Neither technology nor innovation exist in a vacuum. They respond to customer needs and/or social and technological trends. Or even better, they anticipate them. The third and final part (part 1, part 2) of the discussion between Birgit Stelzer, a researcher at the Institute for Technology and Process Management at Ulm University, and Guido Beyß deals with the relationship between producers/suppliers and customers, with the response to new trends, with the anticipation of new technology trends and with the question of how to document knowledge which is relevant for technology management.
What is the core task in the relationship between producers/suppliers and customers?
Beyß: I believe the core task is to find out what the customer really needs. That is more easily said than done. The main challenge is to determine what is at the root of customers’ wishes. Customers often do not spell out their real needs. They say that they need a bigger or smaller, quicker or lighter product. The art is to understand the customer’s real needs which are hidden behind their surface requirements.
Could you give an example?
Beyß: Let’s take cooling technology as an example. A customer says that he needs a lower temperature at a certain point in his production process. If we take a closer look, we find that he does not really need a lower temperature, but that he needs to comply with certain safety and hygiene regulations – and that is what we need to know. The customer’s demand is not really about lower temperatures, but about hygienic requirements. While the customer recognises the problem in his procedure, he does not have specialist knowledge.He therefore tries to improve the existing procedure in such a way that the problem is eliminated.And that is how he arrives at needing a “lower temperature”.In fact, however, we are not talking about temperature, but about bacteria. Developing a feeling for these real customer needs is an art.Technology management is regularly faced with the challenge of having to adjust to social and technological mega trends. What is particularly important in this respect?
Beyß: Mega trends as such are usually not a problem. They are well-known, so companies do not need to watch for and monitor them. What is more difficult is to find out what these trends mean for the individual company. Legal developments which accompany or result in mega trends are a difficulty in themselves. It is anything but easy to meet current requirements and anticipate potential future changes at the same time. And if legal requirements for one and the same issue differ across countries or regions, the task becomes even more complex.
What are ways to anticipate new technological developments?
Beyß: There are many different methods to identify promising technological approaches and trends. From patent analyses and expert surveys to search strategies and the deployment of technology scouts and networks, to name but a few. PR and investor relations departments may be very useful as well. They are regularly asked by journalists and analysts about the latest trends and about market and corporate developments. Participating in national and international bodies can also help to anticipate future developments. This work is less about technology as such, but about the market environment, about legal issues etc.
And one last question: Technology management is based on knowledge. And knowledge unfortunately vanishes. How can knowledge be effectively documented?
Beyß: Knowledge documentation is one of the most difficult and complex issues on earth. The fundamental problem is that employees often do not know that they know more than their peers. So why should they document something which – they assume – everyone knows? There is only one solution: get them talking. Organise events where they can exchange their know-how.
This will soon show who has which special knowledge. And that is how a company can find a way to document knowledge. Knowledge documentation is really important, because knowledge is one of the few things which really multiply when they are shared.