Four functions of innovation and technology management

This article is meant for my business clients and colleagues managing technology transfer and innovation extension services.

In the past I have written much about the professionals and organisations who are responsible for helping entrepreneurs to improve and strengthen their innovation portfolios on my personal blog site.

To recapitulate: I believe that many industries are struggling to modernise because their supporting institutions use completely different frameworks to manage innovation (or perhaps the supporting institutions make their choices as randomly as enterprises do).

One of the first concepts that a tech transfer institute or industry support organisation should transfer to enterprises is “how to manage innovation and technology”. Just because there is an engineer or an MBA/PhD in a company does not guarantee effective or creative management of innovation and technology.

Today I shall focus on the four broad functions that must be managed strategically in every enterprise and supporting institution. Even if someone in the organisation has the job title of Innovation Manager or Technology Manager, these functions should still be visible throughout the organisation. In other words, this is not somebody’s job, but it helps if somebody coordinates these activities. Also, see these four functions as the minimum. More mature innovating organisations will have far more depth than these four high level headings.

The four functions agreed by most scholars and innovation experts can be summarised roughly as:

  1. Searching and scanning for new ideas and technologies, both within and beyond the organisation. This includes looking at technologies that could affect the clients of the organisation, and technologies that could disrupt markets and industries.
  2. Comparingselecting and imagining how different technologies could impact the organisation, its markets and its own innovation agenda.
  3. Next comes integrating or deploying the technology or innovation into the organisation. This includes adjusting processes and systems, scaling up implementation, and project managing the whole change process.
  4. The last step is often overlooked, but new technology and innovation often make new ideas, innovations and improvements possible. I call this last step exploiting the benefits of a new technology or idea. This could involve leveraging some of the additional benefits or features of a technology, perhaps by creating a new business unit focused on an adjacent market or particular offering.

When I visit institutions, organisations and companies, I always ask “who is thinking about change taking place beyond your industry or key technology?”. I cannot tell you how often I hear that “the CEO” or “the production manager” are on top of new developments and will be attending a tech fair next year. How can this huge responsibility fall on the shoulders of one or two people, who are at the same time biased towards the current strategy which favours justifying past (sunk) investments? Or if you ask “How did you choose between two technologies?”  you will be surprised how little time was spent considering new business opportunities, or how few companies asked for on-site demonstrations or samples from their preferred technology providers.

I will refrain from being too critical of technology transfer institutions and industry-supporting organisations, except to say that these organisations should be a prime example to industry of how to scan, evaluate, compare and integrate new ideas and technologies. We don’t just want to see the shiny machines and neat facilities, we want to understand how you arrived at your decisions, and how you made the best of your investments after implementing the change. Furthermore, industry wants to know what’s next, or what’s beyond their vision and how it may affect their industry.

To bring it all together, the technological upgrading of industries is plagued by many different market failures. These failures include the tendency NOT to invest due to high research costs, due to fears about making the wrong choices, or because so many decisions and changes must be made at the same time – this while the business continues, markets fluctuate, and technologies change faster and faster. Companies (and institutions) cannot afford just to kick start innovation management immediately before making a change (or when forced by external forces to make a decision). These functions must be managed strategically on a continuous basis, both at the level of top management and within the different functions of the organisation. Both companies and their supporting institutions need to manage innovation and technology, not only from an operational perspective (striving for continuous improvement, etc.) but also from a strategic point of view.

The importance of the middle management layer for innovation

I love reading material and listening to podcasts about innovation and organisational change. One thing that strikes me is that a lot of the material focuses on the role of the leadership at the top of the organisation. This is at odds with my daily experience of working in small and medium-sized organisations.

In most of the places where I work, the challenge is often that there is a thin or non-existing layer of lieutenants that can coordinate and implement the ideas originating from higher up. Over many years of working in the manufacturing sector in South Africa I have often been struck by how “smart” top management can be, but then how wide the gap is between top management and the workers facing clients or working on the factory floor.

Recently, while reading the November-December 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, I found this quote from a March-April 1972 HBR article. It is from an article by Hugo Uyterhoeven.

This quote is exactly why I think we don’t always have to start with innovation right at the top, although top leadership that supports broad innovation certainly helps. Sometimes a motivated middle manager could be a great starting point for an improving innovation. Taking ideas from the top or using feedback from below or outside of the organisation, could be as good a starting point as the vision of a great senior leader.

The middle management level is also where coordinators of innovation or change can benefit from instruments developed in the field of complexity thinking or naturalistic decision making, like the instruments developed by Dave Snowden or Gary Klein or many others. Decisions at this level are often made with limited resources, incomplete information, competing objectives, tight time lines as well as shifting patterns. As the quote from Uyterhoeven suggests, these decisions often have both strategic and operational value. From an innovation perspective it means that the focus should not only be on developing good products or improving services, but also on innovation regarding how decisions are made, conversations are held, opinions of team members are elicited and considered, and how teams within organisations reach out to other silos or even organisations. Moreover, knowledge is created and recognised for its practical value by middle managers.

I believe that every middle manager can play a critical role in enabling an enabling an innovative culture.

One last thought related to this topic: while many companies have several reliable middle managers, they often don’t have succession plans in place for this level. There isn’t a pipeline of talent being refined in the organisation. Losing a great middle manager can have a great impact in small and medium-sized organisations. I have seen many small companies stumble because they don’t pay attention to the depth of their middle management

Revised: Industry 4.0, IoT, 3D printing and more. Why some technologies diffuse so quickly and others don’t

I wrote this article yesterday on my thinking-out-loud site and was pleasantly surprised at the interest it sparked. My language guru Linton helped me to fix many grammar errors, so here is the revised version.

I receive questions daily about the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, 3D printing and many other technologies and whether and how I think these technologies will disrupt manufacturing and education in particular and the world in general. These questions are not only from government officials, but also from businesspeople, friends and fellow geeks.

Let me briefly state that I don’t believe it is possible to spot a paradigm shift in the future or in the present. So I would be hesitant to predict whether or when all these big changes will happen. However, when we look back we can spot shifts. Technological change typically takes places slowly but surely, and then at a certain point there is a massive shift. The point I would like to make is that even the futurists have great problems predicting the direction of that sudden shift. We must also consider that technological paradigm shifts almost invariably do not work out the way they are predicted to do before they occur.

For the last few decades many major technological advancements have been heralded as game changers. The advances are often generalised as sweeping statements about large-scale change. However, in most cases, new advances take a long time penetrating our daily lives, if they ever get that far.

So let me rephrase the original question a little. Perhaps the question is more about figuring out which technologies are diffused quicker than others, and why. This is something that we can calculate to some degree using a short history and the current status quo of assessments of technologies that are being touted as near-term game changers.

Dissemination of technology or knowledge always consists of at least three elements. I will for now ignore the process of diffusion for the sake of brevity. There is a supply side, a demand side and some kind of institutional or social construct that enables and even multiplies the diffusion.

The supply side is often most optimistic about how their ideas are going to change the game. The demand side is often naive about how useful a new technology is in real terms. Many potential users simply wait and see. Then there are the institutional mechanisms that operate at local, national, regional and international levels. There are lots of tensions at this institutional level, because this is where a whole range of social technologies, formal and informal, have to emerge or change. Just think of how US-based software companies are constantly coming up against data privacy groups in Europe. I am sometimes grateful that the institutional level takes time to change. Changing institutions to enable knowledge dissemination often requires multiple knowledge domains, different management levels and social play-offs. Often changing institutional support to improve diffusion must also cater for integrating and synchronising many other simultaneous change processes that are not only technological. They could be about regulations, rights and creating new forms of organisation. Furthermore, physical technology does not always change things the way we expect. After all, innovation is a process of combination and recombination, both at the level of physical technologies and also at the level of social technologies.

There are typically a few constraints that frustrate the diffusion of new technologies broadly speaking. The first is the fixed costs of the technology itself. Fixed costs slow down supply (otherwise we would already have electric vehicle charging points throughout the country), and also slow down demand (I cannot afford a Tesla yet).

Suppliers like to think that their solutions will fix social mechanisms, but this is often the area where change is the slowest. Social technologies often take the longest time to evolve (for instance in developing standards and regulations for electric vehicles, charging points and recycling of batteries). By evolving, the technology itself often changes with respect to its use, meaning and value  – often beyond what the originators had in mind. Thus while individual users can quickly adopt a new technology or idea, formal institutions, regulations and supporting infrastructure often take longer to adapt to new ideas. This means that the supporting ecosystem that enables new ideas to be quickly diffused perhaps adds additional costs (perhaps massive infrastructure investment or learning is needed), or fails to reduce costs in the diffusion of ideas. This is where the second constraint comes in. It depends on how complex are the required social changes. I mentioned earlier that institutional diffusion must also integrate different complementary technologies. For instance, using a smartphone to make phone calls is easy (single technological paradigm). Using a smartphone to manage or monitor a part of a production line requires many complementary and concurrent capabilities and technologies. It may even require completely rethinking organisational structures, production lines and supplier networks. Simply put, if the new idea is very complicated to use (due to the many concurrent investments and capabilities that are needed), then the costs goes up in terms of education, regulation, infrastructure, coordination, specialisation, management and so on. Just think of what it would take for South Africa to adopt driverless electric vehicles …

Perhaps this also explains why individual companies (think hierarchies) tend to absorb technologies easier than societies or economic sectors. Inside a company management can overcome coordination failures much easier than within a sector or broader society. Meso institutions such as universities and technology transfer organisations are very important for overcoming these coordination costs, but they tend to change slower.

The complexity of technology and its demands on the meso organisation is important in my work. I help these organisations figure out how to navigate the complexity of new technology adaptation and diffusion. It requires an understanding of users, some understanding of technologies, but a lot of understanding of the process of change and organisation. I don’t think I would be able to do my work without my understanding of market failures, especially with regard to failures in the capturing, dissemination, absorption or valuing of knowledge.

There are lots of amazing technological ideas out there that have been tried, tested and measured and found to be effective. Many companies here in South Africa are already using these technologies. So supply and demand exists, and in many cases there are transactions. Yet many of our industries, enterprises, universities and policy makers don’t know how these technologies can save costs, improve efficiency or strengthen resilience. Nor do they know which ideas will stick or have the most impact. So there is a missing institutional capability that reduces the complexity of the technology. What is often missing are institutions that make the dissemination of new ideas easier and cheaper. It is often more the case that the users (and possibly suppliers) don’t know how much the full implementation or use of these ideas would cost, or what skills, complementarities or networks are needed to master new ideas. Many market-supporting social technologies (in the form of institutions and networks) are lacking. Somebody must reduce the search, evaluation and coordination costs. This is where the complexity lies. And neither do we want our institutions to try and implement every new technology – this is where social balance and a longer-term vision are required.

So now I can get back to trends such as the Internet of Things or digitisation of the manufacturing environment. Many manufacturers know about Computer Aided Design (CAD) simulation or even rapid prototyping. But how can we reduce their risk of trying 3D printing, or how can they add more sensors to their production facilities so that they can improve measurement and control? It is not just about the cost of using the technology once or twice. There are issues that are holding entrepreneurs back from simply rushing to an online store and hitting “buy now”. Where would they get the trained staff from? How would they train existing staff? How would they manage a new competency? What would it cost to certify or maintain? Where would they find new customers or suppliers, and what would it cost them to develop the complementary capability and optimally use the new technology? And most importantly, how do we reduce their risks of trying something in different combinations? These are the issues that a network of institutions must consider as they craft their technology extension and demonstration strategies.

For me there is a strong role for technology intermediaries to play in demonstrating, perhaps on a small scale, how new technologies can be integrated into existing workplaces. This means that technology intermediaries must be funded to host (and master) a wide range of complementary technologies, so that entrepreneurs can combine what they have in place with the capabilities of these technology intermediaries. Or that new entrepreneurs not burdened by sunk investments can use their agility to gain access to complementary technologies in order to create new markets. These institutions should not be measured by how many companies fully absorb new technologies (this could lead to perverse incentives), but perhaps by how many companies have tried, engaged with and been exposed to new ideas.

At the same time, policy makers should look at ways to introduce new technologies into developing countries beyond demonstration or technology extension. Some countries such as Germany or Singapore have also been purposefully supporting disruptive incumbent enterprises by supporting the uptake of new technologies. Sometimes you can demonstrate until you are blue in the face, but incumbents won’t change if they don’t have to, and small enterprises sometimes simply cannot build up the momentum to challenge the status quo.

I would like to end this blog by briefly summarising what I’ve been discussing. For me the question of how new technologies may affect our lives is too focused on the hardware  and the geeks who love it. Even though I admire the suppliers and developers of new technologies, and I really admire the sophisticated users who are constantly inducing the emergence of newer and greater technologies, I believe that the real change we need is in getting better at creating responsive institutions that lower the costs for suppliers and buyers to try new things. This is where we can overcome many of the costs that slow down the absorption or dissemination of new technologies.