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Technology Foresight Defined

Editor’s Note: This is the first post of a 3-part series on Technology Foresight.

Lockwood W. Carlson

For companies in markets and industries where technologies play a critical role in business success, a fundamental and critical question underlies all business activity: how to manage technologies, present and emerging, from both inside and outside the company, to enhance competitive position and drive sustainable profitable growth? In some cases, this question is clear and present, while in many other cases, the question is latent and not being asked by the leadership.

Ultimately, the answers to this question involve both business and R&D strategy. But these strategic issues need to be based on an understanding, explicit or implicit, of the current state of the company’s technology and the expectations of future technology developments, both from within and outside the company. This understanding, perspective and outlook on the future can be called Technology Foresight.

From our experience in developing and implementing Technology Foresight activities in several large technology-intensive companies, we have developed a process within the companies’ management and technical groups. Before explaining these, however, Technology Foresight needs a careful definition. The term is non-standard and has several different meanings in different contexts. Synthesizing from several sources: Technology Foresight can be a one-time activity or an ongoing process within the company. It can be done at the single business, group, whole company, or even the industry level. It is the background for forecasting, strategic planning, R&D strategy, and decision-making when linked to the business. Most important, it enables the identification and characterization, in business terms, of major new technology opportunities for the enterprise. Compared to other functions in the business, such as finance, marketing, manufacturing, etc., the future development of technologies is somewhat more predictable and virtually all of the needed information is in the public domain.

When Technology Foresight is an ongoing process rather than a one-time event, it is important to note that the process starts with (and returns to) overall business strategy.  Neglecting to do this will greatly reduce the value of the results and effectively inhibit the ability to articulate the results and actions recommended to the business decision-makers. The results are inherently strategic. Within this context, the process has two distinct parts with different perspectives—insight and foresight (see Figure 1).

Lockwood Carlson is president of Lockwood Carlson Consulting LLC, a Stillwater, Minnesota consulting company that assists clients in technology strategy, the Technology Foresight process, and new business development. He teaches courses in Technology Foresight, R&D management, innovation, strategy, and technology alliances in the Management of Technology program at the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota.

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