Technology managers struggling with ever-shorter product cycles and corporate downsizing were told at the sixth International Forum on Technology Management, in Amsterdam, to interconnect their R&D teams in cyberspace and build communities of knowledge across company and country borders. Otherwise, they could risk falling behind in today's fast-growing networked economy.
R&D executives attending the annual event in October agreed that the possibilities for exchanging information and ideas electronically have boomed in recent years due to the widespread availability of electronic mail and standardized computer systems, in particular the Internet Protocol. But so too have the risks for companies to manage knowledge and maintain their core competencies in increasingly virtual organizations.
"Clearly, there is greater potential now than ever before to coordinate product development processes electronically across organizational, geographical and cultural boundaries," said Rod Coombs, a professor at the Manchester School of Management, in the United Kingdom. "But there's also a huge danger in allowing technology to run wild and undermine the ability of individuals to interact personally and creatively in physical teams. And there's also a huge danger in having research managers lose control of R&D knowledge within their organizations."
Coombs warned of installing information technology (IT) solutions for R&D teams and expecting everybody to adapt. "You have to have organizational changes drive technology changes rather than the other way around," he said. "You have to rethink your organizational processes first and then implement the appropriate IT to support these processes." However, some companies, already competing in global markets, are having to rethink fast.
Global Design Environments
In the keynote address, Frank Carrubba, executive vice president and chief technical officer of Philips Electronics NV in the Netherlands, said many organizations have already been forced to move toward around-the-clock, around-the-world product development. "Design environments are becoming global," he said. "Companies in certain sectors, like consumer electronics, need to disperse skills and resources around the globe, and take advantage of geography and information technology to keep pace with ever-shorter product cycles."
Indeed, as global networks become an essential element of tomorrow's world in which time and space are far less important, operating in cyberspace will require new management and organizational styles, Carrubba warned. "You have to figure out how to deal with people other than in the terminal of a computer and keep them spirited over long distances, especially when failures arise. And you have to know how to use the brief times when people are brought together to feel each other's body language."
For Carrubba, it is crucial that products have a core standard architecture from which remote R&D teams can design proprietary systems for individual markets. "This keeps staff spirited by encouraging them to make their own contribution," he said. …