Identifying the meso organisations that strengthen technological capability

This article is from the Mesopartner Annual Reflection 2019 (Cunningham, 2019). In this article, I explore how one could go about to discover the network of meso organisations in a country that helps the private and the public sector to strengthen technological capability.

During the past year, Mesopartner has been working with the Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) and the Department of Trade and Industry (the dti) in South Africa to develop a strategy to identify and respond to discontinuous technological change (see Article 11 in this Annual Reflection). As part of this research, we developed an approach to map the technological landscape of meso organisations that can assist South African enterprises and government programmes to adapt to technological change.

First, we developed a framework to identify meso organisations and functions. Various typologies were evaluated that could be used to classify, measure and manage the performance of those organisations involved in technology dissemination or building technological capability. We started with four typologies of public technology diffusion proposed by the OECD (1997) that are based on operational focus:

  • Supply-driven: programmes to transfer and commercialise technology from government research programmes to private enterprise, both high-tech and low-tech. It also involves education, skills development and standards.
  • Demand-driven: these initiatives start with a diagnosis or the perspective of enterprises and aim to respond to the challenges or opportunities faced by private enterprises. These could be aimed at plugging specific performance, technology and capability gaps in the enterprises and are often focused on smaller businesses.
  • Network-based: these are often sub-national or regional, and are aimed at creating or strengthening bridging effects, inter-firm partnerships in promoting information flows, and the diffusion of technology. Examples are cluster promotion, strengthening of industry or business associations, and fostering collaboration around skills development, research and development, or the development of shared infrastructure.
  • Technological capability dialogue, adaptation and socio-technical infrastructure building: these intentional initiatives are aimed at working on a system-wide level to upgrade the technology diffusion capability of the national system of innovation within the context of global and regional economic and technological change and opportunities. This is often in the form of dialogue and reflection about why certain initiatives are not yielding the expected results, or why certain industries are not striving to increase their innovation, use of technology or competitiveness. An example is the effort by several government departments to collaborate in a national digitalisation strategy, or the effort around the mining and ocean economy in South Africa in the past few years.

Some of these organisations are created to enable international trade. An example is the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS) and other organisations involved in South Africa’s technical infrastructure. Other domestic organisations could be created to support a shift in the economy through a supply-side focus, such as the National Cleaner Production Centre, which provides technical support and training to the manufacturing sector. Programmes and functions established through industrial, innovation, education or technology policies should also be assessed as part of the framework.

As we started identifying and mapping the meso organisations, we realised that two critical types of actors were not captured by the typology we created:

  • Private actors that provide public goods or mixed goods, such as technology demonstration, training and the provision of technology modules in open-source formats. For instance, Siemens in South Africa provides demonstration facilities and accredited technical training courses to the public.
  • Intermediaries or facilitators in the system that broker relationships between different meso organisations and other actors. They may do this as part of another mandate, or they may be set up for this purpose. For instance, in South Africa, there is a huge education crises. A range of non-governmental organisations has emerged that provide important services to the marketplace and the public sector. Many of these organisations conduct research, provide lecturer training, develop training content in open-source format, mobilise public and private stakeholders into collaborative projects and provide public information on shortcomings in the education system. These organisations are critical to overcome coordination failures and to strengthen information flows between different actors in different spheres of society. However, in a typical meso mapping exercise these, organisations could be overlooked or ignored because the public sector or development cooperation partners may see them as interfering in functions that should be provided by the public sector.

International organisations, consultancies and programmes should also be considered in this framework. For instance, as part of executing its commission with various clients, Mesopartner often plays an intermediary role connecting various meso organisations, policymakers, researchers and leading firms to strengthen dialogue or joint decision making, or supporting collaboration. Other organisations that advise industries and governments and create publicly accessible advisory content should also be included.

A challenge that many developing countries face is that meso organisations have to work hard at creating capabilities that should have already existed five years ago, while trying to keep abreast of new international and domestic shifts that require new management capabilities, human resources, technologies and strategies. Not only the private sector can be overwhelmed or paralysed by competing technological choices, but public sector management can suffer the same symptoms. This means that in the framework provision should be made to differentiate between basic (or fundamental) offerings and future-oriented or more advanced offerings. This is not an additional kind of organisation, but it could be different functions provided by the same organisations

While some organisations may be more important for improving the productivity and competitiveness of incumbent firms, others may be more relevant for lowering entry barriers to new start-ups and investors. Even if new start-ups lack market access or technological experience, in a dynamic environment their different knowledge and unique technological capability may put them at less of a disadvantage than the incumbents.

Some meso organisations may be hard to classify because they offer diverse services to different beneficiaries. For instance, universities often play an essential role in lowering the costs of gaining access to new knowledge, codified knowledge and research. At the same time, a university may offer industry access to scarce equipment on a pay-per-use basis, while a university laboratory may offer certification or analytical services to another research group. Or a research programme based at a university may be a sophisticated client to a private enterprise that specialises in advanced equipment, while the same enterprise may be dependent on post-graduate students from the university. Some of these relationships and interdependencies are impossible to map without deep insight into how knowledge, technological ideas and people flow between organisations in the public and the private sectors. Yet it is possible for the same organisation to show up in different typologies, in different markets served, or in multiple roles.

Next year we will have to try and figure out how to map these organisations without making it overly complicated and difficult to use, maintain and adapt.

Notes:

This article is an output of our Mesopartner research theme on technological change and the changing role of the meso landscape. For more information on this theme or to become involved head over to the Mesopartner Research Theme page.

To stay abreast of my research, please sign up for my personal newsletter here.


Dr Shawn Cunningham

Sources

CUNNINGHAM, S. 2019. Identifying the Meso organisations that strengthen technological capability. Mesopartner Annual Reflection 2019

OECD. 1997. Diffusing technology to industry: government policies and programmes.

Becoming better at tracking how technologies change over time

The subject of how technologies evolve over time have been receiving a lot of attention over the last 40 years. Actually, much of the research work done in the late 80s and 90s are still relevant today. With all the talk of the fourth industrial revolution, the attention has shifted towards innovations coming from elsewhere away from what do we have to do in our own organisation to improve our performance, offer our clients amazing value, and to create the future we want to be part of.

I am working with several think tanks, research organisations and policy advisors to help governments and key meso-organisations to become better at tracking technological change and potential disruptions. This work draws on my experience of supporting industry and innovation systems diagnostic processes as well as my experience in supporting organisation development and change.

To be better able to predict technological disruptions meso organisations and policymakers must become much better at anticipating future demands. That means they have to shift from being demand responsive (in other words waiting for the private sector to clearly articulate what they need) to anticipating what is needed. This requires a deep understanding of how user needs are changing (market knowledge), but also of how key technological capabilities in the industries they serve are changing (technological knowledge).

The challenge here in South Africa is that most of the organisations that are supporting innovation and technological change are focused on fixing the past. Due to our countries past, they are trying to get marginalised people (women, the youth, black entrepreneurs) into the mainstream economy. These disadvantaged groups need a lot of support because they are expected to compete against incumbents who have access to capital, suppliers and markets.

This research agenda has three pillars:

  1. Figure out how well South Africa is doing in terms of technological change. Which sectors are changing faster, where is productivity and manufacturing value add improving, and where are we falling behind? This area of research is also about mobilising sector organisations, like industry associations or a whole range of meso organisations supporting the private sector to become better at tracking technological change.
  2. Make the landscape of technological support organisations more visible. These organisations can assist both the private and the public sector to embrace, experiment with or adapt to technological change. A next step would be to make sure that these organisations are incentivised to disseminate technological knowledge and that they are not only measured on how they assist individual enterprises or technology transfer projects.
  3. The third pillar is to improve the dynamism in how public sector organisations work together and collaborate with the private sector to promote industrialisation, upgrading and innovation. This is an essential ingredient to strengthen the countries technological capability, to reduce coordination costs and to foster healthy and pro-active public goods that encourage entrepreneurs to search and discover new economic opportunities.

The current research agenda is not yet comprehensive but for me the synergies between these three pillars are great. It is about technological change, about making sense, about promoting innovation within and between organisations and also about strengthening meso organisations.

REPOST: The difference between academic and industrial science

In the last 5 years I have posted my blog articles on the topics around my work. I re-use many of these articles in my ongoing consulting and training work. Below is an article that I originally posted on 20 August 2011. This is one of the popular posts on my blogsite that was posted before I had the current following.

For my frequent readers, please forgive my trip down the archives!

One of my favourite authors on the topic of science is the late John Ziman. Ziman played an important role in popularising science and its role in the technological evolution of societies.  

In his last book, Real Science, he made an important distinction between science in academia, and science in industry. This is relevant to me because I am assisting universities to conduct more relevant scientific research that will benefit industry. At the same time I am assisting industries to intensify their scientific research.

According to Ziman, academic science works towards the Mertonian norms introduced by Robert K Merton in 1942, also known as CUDOS. Merton advanced our understanding of the ethos of the scientific process. I like Ziman’s (2000) discussion of the Mertonian principles. CUDOS is as an acronym that denotes good academic research and stands for:

  • Communalism – fruits of academic science should be public knowledge (belongs to the whole scientific community), and the communication and dissemination of results are as almost as important as the research itself,
  • Universalism – researchers and scientists relate to each other regardless of the rank and experience of the researcher. The norm of universalism requires that scientific findings are evaluated objectively regardless of the status, race, gender, nationalism or any other irrelevant criteria,
  • Disinterestedness – academic scientists have to be humble and disinterested. Work is done in a neutral, impersonal and is often recorded in the passive voice. It disassociates with the personal or social problems, and focus on advancing knowledge or solving a very specific problem in an almost clinical way.
  • Originality – every scientist is expected to contribute something new to the archive, while building on the knowledge of predecessors. Unfortunately this also sometimes constrains how creative academic research can become. “new” could mean new data, questions, methods and insights.
  • Scepticism – This norm triggers important brakes on scientists, as it involves critical scrutiny, debate, peer review and contradiction before being accepted. It is important as it deepens understanding and knowledge from different research perspectives, and should not seen as being completely negative, rather it should be seen as being necessary.

 

Industrial science works towards what Ziman (2000:78-79) calls PLACE:

  • Proprietary – the knowledge is not made public (or at least as little as necessary is made public),
  • Local – it is focused on local technical problems rather than on increasing general understanding,
  • Authoritarian – Industrial researchers act within a hierarchy and must work to please senior management, in other words, it is not serendipitous,
  • Commissioned – it is undertaken to achieve practical goals rather than to just improve knowledge, and
  • Expert – industrial researchers are employed as expert problem solvers, rather than for their personal creativity and writing or teaching skills.

 

Ziman argues that when universities undertake contract research for industry, they somehow cross the boundaries between these two approaches to research. For instance, industry is more interested in solving a specific technological challenge and would prefer that senior researchers work on a problem. In the last 50 years it has increasingly become necessary for universities to raise 3rd stream income, so it a universally accepted practice that universities undertake research for and in cooperation with industry.  However, a university must prioritise the development of interns and junior researchers (and achieve other social goals). Furthermore, industry may not be interested in registering a patent (immediately), otherwise their secrets gets shared with the whole world. Academic researchers on the other hand, are expected to deliver publications when they cannot deliver patents or licenses, thus there is another conflict of their objectives. Perhaps a last comment is that universities are under pressure to solve social problems that are deemed “relevant” by prevailing political pressures, while industry prefer to solve problems that are immediate, relevant and that may even be in contrast with the desires of the prevailing political and social debates. Practically this means that at the moment industry may need to automate to remain competitive, thus incurring job losses, while government and the society may be demanding job creation for people with little or no technical education.

 

Universities must understand this tension, and must operate within and between different modes of conducting research. Current legislation perhaps assumes one standard approach to university research, that always results in something that can be published and or patented (licensed), and it further assumes that the value (and cost) or research is known at the time of start of the research or after completion. Practical experience indicates that this is not always the case. Sometimes the value of research only becomes apparent when it faces market forces.

 

Sources:

ZIMAN, J.M. 2000.  Real Science: what it is, and what it means. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ZIMAN, J.M. 2003.  Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

The difference between academic and industrial science

One of my favourite authors on the topic of science is the late John Ziman. Ziman played an important role in popularising science and its role in the technological evolution of societies. We have some of his books on our Mesopartner bookstore (You can also click on the images on the right of the screen) .

In his last book, Real Science, he made an important distinction between science in academia, and science in industry. This is relevant to me because I am assisting universities to conduct more relevant scientific research that will benefit industry. At the same time I am assisting industries to intensify their scientific research.

According to Ziman, academic science works towards the Mertonian norms introduced by Robert K Merton in 1942, also known as CUDOS. Merton advanced our understanding of the ethos of the scientific process. I like Ziman’s (2000) discussion of the Mertonian principles. CUDOS is as an acronym that denotes good academic research and stands for:

  • Communalism – fruits of academic science should be public knowledge (belongs to the whole scientific community), and the communication and dissemination of results are as almost as important as the research itself,
  • Universalism – researchers and scientists relate to each other regardless of the rank and experience of the researcher. The norm of universalism requires that scientific findings are evaluated objectively regardless of the status, race, gender, nationalism or any other irrelevant criteria,
  • Disinterestedness – academic scientists have to be humble and disinterested. Work is done in a neutral, impersonal and is often recorded in the passive voice. It disassociates with the personal or social problems, and focus on advancing knowledge or solving a very specific problem in an almost clinical way.
  • Originality – every scientist is expected to contribute something new to the archive, while building on the knowledge of predecessors. Unfortunately this also sometimes constrains how creative academic research can become. “new” could mean new data, questions, methods and insights.
  • Scepticism – This norm triggers important brakes on scientists, as it involves critical scrutiny, debate, peer review and contradiction before being accepted. It is important as it deepens understanding and knowledge from different research perspectives, and should not seen as being completely negative, rather it should be seen as being necessary.

 

Industrial science works towards what Ziman (2000:78-79) calls PLACE:

  • Proprietary – the knowledge is not made public (or at least as little as necessary is made public),
  • Local – it is focused on local technical problems rather than on increasing general understanding,
  • Authoritarian – Industrial researchers act within a hierarchy and must work to please senior management, in other words, it is not serendipitous,
  • Commissioned – it is undertaken to achieve practical goals rather than to just improve knowledge, and
  • Expert – industrial researchers are employed as expert problem solvers, rather than for their personal creativity and writing or teaching skills.

 

Ziman argues that when universities undertake contract research for industry, they somehow cross the boundaries between these two approaches to research. For instance, industry is more interested in solving a specific technological challenge and would prefer that senior researchers work on a problem. In the last 50 years it has increasingly become necessary for universities to raise 3rd stream income, so it a universally accepted practice that universities undertake research for and in cooperation with industry.  However, a university must prioritise the development of interns and junior researchers (and achieve other social goals). Furthermore, industry may not be interested in registering a patent (immediately), otherwise their secrets gets shared with the whole world. Academic researchers on the other hand, are expected to deliver publications when they cannot deliver patents or licenses, thus there is another conflict of their objectives. Perhaps a last comment is that universities are under pressure to solve social problems that are deemed “relevant” by prevailing political pressures, while industry prefer to solve problems that are immediate, relevant and that may even be in contrast with the desires of the prevailing political and social debates. Practically this means that at the moment industry may need to automate to remain competitive, thus incurring job losses, while government and the society may be demanding job creation for people with little or no technical education.

 

Universities must understand this tension, and must operate within and between different modes of conducting research. Current legislation perhaps assumes one standard approach to university research, that always results in something that can be published and or patented (licensed), and it further assumes that the value (and cost) or research is known at the time of start of the research or after completion. Practical experience indicates that this is not always the case. Sometimes the value of research only becomes apparent when it faces market forces.

 

Sources:

ZIMAN, J.M. 2000.  Real Science: what it is, and what it means. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ZIMAN, J.M. 2003.  Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.