breath to form joint ventures,'' says Pete McCloskey, president of the Electronic Industries Association, a trade group.

Nevertheless, he and others see global competition inevitably leading to a pattern of research co-ops in technology-intensive fields over the next decade - particularly in Europe but, also, to a degree, in the US if MCC works.

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