Technology: what do we mean?

In development practice reference is often made to technology as being about hardware (equipment) and software. “Software” is borrowed from information technology to mean the invisible stuff that makes things work, in other words knowledge especially in its coded (tacit) form. This is clumsy. There is a close relationship between innovation and technology, and that is why this confusion matters and should be addressed.

Frequently, innovation is thought of as a new product or hardware artefact, or an improved process made possible by new technology. This error limits technology to hardware, and neglects the other aspects of technology.  It is necessary to understand technology from a much broader perspective.

As alluded to earlier, the narrow definition of technology refers to technical artefacts or hardware (with some supporting documents and instructions). However, complementary factors, without which the employment of technical artefacts makes no sense, are above all qualification, skills and know-how (of the people who work with artefacts), and organisation (i.e. the process of tying artefacts into social contexts and operational sequences). The organization part refers to being able to optimize the way the technology is integrated into other processes, and also how other processes must be changed to exploit the advantages of the new organization.

Meyer-Stamer (1997) formulates three conclusions based on the definition provided above:

(1)    Technology should not be seen in isolation from the environment in which it emerges, or from the organisational structures in which it is used. Technology does not come about in a vacuum; it always develops in concrete social contexts. It is therefore never neutral, and is always developed on the basis of given (economic, social, political) interests.

(2)    Technology often embodies organisational factors. A closed process in the chemical industry or a production line in the metal-processing industry, for instance, consists not only of technical knowledge of individual processing sequences, it also implies organisational knowledge about possible transitions between these sequences.

(3)    Any narrow definition of technology, looking at hardware only, accompanied by the view and approach that go along with it, can thus be tantamount to a guarantee that projects will fail – in development cooperation no less than in many international high-tech corporations.

In the discussion on development policy and the field of development cooperation in recent years, there has been a general acceptance of the broad definition of technology, one that does justice to the problems outlined here. This definition includes four components originally described by Enos (1991:169) illustrated in the image on the right:

(1)    Technical hardware, i.e. a specific configuration of machines and equipment used to produce a good or to provide a service.

(2)    Know-how, i.e. scientific and technical knowledge, formal qualifications and tacit knowledge.

(3)    Organisation, i.e. managerial methods used to link hardware and know-how that includes integrating all the elements into an organization.

(4)    The product, i.e. the good or service as an outcome of the production process.


The advantage of the broad definition is that it can help to avoid barren discussions in that it prevents, for instance, any equating of technical artefacts with technology. To this extent it mirrors experience gained, for example, in development cooperation – in view of this definition it is obvious that technology cannot be transferred in package form by for instance combining hardware with manuals and some field training. At the same time it is, against this background, easier to comprehend that technology is involved whenever production goes on – even when seemingly primitive technical artefacts are utilised in the process, for “no country is without technology, not even the most primitive” (Enos, 1991:169). So even a simple manual activity like using a shovel to dig a deep hole involves multiple elements and processes of different technologies. However, the absorptive capacity of countries, regions within countries and between different firms differs vastly.

Practically speaking, this means that practitioners must be careful when describing technology in relation to hardware that they do not neglect the other dimensions. For instance, when trying to understand where ‘new technology’ comes from in a value chain, make sure that respondents are not only identifying equipment suppliers. A second line of enquiry may be to get respondents to consider other kinds of technology related to know-how, or how to configure a specific process or organisation.

If a broader definition of technology is accepted, it becomes clear that there is a close relationship between technology and various forms of knowledge and also between technology and learning.


ENOS, J. 1991.  The creation of technological capability in developing countries. New York: Pinter.

MEYER-STAMER, J. & DEUTSCHES INSTITUT FÜR ENTWICKLUNGSPOLITIK. 1997.  Technology, competitiveness and radical policy change : the case of Brazil. London ; Portland, OR: Frank Cass.


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Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

0 thoughts on “Technology: what do we mean?”

  1. Dear Shawn. Your post on technology reminds me of work done by economist Ricardo Hausmann, of Harvard Univeristy, and César Hidalgo, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They follow the same line that technological artifacts (as you call them) alone do not lead to development, but that many other factors are involved, especially one factor they call ‘productive knowledge’. With a couple of other authors, they just released a book called ‘The Atlas of Economic Complexity’. Hausmann et al. navigate in what they call ‘product space’ and try to explain the development of nations. This might give you some new food for thought on your work with the industry in RSA.

    Here are some links to their resources:
    The Atlas of Economic Complexity:
    Economist article on the Atlas:
    Hidalgo’s website:
    Post on the Atlas on the ‘aid on the edge’ blog:

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