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The idea of Technology brokering is to span multiple, otherwise disconnected industries, to see how existing technologies could be used to create breakthrough innovations in other markets. Technology brokering requires companies to be strong in two areas. As Andrew Hargadon, technology brokering’s founder, summarized: “Firstly, the company must have the ability to bridge distant communities, usually when a company can move easily across a range of different markets they have a better view of how technologies can be used in new ways. Secondly, technology brokering involves creating new markets and industries based around innovative combinations of existing technology. These two strengths are difficult to have simultaneously because the strong ties the companies have with customers and supplies in one industry prevent the company from moving easily into other markets and experimenting with new ideas .” Yet, when a company is able to combine these two strengths it can result in being the first to experience technological advances.
Technology brokering can teach firms how to effectively shift the focus of traditional R&D teams from trying to invent completely new products to combining previous innovations. New ideas for observation based research pull R&D scientists out of the lab and place them into direct consumer observation to allow them to diagnose problems with products and identify the needs of the customer more accurately. The technology brokering process intertwines with the idea of empathic design, which is basically understanding products from a customers’ point of view and then designing them to fit needs and issues. The advantage of empathic design, especially when combined with technology brokering firms, is that it leads to innovative products that suit the particular problems of the customer. Another perk of empathic design is including marketing and manufacturing people in the product design to get diverse opinions of product success and practicality.
The first examples of technology brokering can be found as early as 1876 with Thomas Edison in his Menlo Park laboratory. In six years, this lab procured over 400 patents. Menlo Park laboratory was such a successful ‘invention factory’ because Thomas Edison had a firm belief in recombinant innovation. There were no inventions from Menlo Park that were truly invented from nothing – each one had some basis that was pulled from another field of technology. Edison and his team worked in many different fields in conjunction with many different companies, in addition to working on individual experiments. All of these projects enabled the team to use their knowledge of various fields to be innovative in creating new solutions for different organizations. Because knowledge of technology across differing fields was disconnected, Edison was able to exploit this and create new solutions from areas of past projects.
Henry Ford is another great inventor in history who understood the power of combining past solutions to create a new one. He is famous for the model T automobile and the assembly line, but Ford himself stated that:
“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled into a car the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work….Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.”
The knowledge of recombinant innovation is alive and thriving today. Companies such as IDEO can easily have their processes compared to Edison’s operations of the Menlo Park laboratory. IDEO is arguably one of the largest and most successful design firms of the current times. Since its founding in 1978, it has created 3,000 new products in over 40 industries. Working amidst several different industries is a large factor of success in technology brokering. The more industries that firms are involved in, the broader their understanding of different technologies will be. CEO of IDEO David Kelley has this to say about working in many different fields:
“Working with companies in such dissimilar industries as medical instruments, furniture, toys and computers has given us a broad view of the latest technologies available and has taught us how to do quality product development and how to do it quickly and efficiently.”
Many companies today are restructuring their R&D departments and they are finding the structure of technology brokering to be very successful and cost-effective for innovation. Not only is technology brokering a business foundation for design firms, it can also be used inside large corporations in order to achieve inter-departmental innovations. Andrew Hargadon was really the first person to coin the term ‘technology brokering’ and advocate to industry its advantages. He did this in the late 1980s, early 1990s, now the concept of technology brokering is fairly common. The Hargadon Group currently advises businesses ranging from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups about how to integrate a technology brokering system into their innovation process.
Examples of Technology Brokering
Technology Brokering Firms: IDEO
IDEO is the largest product design consulting firm in the U.S. It focuses on mechanical engineering and industrial design, and pursues products with high performance, ease of manufacturing, and ease of use. The current CEO and President of IDEO is Tim Brown. The Palo Alto (CA) based company has smaller offices in Boston, Chicago, Grand Rapids, London, San Francisco, New York, and Tokyo. Since 1991, IDEO has topped Business Week's list of winners of the annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards, and in 2005, the magazine named IDEO one of the twenty most innovative companies in the world.
IDEO Projects: As Tom Kelly stated in The Ten Faces of Innovation, “IDEO creates innovative products, services, spaces , and experiences for companies such as Procter & Gamble, Pepsi-Cola, and Samsung. IDEO also helps companies build cultures of innovation. Successful designs include Apple mouse, first laptop computer, Polaroid I-Zone instant camera, Palm V, soft-handled Gripper toothbrush for Oral-B, and hundreds of other standard-setting designs.”
According to Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton’s study of IDEO, “IDEO’s clients, ranging from Fortune 50 companies to start-ups, typically hire the firm to design part or all of a product.” “Clients are usually charged for the time and materials required in designing a product but they occasionally work in exchange for a percentage of sales or profits from the finished product. Design projects last from a few weeks to three years, with an average of about a year. Results range from sketches of product concepts to crude working models to complete new product designs.”
The Human Resource Most designers at IDEO are 25 to 40 years old, male (about 80 percent), white (about 80 percent), and usually have a B.S. or an M.S. in engineering. Managers have a similar profile but tend to be older (35 to 50 years old). The support staff also has a similar profile to the designers, but with a larger proportion (approximately 50 percent) of women. Tim Brown believes a good design thinker possesses the following characteristics: empathy integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism and collaboration.
IDEO’s organizational structure provides great support for technology brokering. The design operations at IDEO force individual designers to face a continual flow of new problems which require engineering solutions. This flow of new problems provides incentives and opportunities for them to develop and exploit a wide-ranging knowledge of potential solutions.
Within the organization, the engineers do not specialize in any single field, but frequently move to a different industry after completing a project for a company. Engineers also often transfer on and off of long-term projects to prevent ‘burn-out’, this allows them to pursue interests in other areas. This movement between teams and projects not only provides designers with a wide range of experiences, it exposes them to the skills and backgrounds of their colleagues.
Technology Brokering Firms: Menlo Park
Thomas Edison was an inventor, a business man, and most importantly an innovator. In 1875 Edison purchased a single model home in New Jersey. This property is referred to as one of his first major innovations; the first industrial research lab, “Menlo Park.” This would be the location of over 400 inventions and prove to be a prime example of Thomas Edison using technology brokering to innovate. Edison has stated that he built this laboratory for the; “Rapid and cheap development of an invention.” He also promised, “A minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months.5” How could Edison make such bold projections? Edison developed four intertwined work practices that helped him be so innovative. They were: capturing good ideas, keeping these ideas alive, imagining new uses for old ideas, and putting promising concepts to test. Using these concepts, which underline the concepts of technology brokering, Edison is credited with 1,093 U.S. patents as well as patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
One of the reasons Edison was so successful was his ability to surround himself with very knowledgeable people. Edison’s team came from all over the world and they were considered experts in various fields. Charles Batchelor, from England, was Edison’s chief mechanical assistant and helped Edison with many of his inventions. Edison also hired people from Germany, Switzerland, and a number of other European countries.
In an article written by Andrew Hargadon, he states, “Between the years of 1876 to 1881, the lab (Menlo park) produced numerous innovations in high speed, automatic and repeating, telegraphs; telephones; phonographs; generators, voltmeters; light bulbs; and vacuum pumps.” Edison’s first major financial success was the quadruplex telegraph. After creating the quadruplex Edison was unsure how to set the price. He originally thought his product could sell for somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000. After he pitched his product to Western Union, Edison was thrilled to see they offered him $10,000 for the telegraph. This financial success allowed Edison to be the founder of the first institution set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement, Menlo Park. It is recognized that Edison understood the concept of technology brokering. And some of his methods were rather elementary. In his own notes it stated, “1st Study the present construction, 2nd Ask for all past experiences…study and read everything you can on the subject.”
The Light Bulb On December 31, 1879, Edison first displayed his most popular invention. It was the first “practical incandescent, electric lamp. This is a perfect example of Thomas Edison leveraging technology brokering. Edison was not the first person to invent electric light. J.W. Starr filed a patent for an incandescent bulb in 1854. That was 30 years before Edison began working on the light bulb we know today. When Edison first started testing incandescent lamps, the arc light was being used for lighting streets and also for various other applications.
When Edison began testing incandescent lamps he ran into a major problem. The problem was Edison wasn’t sure what material to use for the filament. Most of the material he tried would melt. There was too much oxygen and heat created by the electric current. As a result the filaments would always burn. He used two methods to correct this issue. At first Edison had to find a new material to use. He began by using platinum for his filaments with little success. Eventually he made his filaments by carbonizing Bristol board, which is a type of cardboard. He also acquired the best vacuum pumps available at the time. This would reduce the amount of oxygen inside of the bulbs. These two changes made it possible for Edison to create the light bulb we all use today.
As mentioned above, Edison did not invent the electric light. However, he did leverage technology brokering in order to piece together many different existing technologies to make a better light bulb. As one could assume, Edison was highly appraised for his accomplishments. Many people today believe he was the first person to invent the electric light when truly he was great at leveraging technology brokering.
• Step1: Access According to Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton’s study of IDEO, “IDEO has access to dissimilar industries and it enables them to generate product innovations.” “Each engineer has a distinct body of technological knowledge from working with IDEO clients, from past technical training and work experience, and from his or her personal interests and backgrounds. The role this diverse knowledge plays in creating new products is evident in a description of how one designer's personal background was the source of new solutions.” “IDEO's Methodology Handbook recommends that designers look for opportunities to expand IDEO's network and/or industry knowledge. “IDEO's contact with different technologies comes through the individual engineer’s contact with the industries where those technologies are used.”
• Step 2: Acquisition According to Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton’s study of IDEO, “Expertise in acquiring new knowledge helps IDEO designers to understand and work with a client's existing technologies.” “This ongoing process of learning from clients started in IDEO's early days and remains part of all projects.” “IDEO's Methodology Handbook states that
"As consultants we need to quickly become experts in the client's product area. We want to acclimate ourselves to the market, the buzz words, the competition. We need to orient ourselves to the major pitfalls, alternatives, and opportunities."
“IDEO engineers also acquire knowledge by studying an industry's existing products because they serve as records of the technologies in that industry.”
• Step 3: Storage According to Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton’s study of IDEO, there are “two types of routines at IDEO for storing potential technological solutions.” Routines for storing specific knowledge “place potential solutions in the memories of individual designers and objects and products that designers collected from their previous work.” Routines for maintaining and refreshing that knowledge include “displaying objects where other designers can see them and constant conversations that designers have about who has what design knowledge.” “Upper-level managers often direct designers to individuals with relevant expertise by knowing who had worked previously on what projects. ”
• Step 4: Retrieval According to Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton’s study of IDEO, “at IDEO, retrieval entails bringing stored knowledge of potentially valuable technological solutions to bear on the design problems of current projects.” IDEO designers retrieve technological solutions through “analogical thinking” and through “established routines for sharing the problems of current design projects with other designers in the organization who have relevant and potentially valuable knowledge.” “Potential solutions are drawn from IDEO's organizational memory at brainstorming sessions and company-wide Monday morning meetings.” “Retrieval also occurs during informal conversations that follow meetings or e-mails”, which are facilitated by IDEO's “open office plan” and encounters with other designers.
Technology Brokering: Example Products
The desire of technology brokers to work with old/discontinued, or already in use products/ideas, has provided an array of fascinating products. For instance, obesity has been a problem for years and many people have gone through endless treatments; however, the craving for food that is high in fat and sugar does not go away. IDEO designed a Crave Aid Patch, similar to the Nicotine Patch used to quit smoking. This patch comes in different flavors of unhealthy food, so that when an individual is craving unhealthy food he/she can wear this patch and fight the hunger.
Another excellent example of technology brokering is the telephone. Since it was invented, the telephone has undergone a great number of changes: from residential-only, to being portable in a brief case, to more modernized digital cell phones with access to internet and much more. It seemed as though the residential phone would disappear completely due to the technology found in the cellular phones; however, technology brokering was able to bring about a huge change in residential phones. Verizon communications recently introduced the Verizon Hub, a residential phone that allows you to send and receive text-messages, pictures, connect to the internet, and link your cell phone to your Verizon Hub so you can answer your home phone even if not at home. The beauty of technology brokering is not inventing totally new products, it is the ability to reimage or recreate a product while using an old idea/product. For example, the Craving Aid Patch was a product originally designed for smokers and in many cases seen as a medical procedure. Nonetheless, exactly the same idea has now been used to create a totally different product using the same technology. Similar to the Craving Aid Patch, which is just an old idea reinvented into a new product, the Verizon Hub, perhaps the most modern residential phone, is based on the very same idea as when it was first invented, in the years of Alexander Graham Bell.
Technology Brokering can make an impact on any kind of product regardless of its nature. For example, a bar tap handle could be pretty much anything, a stick or piece of metal, a button, etc. However, with the help of IDEO, Sam Adams was able to innovate its bar tap handles. The totally redesigned Sam Adams tap continues to have a similar shape as the others, but Sam Adams’ has a blue fluorescent cover displaying the Sam Adams brand while giving a sense of the elegance and class behind the Sam Adams brand.
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4. Hargadon, A. (2003, November/December). Retooling R&D: Technology brokering and the pursuit of innovation. Ivey Business Journal, 2. Retrieved April 18, 2009, from http://andrewhargadon.com/Release/Hargadon_Ivey_Retooling.pdf
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