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Decade of Perspective:
A Vision for the Technology Transfer Profession

by Debra M. Amidon
Founder and Chief Strategist, ENTOVATION International

Published in the Journal of the Technology Transfer Society, Fall, 1996. Reproduced with permission.

It began in 1986 - the plans for a Roundtable entitled "Managing the Knowledge Asset into the 21st Century: Focus on Research Consortia" which was co-sponsored by The Technology Transfer Society and Digital Equipment Corporation. Experts from industry, academia and government were convened to explore the technology transfer implications of the full innovation process - from idea generation through prosperous application.

It was a highly structured dialogue which focused on the newest mode of interaction (i.e., research collaboration) and the entrepreneurial aspects of moving ideas to market. For all those in attendance, it was a turning point in the profession. Through a day and a half of intense discussion, organizers realized the value in the multiple competencies represented by the diverse perspectives on the process.

There were five core findings which were published in the proceedings:
(1) Technology transfer is a 'concurrent process with numerous feedback loops,' not a linear progression of steps;
(2) Technology is a 'continuous process of human interactions,' not only discrete deliverables, such as papers, patents, etc.;
(3) Technology transfer is a 'real-time process which occurs at the source,' not a sequential process from a to z;
(4) Technology transfer requires a 'new management philosophy and managerial tools,' not managed hierarchically from the top-down; and
(5) Technology transfer is a 'complementary pull/push process of mediating laboratory capabilities to meet market needs,' not a push phenomenon of ideas emanating from the lab.

Today, these ideas may not seem outlandish; but in the 1980's, few theorists or practitioners were viewing the technology transfer profession as such a robust, integral process for the success of an enterprise, the vitality of a nation's economy or the advancement of society as-a-whole.

In some respects, the major weakness of the Society - the fragmentation of disciplines, functions, sectors - became it's primary strength. This event - described by many as seminal - created the foundation for envisioning the entire innovation system (i.e., invention, translation and commercialization) as defined by Dr. Bruce Merrifield, then Secretary of Commerce. It also illustrated the potential leverage when the national research enterprise is viewed as the collective resources (i.e., financial, human and technological) from all sectors. The 'enterprise' is viewed beyond the limited confines of corporate walls, or the ivory towers of academe or the funding agent of the government.

Instead of focusing on the barriers, participants examined similarities. People recognized commonalties in their recommendations for action and the prognosis for the future. Members of the Board of the Society were able to orchestrate new degree programs in the field, outline the research which needed to be performed and generate interest in the subject with a description of economic opportunity. Rather than dwelling on obstacles and hurdles, practitioners created a blueprint forward.

At the time, we were contrasting the technology transfer capability of Japan against that of the United States. Where the U.S. was expert in the invention stage of the process, Japan was expert at converting those ideas into competitive products and services. The famous quote of Admiral Bobby R. Inman, USN, (Ret.), then the founding president of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, aptly described their "sipping of the straw" which - for some -reinforced protectionist attitudes. For others, it was seen as a challenge to understand the changing rules of a dynamic global economy.

Mr. Larry Sumney, President and C.E.O. of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, accepted the challenge by establishing a technology transfer staff position - one of the first in industry, chairing the newly established Council on Consortia and funding a study on Japanese Technology Transfer which ended up being a cornerstone of future GAO reports on the topic. In other words, the response was one of research on the managerial aspects of the technology transfer 'business.' Focus shifted from the 'technology' per se to the management process itself. This leadership provided learnings and a path forward for many research consortia to come (e.g., National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, SEMATECH, Inc., and the Engineering Research Centers funded by the National Science Foundation). The concept of leveraged learning was harnessed.

Mr. Lee Rivers had just assumed a position in Washington to provide a focal point for the intellectual capability of the national network of federal laboratories. This set in motion legislative initiatives which enhanced the National Cooperative Research Act (1984) and the Federal Technology Transfer Act (1986) to provide incentives for government-industry-university interaction, such as Executive Order 12591 (1987), the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act (1988), the National Competitiveness Technology Transfer Act (1989), SEN 30-91 (1991), the American Technology Preeminence Act (1992), the Small Business Technology Transfer Act (1992) and the National Competitiveness Bill (1993) to mention a few. The National Center for Technology Transfer was designed to be the agency to link high quality ideas with the industrial mechanisms to convert them into marketable products and services.

Numerous other seeds which sprouted from the Roundtable discussions. Professionals from across multiple functions recognized the value of the whole and the synergistic interrelationship of the parts rather than viewing the process of technology transfer as a transactional set of activities.

In retrospect, the real contributions of the Roundtable were the new perspectives on: the process of innovation, the value of intellectual capital in a technologically proficient world, reorientation toward management, opportunities afforded by globalization and the symbiosis of complementary competencies. As we reflect on the learnings of the past ten years, assess the current state-of-the- practice and envision a future, these five threads are integral to the weaving of a tapestry which outlines unparalleled opportunity for the technology transfer professional.

Focus upon Innovation:

There is a worldwide recognition of the importance of the full process of innovation (i.e, creation, conversion and commercialization). The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has just completed a country-by-country study of the innovation surveys performed in different regions of the world. There was a corresponding document prepared by Eurostat dealing with the Community Innovation Survey (CIS). Peter Drucker, management guru of our time, has articulated in the Harvard Business Review that enterprises need only one future competence - innovation and the capability to measure its performance. Chief Research Officers are changing their title to 'Chief Innovation Officers' to reflect their new business development responsibilities. Big six consulting firms are establishing research centers, most notably Ernst and Young with their Center for Business Innovation based in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Institute for Capital and Creativity (IC2) at the University of Texas has provided international leadership on the topic. Corporate strategic planning managers are realizing that all the quality or time-to-market initiatives may actually be innovation strategies by a different name. Simplistic value-chain thinking has converted to value-system dynamics. The Alfred P. Sloan management methodologies of the fifties - Strategic Business Units (SBU's) is being transformed into a Strategic Business Network (SBN) philosophy. Concurrent engineering is really innovation (i.e, view of this total system) with a capital 'E.' Agile manufacturing is innovation with a capital 'M.' Collaborative sales/service (e.g., partnering with customers) is innovation with a capital 'S.' All expertise is beginning to converge on this common goal and a shared language is emerging.

Focus upon Intellectual Capital:

We are amidst what many are calling a 'knowledge revolution.' With the increasing acceleration of computer and communications technology - and the complexity thereof - leaders across all sectors are calling for an appreciation for the human aspects of management. In so doing, the renewed focus on behavior has forced an understanding of the real contribution of people - value of their ideas, the capacity to learn and the innovation process which affords an opportunity to apply those ideas productively. The real wealth of an economy is being redefined as knowledge or intellectual capital. The traditional financial accounting methods - which treat people as liabilities (not assets) on the balance sheet - no longer suffice in a dynamic economy reliant upon the efficient, productive flow of ideas.

In this new era of intellectual wealth, performance measurement may well define the challenge of the decade. The unmeasurable must become measurable. Lip service to qualitative indicators must give way to systematic and sophisticated methods and tools to appropriately track the critical success factors which here-to-fore have been invisible. The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants embarked upon an intensive study of the implications of this challenge on their profession. Companies are establishing Chief Knowledge Officers as a way to provide a central focus for the organization. Mr. Leif Edvinsson, Vice President and Director of Intellectual Capital for Skandia. A.F.S., has provided leadership by publishing supplementary annual reports on the calibration of the intellectual capability of the firm. Many other companies worldwide are following suit.

Focus upon Management:

Shortly after the Roundtable, numerous programs on the Management of Technology appeared

  • The National Research Council convened a panel on the topic and published a revealing study on the 'hidden assets.'
  • Digital Equipment established the first industrial corporate-wide focus on Management Systems Research - to investigate and develop the management technology with the same rigor as the technology. They established the foundation for what we know today as management architectures and established the vision for worldwide managerial standards which could transcend function, sector, industry and geography.
  • Major research initiatives were launched in several universities around the world (e.g., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Linkoping, Case Western Reserve University, the London School of Economics and INSEAD - the management institute in Fontinbleu, France).
  • Similarly, the 'productivity paradox' (i.e., the economic rewards not coming from the significant investments in technology) spawned the funding of multiple research projects to examine the behavioral implications of information technology.
  • Nations established country initiatives to fuel economic development, such as the Grande Colloque de Perspective in France (1991); the U.S. Polish Project on Technology Commercialization (1992) and the multitude of European research initiatives financed through ESPRIT, ALVY and others.

Years later, we witness the emergence of newly defined roles. Corporations are refining the roles of IT professionals from a focus upon information to a competence of 'networked learning.' Universities are developing a more integral relationship with industrial sponsors recognizing the importance of customer relationships. The more progressive universities treat those 'customers/clients' as sources of knowledge and value the benefits that true partnering affords. Government agencies: local, state, Federal and international, are applying principles of modern management to make better utilization of their own resources. Indeed, the new management philosophy defined in 1987 is a work-in-progress.

Focus upon Globalization:

There is probably no other area which has made more progress than the embracing of an 'international scope' of possibility. What was touted years ago as a value on diversity has become essential to business survival or - at the least- optimal business leverage. Across the globe, economies are transforming real-time. In the last ten years, the Berlin Wall has fallen, Free Trade pacts have been initiated across geographic boundaries, nations which previously were adversaries are joining in unprecedented economic alliances. As a matter of fact, interdependence - articulated by John F. Kennedy in the 60's - has become an economic reality. Even the smallest of entrepreneurial firms has the potential of becoming a multi- million dollar international venture with the capabilities afforded by cyberspace.

What was viewed in the 1980's as economic competitiveness has become the primary justification for economic collaboration. The concepts of networked organizations (i.e., the power of teaming beyond traditional boundaries) has become the essential skill of managing in the next Millennium. We are learning daily of the talents developed by the transformation of societies across the globe which here-to-fore were not considered among the major economic powers. Demographics are playing a role as is the meso-economy (i.e., the government, education and industrial infrastructure).

Progress has taken on an acceleration beyond imagination. It takes all of our intellect, energy and passion to compete effectively. Success goes far beyond the notions of competition or cooperation. It is the art of creating new wealth (i.e., we create new pies from which we all benefit, rather than agreeing to share the pieces of an existing pie). We are being bound - as peoples from varied lands - to advance the standard of living for us all.

Focus upon Complementary Competencies:

We have much to learn from each another - function to function, sector to sector, industry to industry and country to country. We have just scratched the surface of understanding. When we focus upon similarities and commonalities of purpose, we are able to envision a future that none of us could have perceived individually. There is no need for us to 'know it all' for - with a mutual respect - we work toward a common goal. By definition, this enhances our chances for success.

This total reversal of orientation, from what you have to give to one another to what you have to learn from one another, opens doors of insight which can only fuel innovation. Instead of wallowing in the past, we invest our energy in imagining a future.

In every discipline, there is evidence of respecting and embracing the competencies of others.

Finance professionals are incorporating the fundamentals of organization transformation and technological advancement in emerging managerial practices.

The information technology community - in attempts to mainline the benefit of computer/communications technology to the business strategy - has developed mechanisms to measure economic value and learning initiatives to optimize implementation of the technology.
Human resource professionals are recognizing the need to develop quantitative methods to gauge the view of human capital as an investment, rather than a cost. Anthropologists are providing insight on importance of the culture of an organization to its economic success.

Cognitive scientists are paving a way to convert information processing to knowledge processing technology. Political scientists are synthesizing the value of this activity to society. This is the beginning.

Envisioning the Future:

Ten years later, we can relish the progress we have made. Indeed, the foundation for the leadership of the profession was launched at that Roundtable in 1987. What began as an exploration of the true and varied mission is crystallizing in a vision which is inspiring leadership. There is an emerging 'Community of Knowledge Practice' which is permeating every function of every enterprise, every sector - profit and not-for-profit and every corner of the globe. The common purpose has been defined. Professionals from every discipline are seizing the opportunity for strategic positioning.

What does this mean to the practicing technology transfer professional? The opportunity is yours. Look around your organization and observe the multiple streams of work. Identify leaders within the enterprise at every managerial level. Identify your expertise can add to the success of the whole. Welcome change and innovative ways to embody your expertise into the mainstream of the operation. See your mission from a knowledge/learning - not solely a technology - perspective. Consider your own uniqueness. Learn from everyone. Take advantage of your expertise to identify ideas and move them through the 'innovation system.' Yours is an expertise whose time has come.

What does the future hold? There is panorama of the next decade forming. It includes a Roundtable for Innovators from Around the World, a Worldwide Innovation Congress and developing a proposal for the United Nations to create the equivalent of the Inter-Monetary Fund (IMF) for the 'world trade of ideas.' What is your role as practicing professionals? What is the mandate for the Society? Are you eager to participate and enable this international post cold war vision a reality?

Copyright 1996. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without written permission of the author and publisher.



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