Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

To Manage Complex Innovation, Ask the Right Questions: Management Today Is as Much about Identifying and Implementing Organizational Change as It Is about Facilitating Technological Change

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

To Manage Complex Innovation, Ask the Right Questions: Management Today Is as Much about Identifying and Implementing Organizational Change as It Is about Facilitating Technological Change

Article excerpt

Managers know that successful innovation in the pharmaceutical industry is very different from innovation in the motor vehicle industry. However, what managers often don't understand is the great variation in innovation within their own industry. In earlier Research Technology Management articles (1), we discussed how managers can identify variation, and the importance of organizational networks in the innovation of complex technologies; in this article, we offer guidance for managers of the innovation of complex technologies on how to develop adaptive network strategies. This guidance is derived from studies of the innovation of 13 technologies, carried out in six countries (2). The studies indicate that managers should repeatedly ask five questions. We illustrate the potential utility of the questions using one of the case studies: specifically, the innovation of Bosch's diesel fuel injection technologies (3).

The questions are:

1. Is your technology simple or complex? The route to innovation success is very different for simple versus complex technologies. For simple technologies (e.g., industrial chemicals), a single organization must be managed. Simple technologies are those that can be understood in detail by an individual expert, i.e., can be described in detail and communicated over time and distance to another expert. (It is important to observe that although industrial chemicals may be simple, the process technologies used to manufacture them are complex.) Complex technologies (e.g., electromechanical diesel fuel injection technologies) cannot be understood in detail by an individual. It is complexity that requires organizational networks that are managed by self-organized learning processes (4).

Increasingly, product and process technologies have become so complex that many of their subsystems and components also have evolved into highly complex technologies. Examples include the microprocessor, or the jet engine in a modern aircraft--even the turbine blade in the engine.

2. In which technological sector or sectors are you innovating or going to be innovating? Most technologies are either complex or becoming complex. The innovation of complex technologies requires the synthesis of resources (e.g., core capabilities, complementary assets) from different sectors. Especially important has been the integration of "infrastructure" technologies like advanced materials and information and communication technologies.

3. Is the innovation you are pursuing normal (incremental), transitional (major redesign), or transformational (first-of-a-kind)? For complex technologies, the major economic payoff comes from normal innovations, from the capacity to repeatedly carry out incremental technological and organizational network changes. This is the preferred pattern for most innovation networks and it is the one toward which they migrate.

4. What mix of tacit and explicit knowledge is needed? In the case of complex technologies, where rapid innovation is the rule, networks are essential because only these very adaptable structures can provide the required diversity of tacit (e.g., unwritten manufacturing experience and know-how) and explicit knowledge inputs fast enough to stay ahead of competitors.

5. What will be your major sources of knowledge? Increasingly, innovation networks include a range of knowledge sources. In addition to firms, it is now common for networks to include universities, government agencies, trade associations, standards-setting bodies, and a host of other types of organizations.

While the architectures of complex technologies evolve primarily in the company or organization that holds the network's core capabilities, complex innovation happens at multiple locations. Integrating these locations requires the creation of international networks.

The Case of Bosch Fuel Injection Systems

The case study of the fuel injection technology for diesel engines traces the evolution of innovations that have occurred since work on the technology began in Germany in 1922. …

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