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Atlas of technological advance: a new tool is being created to help corporate strategists gain technological acumen and awareness.

Long-term corporate course-setting is the ultimate strategic responsibility of corporate leaders. As such, it involves the CEO and the strategy team. Frequently the strategy team also includes members of the corporate board and the executive committee.

Corporate course-setting requires four mental steps:

* Set the strategic agenda.

* Explore the possible.

* Evaluate the probable.

* Envision the profitable.

The first step delineates the potential playing field. What is pertinent to the strategic plan? How far should the minds of the strategists roam? Should they be thinking within the box, i.e., the present strategic space, or out of the box, i.e., a new space? The first step also carries with it an element of evangelical fervor--it must inspire.

The second step involves panoramic environmental scanning. The purpose is to identify individual threats and opportunities within the strategic space chosen.

The third step evaluates these threats and opportunities in relation to the corporation's own competencies. The strategists narrow their interests to what the corporation is capable of pursuing.

The final step requires intuitive synthesis--a flash of insight, a moment of executive enlightenment. The strategy team has to suggest a profitable pathway into the future. It integrates the preceding two steps with the subjective preferences of the corporate leadership.

As can be seen, it is difficult to describe the process explicitly. Parts of it are internal mental activities and not visible to outside observers. Inputs are many, varied, changing, and interrelated. Strategists follow a variety of procedures, and use many information displays--there is no simple algorithm.

The Role of Technology

What is the role of technology in this strategic planning process? Where does it fit?

This depends on the scope of the strategic plan. Is it meek and constrained and merely concerned with functional enhancement? Does it go further? Does it extend into competitive strategy, i.e., beating the competition within an existing industry? Or does it go even further, engaging in aggressive exploration, possibly reformulating the mission and migrating into a new industry?

In this article we focus on the last case--bold and aggressive strategic planning. This includes navigating the turbulent and rapidly changing technological environment.

This is an uncomfortable thought for many companies. The technological universe is so vast, so diffuse and so pervasive, how can it be cast into a simple framework that can be used in an explicit planning process? Increasingly, companies are turning to their technology executives for guidance.

To match the needs of the strategists, technology executives apply to technology the same four mental steps that are used in crafting overall strategy. In other words: set the agenda, explore the possible, evaluate the probable, and envision the profitable. Panoramic technology forethought thus becomes an inescapable task in the strategy formation process.

This need poses many challenges. The greatest of these is deciding which aspects of technology to include in, and which to leave out of, the strategic agenda. Faced with a vast mosaic of diverse technological phenomena, technology executives have to pre-think what to explore.

This is not a task for an unprepared mind. Strategists need to be technologically edified. They need technological acumen and awareness. They also need special tools. This is where the Atlas of Technological Advance comes in.

An Atlas for Technology Explorers

All explorers use atlases. Geographic atlases are particularly good examples. They provide useful lessons for technology explorers.

Geographic atlases are concise, coherent and comprehensive. They start with a one-page overview of the entire globe, a world map. This is then followed by three or so depictions of major areas, like the American region, the Euro-African region and Asia. Next they zoom in on particular details.

It is important to understand the true nature of atlases. They are human creations involving artistry and subjectivity. They are representations of reality, not reality itself. They spell out what to look for, but are not inventories of what will be found. Almost inevitably, they become out of date the moment they are produced. Traditionally atlases were printed, increasingly they are expressed in software.

A number of technology executives, receiving professional support from Technoscan[R] Centre, have taken note of the example of geography and expressed the need for a set of technology explorers' maps to help them survey the technological frontier. The idea arose of an Atlas of Technological Advance. Drawing on earlier academic research and on resources worldwide, an informal team was called upon to contribute elements to the Atlas. The team currently includes the co-authors of this article and approximately 20 contributors from industry and academia.

Again noting the geographical example, we sought a format that would be concise, coherent and comprehensive.

It had to reflect three phenomena:

* The technological totality.

* Major constituent fields.

* Advances within each field.

The team soon realized that their Atlas could not use pictures of physical phenomena as geographic atlases do. It had to rely more on words and graphs.

Depicting the technological totality and major constituent fields

To depict the technological totality and its major constituent fields, the compilers explored various formats. The team turned to available listings and tables. They considered three candidates.

The first candidate is the extremely popular listing of technologies in terms of scientific themes. International and national policy-makers use this list. These include the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Ten to twenty themes are normally mentioned. Typical themes are: nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials technology, space technology and so on.

While this list has the advantage of popularity, it does not have a formal structure. It does not demarcate a technological totality. It does not have a defined outer boundary. Also the various themes do not have clear internal boundaries. They overlap. The thematic approach turned out to be insufficiently robust for the compilers.

The second candidate is the listing of technologies in terms of the economic sectors they reside in. This listing uses the International Standard Industrial Classification (ISIC), or the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS). In the case of ISIC it differentiates 20 economic sectors. Examples include: agriculture; forestry and fishing; mining and quarrying; manufacturing; transportation; electricity, gas and water; services, etc.

While this list has the advantage of a formal structure derived from economics, and while it offers a demarcated totality, its link to technology is tenuous. Technologies cross many economic boundaries. Also, the number of economic sectors is large. And while investment houses and technology planners frequently use the listing, it is not suitable for atlas-making. It is too cumbersome.

The third candidate is the functionality grid. (1,2). This format is well known within the management of technology (MOT) community and is well rooted in the philosophy of technology. And while it has been part of technological knowledge for the past 30 years, it is not yet in extensive use throughout society.

The grid describes nine fundamental functionalities that underpin all industrial activity (see Figure 1). The functionalities represent the various ways in which technological activities transform physical reality. Three aspects of physical reality are affected; Matter (M), Energy (E) and Information (I). They are affected in three ways, Processing, Transporting and Storing.


The grid meets the three requirements for an atlas of technological advance. It demarcates a technological totality, it subdivides the totality into major fields, and it offers the potential for further subdivision. It is a practical and useful template.

Depicting technological advance

To depict advances within each field, the compilers used well-known metrics of continuous technological innovation. A variety of graphic forms are available to reflect these metrics.


A popular example is the S-curve--a time-related graph of a technology performance parameter. It also contains indications of the various constraints that modify the pace of advance. An example of an S-curve is given in Figure 2. It reflects the increase in magnetization and is an example of the advance in energy storing (3).

The structure of the Atlas of Technological Advance is depicted in Figure 3. Similar to a geographic atlas, the Atlas begins with a one-page overview that sets out the major trends in technological evolution. It then breaks down into more detail covering the three regions, M, E and I, and eventually fragments into numerous illustrative trends using S-curves and related metrics.

As stated previously, atlases are human creations reflecting subjectivity and artistry. Our Atlas is no exception. At the present stage of development, about 100 S-curves and illustrations have been documented to help participants visualize the innovation frontier. Sometimes these S-curves are the outcome of diligent research, sometimes they are created on the basis of limited evidence only. The compilers strive for comprehensive coverage, even if the data bases are tenuous.

Using the Atlas

The major role of the Atlas is to help executives set the strategic agenda and inspire panoramic technological exploration. Executives use it to become familiar with the scope and composition of the technological universe, and to alert themselves to major potential thrusts therein.

It is difficult to illustrate adequately the use of the Atlas in a brief article. It is software-based, in hyper-map format and quite extensive. In practice, executives browse the Atlas, trace the links between technologies, and get to know unmet needs. They then use it as a foundation for organized exploration. Its principal value lies in the context it provides.

In a typical corporate exercise, participants familiarize themselves with about 50 technologies, ranging across the entire technological spectrum. Executives imagine the technological frontier and possible developments in each case. Figure 4 illustrates the range of possible technologies, and offers individual examples.

Executives would then embark on a process of exploration, seeking to broaden the range of topics and to uncover specific developments in individual cases. In the present article we do not illustrate this activity fully but, rather, consider only one case and formulate a short list of expectations. We consider permanent and electromagnets--in terms of the functionality grid a magnet is an energy store.

In M-processing, explorers would be on the lookout for the development of new applications for magnets. The use of magnets in ore-sorting would be a case in point. In the case of M-transportation, explorers would look for increases in the effectiveness of magnetic levitation and its diffusion into new areas. In the case of M-storage, explorers may seek the emergence of magnetic preservation.

Turning to E-processing, improved magnets will generate the potential for further advances in electric motors. In the case of E-transmission, magnets offer an intriguing potential for the wireless transmission of electricity. And in the case of E-storage, super-magnetic-energy storage (SMES) merits observation.

As far as I-Processing is concerned, explorers could look for more capable cell phones facilitated by better magnets. They would look for evidence of the systematic march toward a "universal interface" combining the functionality of telephony, computing, geographic positioning, image capture and manipulation, as well as many other functions. In the case of I-transmission, better magnetic inductance suggests a possible competition with short-range wireless such as Blue Tooth. Finally, more powerful magnets yield better I-stores. Hard disk drives are a case in point.

Based on structured anticipation, technology explorers would then organize a systematic scan to identify high-potency technologies, to evaluate their relevance to corporate competencies, and to seek growth opportunities. Strategists would use these technological inputs, together with other strategic inputs, to "envision the profitable." This is a most important call in long-term survival. A topic in its own right, it merits a separate discussion that will have to be done elsewhere.

Status of the Atlas

At the theoretical level, the Atlas of Technological Advance needs further scrutiny. Four questions come to mind:

1. How viable is the notion of a strategic planning process that involves aggressive exploration and may lead to mission modification?

2. Is the idea of the technological totality (the technological universe) an acceptable conceptual construct?

3. How valid is the functionality grid as a representation of this totality?

4. Is an Atlas a sufficiently digestible body of knowledge that can be used effectively in the strategic planning process?

We would welcome comments from the academic and industrial worlds.

At the operational level, the prototype has to be evaluated as well. How does it shape up in a practical strategic planning setting?

At present a consortium of participating companies is using the Atlas experimentally. Potential participants are given the opportunity of perusing the Atlas first. If they are interested in using it they are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. The Atlas is then made available for an agreed-to fee.

To maintain contact with a growing circle of professionals, we offer a once-a-month Newsbrief reviewing additions to and modifications of the Atlas.

There is also evidence of wider interest in the Atlas. The International Association for Management of Technology chose the Atlas as the theme for a keynote at its 2007 conference (4). The CFA Institute, an organization of investment professionals, recently added the theme "Judging the technological strength and potential of companies" to the list of offerings in its Professional Development Program. The offering uses a Technology Assessment Template that can draw on the Atlas (5). And the latest Newsletter of the European Association for the Transfer of Technologies, Innovation and Industrial Information (TII) contains an article, based on the Atlas, entitled "Green goals and technological perfection" (6).

A Final Thought

In the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator formulated a novel strategic agenda, i.e., developing sea-links to distant continents. He gathered around him the leading geographic atlas-makers of the time. They helped him plan the exploratory voyages that revealed the geographic reality we know today.

Today we are on a new exploratory journey--to discover opportunities offered by the continually expanding technological frontier. At this stage, the world does not seem to have a Prince Henry for technology. May he, or she, emerge soon. In the meantime, the atlas-makers will be honing their skills.


(1.) Van Wyk, Rias J. 2004. Technology--A Unifying Code. Stage Media Group, Cape Town, p. 34.

(2.) Ropohl, G. 1979. Eine Systemtheorie der Technik. Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich and Vienna, p. 178.

(3.) Van Wyk, R. J., Haour, G. and Japp, S. 1991. Permanent magnets: A technological analysis. R&D Management Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 301308.

(4.) International Association for Management of Technology (IAMOT). 2007. Atlas of Technological Advance, Keynote Address. 16th International Conference, Miami, Florida, May. http:// www.iamot, org

(5.) CFA Institute,

(6.) Van Wyk, Rias J. 2007. Green goals and technological perfection. Focus, No. 1. European Association for the Transfer of Technologies, Innovation and Industrial Information (TII) Luxembourg.

Rias van Wyk is the director of Technoscan[R] Centre in Edina, Minnesota, which charts innovation along the technological frontier. Formerly the director of the Management of Technology Program at the University of Minnesota, he has an M.P.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Bob Karschnia is the vice president of wireless for the Rosemount Measurement Division of Emerson Process Management. Previously he worked on the development of control systems at Compressor Controls' Corporation and Lockheed Martin. He has a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Minnesota, and an M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado.

Wayne Olson is a technology advocate, supporting multiple initiatives in the materials science and nanoscience fields. Most recently he was vice president of microenvironments process products at Entegris Inc. Previous appointments included vice president of engineering and technology, where he led Entegris' technology scanning and roadmapping initiatives. He received his B.S. in chemical engineering and M.B.A. from the University of Minnesota.
Figure 1.--Functionality grid describes nine fundamental
functionalities that represent the various ways in which
technological activities transform matter, energy and
information (1,2).


 Process Transport Store

 Matter Transforming Moving Keeping
 (M) substances substances substances

Output Energy Generating Distributing Holding
 (E) energy energy energy

 Information Composing Sending Saving
 (I) messages messages messages

Figure 4.--In a typical corporate exercise, Atlas users could
investigate these nine frontier technologies.


 Process Transport Store

 Matter Shape shifting Magnetically Intelligent
 (M) structures levitated vehicles packaging

Output Energy Hybrid Solar Super-
 (E) engines tubes magnets

 Information Pervasive Universal Flash
 (I) sensors interface (UI) memories
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Author:van Wyk, Rias; Karschnia, Bob; Olson, Wayne
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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