Collective frame of reference as a driving force in technology development processes : the essential tension between path dependent and path breaking technology developments

C. Draijer

Research output: ThesisPhd Thesis 1 (Research TU/e / Graduation TU/e)

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A. Introduction A wide body of literature describes the relationship between innovation and the success of the organization. The evidence that innovative organizations are more successful is overwhelming [Bain 1956, Porter1983]. It is therefore not surprising that innovation is seen as one of the most important processes in the organization. The importance originates not only from the organization’s ability to develop products with unique features and therewith improve its competitive position but also from the organization’s ability to respond to changes in the environment, threatening its existing competitive position. Although the former, proactive implementation of innovation is often the organization’s intention and the more glorious implication of innovation, the latter, reactive implementation represents more widely the context of innovation in organizations. There is also overwhelming evidence that many organizations have problems with innovation. In order to obtain a better understanding of these problems it is important to study the innovation process and its characteristics. The innovation process is not necessarily similar in every organization and depends on the type of activities that the organizations pursue. This study focuses on the innovation processes in Technology Intensive Organizations (TIOs) and more in particular TIOs active in High Tech industries like the semiconductor and material sciences industry. In these TIOs, technology development plays an important role in the innovation process because technology provides the functionality of the product or process. However, the technology development processes is often not considered as a part of the innovation process. In general there is more emphasis is on the New Product Development (NPD) process and the technology development process captured under the ‘fuzzy front-end’ of the NPD process. However, some contributions in literature indeed emphasize that the Technology Development process is not only important, but also hard to manage and quite different from the NPD process. This study supports this notion about the technology development process and intends to contribute to a better understanding of the technology development process, its role in the innovation process and how it is managed. B. Problem definition The technology development process is not well described in literature which is particular as technology becomes more and more important for new products. The tendency is that products not only comprise of more technologies, but also the manufacturing processes become more reliant on multiple technologies. It is expected that this increasing complexity and integration of product- and process technologies will continue. This implies having access to technology becomes more important. This access can be realized by licensing, technology acquisitions or by in-house developments. As a result of the higher level of integration of technologies in products, it becomes more difficult for organisation to own all the required product and process technologies. While licensing and trading technologies provides more external access, one can argue that owning and developing the core technologies of the products or processes remains crucial to maintain a strong competitive position. Therefore, the development of technologies will be important for Technology Intensive Organisations, now and in the future. Cooper argues that technology development processes are very important for the prosperity of the organisation and that that these processes are in general ‘mishandled’ by applying NPD-methods to it [Cooper 2006]. Cooper proposes to apply an adapted ‘Stage-Gate’ process to the Technology Development process, where the process is broken down in a flow where important decision points are represented by gates and the activities prior to these gates are defined as stages. This approach is not disputed but there are two issues that are not well addressed. Firstly, during the development activities that Cooper identifies as stages, many decisions are made that ‘do not make it to the gate’. It is recognized that the technology developments process requires gates, especially at a management level in order to decide on resources supporting the process. Just because technology development is in general a costly and long lasting process, it requires a lot of management support to progress. However, at the operational level technology developers make all kind of decisions in order to make progress during the ‘stages’ of the process. These decisions have definitely impact on the outcome of the process and are therefore at least equally important to consider. The ‘Stage-Gate’ approach assumes that progress is made in the ‘Stages’, but how it is made is not discussed nor defined. Secondly, the ‘stage-gate’ process does not take into account the notion that technology development is subject to a certain path dependency. This notion is based on several contributions in several bodies of literature; scientific discovery [Kuhn 1972], [Klahr & Simon 1999] economics [Nelson & Winter 1981], Organizational change [Van de Ven & Poole 1995] and cognition [Garud & Rappa 1999]. An important aspect is how the organization is operating while following a path or may be even more interesting: What happens if an organization realizes that following the current path is not sufficient enough to meet the organisational goals that have been set? These different modes; following the path versus breaking with the path can be identified with the difference between evolutionary/equilibrium versus revolutionary/punctuated technology developments. This distinction is not taken into account in the ‘stage-gate’ approach, while the impact on the organisation can be very different. These two omitted issues will be particularly addressed in this thesis. C. Research questions The first research question is related to the technology development process and its relationship to product development and scientific discovery: What are the characteristics of the technology development process in general and in comparison to the product development process and the scientific discovery process? Technology developments that follow a certain path, progress in equilibrium, require only evolutionary changes, and have limited impact on the organization. However, technology developments that require a change of path are considered to be much more radical to the organization. There are at least five aspects that need to be understood about a path change. Firstly, it is important to understand how the organization resists against a path change. Secondly, how is a path change initiated? And thirdly, how is the organization adapting to this path change. These three aspects are addressed in the second research question: What are the processes and drivers at several levels in the organization, prior, during and after a technology path change? The fourth aspect is finding the alternative path: . How are alternative technology-paths identified, evaluated and selected? The fifth aspect is related to the required changes that are necessary to reach the alternative technology path: What are effective management techniques to manage decisions related to technology path change and the associated organizational changes? D. The Technology Development process The frame work presented in Chapter 2 comprises the following four sub-processes of the technology development process: knowledge processes, change processes, problem solving processes and organisational processes Knowledge processes: Technology can be seen as the embodiment of knowledge, indifferent whether it is scientific, explicit or tacit knowledge. Just theoretical knowledge is not enough to obtain a technology; it requires practical knowledge or ‘know how’ to create a ‘construct’ that embodies the theoretical principles. Also it is assumed that for technology development in an organizational context, knowledge is generated [Nonaka 1994], disseminated [Berends 2003] and integrated [Grant 1996]. Furthermore, technological knowledge is generated by problem solving cycles, alike scientific knowledge [Popper 1970]. This generation process is considered to be an individual process [Popper 1970, Polanyi 1962, Nonaka 1994]. Change processes: Technology developments tend to change according to punctuated equilibrium process [Pettigrew 1985, Gersick 1991]. Very similar to scientific developments evolutionary technology development tends to follow a certain predefined trajectory or paths, while revolutionary or radical technology developments are characterised by path breaking activities [Kuhn 1970, 1977]. The notion that technology development is following an existing path can be identified with an equilibrium state where the organisational changes are small and gradual. The punctuated periods where radical technology development takes place, resulting in breaking the existing path, may result in much more radical organisational changes. The skills, knowledge and capabilities the organisation developed to operate along the existing path become less relevant or even meaningless and in order to operate along a new path, new skills, knowledge and capabilities are required that can be radically different from the previously developed ones. Problem solving processes: Knowledge generation in context of new technology development is ultimately a process that takes place in the human mind, and is related to human problem solving. This individual knowledge generation process should be placed in the context of ongoing group processes and of the characteristics of the organization. The goal state in the problem solving cycles is very similar to the teleological change process as described by Van de Ven and is expected to play an important role in steering the problem solving cycles [Ven 1995]. The problem cycle is part of a broader decision making process. This process is related to the problem definition, goal state definition, the search strategy, and test strategies. These decisions are made on the basis of existing information and a stream of new information originating from the problem solving cycles. Organizational processes: The justification to view technology development as a distinct organizational process can be based on a few contributions in literature. Cooper pointed out that technology development processes are different from other development processes and deliver new knowledge, new technology, or a new technical capability. The process comprises fundamental research projects, science projects, basic research, and often technology platform projects. [Cooper 2006]. Cooper sees Technology development projects as a kind of meta-projects leading to multiple commercial projects and new product platforms. This suggests that technology development processes can be seen a distinct organisational process. Another way to look at the technology development process is to consider so-called technological options that are initiated be the Generation of Technological Option (GTO) stage, characterized by a divergent process where numerous options are created. This stage is followed by a convergent process, the Selection of Technological Option (STO) stage where various options are benchmarked and selected for further developments. In this stage the number of options is reduced. This stage is followed by a Integration of Technological Option (ITO) stage where various options are combined in order to test the combined functionality. And finally the Deployment of Technology Option stage represents the integration of a technological option into a product. The stages are forming the TO-model that is described in more detail in Chapter 3. E. Collective Frame of Reference Based on the case study research reported in Chapter 4 and 6, several patterns have been observed that appeared to be decisive on the outcome of the technology development process. These patterns are related to a phenomenon that has been identified as Collective Frame of Reference, which can be described as: Collective Frame of Reference (CFR) is a set of beliefs that is shared within a group and/or an organization. This belief is not necessarily justified (like knowledge), and can be based on shared intuition, experiences, cultures and perceptions. The CFR can proliferate through groups and across organizational boundaries. In summary the following was observed: - Coherent, coordinated activities and incoherent, uncoordinated activities coincide with the presence and absence the Collective Frame of Reference of the group. - The presence of a strong collective frame of reference keeps the group focused on its activities and allows for coordinated problem solving routines with a CFR based goal state. - The absence of the CFR initiates incoherent and uncoordinated activities; this results in uncoordinated problem solving routines were the goal state is set based on individual beliefs. - Proliferation of the CFR is based on influencing individual beliefs, and takes place internally, within the group, laterally towards functional interdependent groups and vertically, either top-down, or bottom-up. The CFR is seldom completely shared and not all individuals in an organizational structure fully conform to the CFR. From a management perspective this can be seen as an undesired situation; first order management techniques rely on a hierarchic structure where policies flow down, which are adopted smoothly. It is argued, that a not fully adopted CFR helps in situations where radical changes need to be made. The CFRs develop under the influence of interactions between management level and operational level and under the influence of internal and external factors. The internal factors include the following. - Competences: The know-how to conduct certain processes. - Technologies: The technological building blocks available to the firm, basically forming the technology paradigm. - Past Experiences: An organization carries the burden of historic failures and successes. In case of failures it imposes a certain fear factor to the CFR. - Past Strategies: Choices, made in the past, impose path dependency on technology development. These internal factors constitute in a paradigm that is related to the CFR. It is not only about the technological paradigms, but also about the routines, knowledge and skill sets that are present within an organization that constitute the paradigm of the organization. Successes and failures contributed to these paradigms and this is a burden that comes with the maturity of the organization. The external factors contributing to the development of a CFR include the following. - Market developments: The market developments obviously influence the CFR. - DESTEP factors: The Demographic, Ecological, Social-Cultural, Technological, Economic and Political factors influence CFR development. - Competitive developments: Competition can be considered as very significant in the development of CFRs with respect to prospective technologies. - External technological factors: The upcoming and downfall of technologies that are directly or indirectly related to the technology base of the organization will definitely influence the CFR of the firm. These factors are more about perceptions, rather than objective facts. Finally, four psychological and social factors are suggested that constitute to the CFR. - Values: The values of a group or individual impact on the CFR even as actors are unaware of the influence of this factor on their acting. - Individual Beliefs: The individual beliefs impact on the CFR, and tend to be more volatile than values. - Self Esteem: The self esteem is a perceptual view on the value that an individual or group has for its environment. - Risk perception: The perception of risks impacts the collective frame of reference and can be associated with entrepreneurial attitudes of a group or individual. These factors determine not only the coherency of the groups and the confidence levels contributing to the CFR, but also the course of action in the absence of a CFR. F. Management implications The management implications regarding the Collective Frame of Reference are summarized in the following management actions: Gathering and providing objective information: Managing the flow of information is considered a very important factor to influence the CFR. Providing a flow of objective information and providing the means to process this data in an efficient fashion will help for the ‘good’ and for the ‘bad’. On the one hand, if the objective information is interpreted by the individuals in such a way that the CFR is reinforced this can be considered as ‘good’; the organization is doing well, while following the existing paradigm and the members of the organization have the impression that this is sustainable. On the other hand if the objective information weakens the CFR, it can be expected that this is for good reasons; the members of the organization have the impression that following the existing paradigm is not sustainable and that change is required. Connect to the external networks: Connection to external networks provides useful information about the technological capabilities of the organization. Monitoring trends in technology allows the organization to anticipate better on ‘sudden’ external changes. These networks comprise scientific networks, supplier networks, user networks and other networks like for example economical think-tanks that can provide information about trends in future needs. Management of an organization can influence the CFR by assuring that professionals in the organization are connected to the relevant networks. Stimulate Confidence: Many organizations are aware that celebrating success is important to stimulate the confidence level in the organization. Showing internally the success stories is important, but for the CFR it is also important that previous failures are well understood. An organization tends to interpret failures as evidence that everything outside the comfort zone of the organization is doomed. The issue is that radical technology development results in one or two successes out of ten attempts and therefore easily can be interpreted as a waste of time and money. An organization has to manage these failures in such away that new opportunities are still considered despite the build-up of evidence that technology developments can only go wrong. Allowing non-conformist behavior: This may be the most difficult factor to manage, as the traditional management techniques assume that all members of the organization follow the strategy and contribute to the goals that are set by the management. Any behavior that is not contributing or sometimes even contradictory to the strategy can be seen easily as unwanted behavior. However as this non-conformist behavior is a source of organizational change, it should not be excluded by the organization. G. Conclusions The main conclusions of this study are: - The technology development process is positioned between the scientific discovery process and the product development process - A technological option is an artefact or construct that often is based on a scientific principle and which can provide a certain product or process function. - Based on the TO model, a technological option is passing through four phases: o A generation phase where an artefact is created, and which shows a certain functionality. o A selection phase where the functionality of the artefact is competing with alternative options, o An integration phase where a specific option and its functionality is integrated with other options. o A deployment phase where the option is incorporated into a product in order to provide this product with certain functionality. - Technology, like science develops along paths, governed by a paradigm, which provides evolutionary, more or less predictable improvements, punctuated by developments leading to new paradigms. - The paradigm character of technology plays not only on a macro- and mesoscopic scale; it is also present within Technology Intensive Organizations. - Radical or paradigm shifting technology development programs are hard to manage, unpredictable and require particular measures to weather short-term vs. long-term deliberations. - Technology development can be characterized as ‘evolutionary’ if it progresses along a technology path. - Technology development can be characterized as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ if it requires a paradigm shift. - Both the evolutionary and revolutionary technology development in the organization is driven by the Collective Frame of Reference. - A paradigm shift starts from and results into a recurring, cyclical phase, which represents an equilibrium state of the organization. The actual shift takes place in three phases; the reorientation phase where the organization identifies new technology paradigms to consider and start acquiring knowledge of paradigms that are thought to be suitable to provide useful and relevant technology options. In the second phase the organization takes all the decisions that are required to adopt the new paradigm. And in the third phase the organization implements decisions that have been made. - The development of the CFR changes throughout the paradigm shift; in the recurring or cyclical phase the CFR drives the focus on recurring tasks that develop the current technology option. - The breaking of the technology paradigm is assumed to be sparked by an individual who develops a belief that opposes the shared belief that keeps the organization on the current technology paradigm. - Once this individual is confident to share her or his beliefs with others, this belief may or may not be accepted by others. - If the non-conforming belief holds and gains foothold at the decision makers in the organization, a wider reorientation process is initiated to obtain knowledge about alternative technology paths. - The selection of an alternative technology paradigm is in general not a single decision point, but consists of a chain of decisions on sub aspects of the transition. - Managing the flow of information is considered a very important factor to influence the CFR. - Connecting to the external networks is important, not only because it can provide objective information as discussed above, but also because it provides access to external knowledge in that is or will become important for the reorientation process. - Stimulate Confidence is important for the balance between the CFR and non-conforming behavior. - Allowing non-conformist behavior as it is a source of change in the organization.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences
  • van Aken, Joan, Promotor
  • Weggeman, Mathieu C.D.P., Promotor
Award date22 Jun 2010
Place of PublicationEindhoven
Print ISBNs978-90-386-2270-5
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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