Managing technology: how to look beyond technical issues

Understanding and using technology is different than managing it within an overall business context. Engineers trained to design and build products and applications are now facing added leadership, cultural, financial, and other nontechnical challenges as the traditional control and automation field increasingly overlaps with administrative and business realms.


Understanding and using technology is different than managing it within an overall business context. Engineers trained to design and build products and applications are now facing added leadership, cultural, financial, and other nontechnical challenges as the traditional control and automation field increasingly overlaps with administrative and business realms.

To succeed in these less familiar environments, engineers and other technical professionals must learn new abilities. Faculty in the manufacturing systems and engineering program at the University of St. Thomas' (St. Paul, Minn.) say technical professionals can learn and use numerous skills to survive and thrive in business beyond the narrowing boundaries of their usual disciplines.

Securing new skills

For instance, technology forecasting can help engineers identify likely scenarios in which new technologies may become available. "We can't make exact predictions, but engineers can begin identifying possible opportunities and threats, and then set up procedures for monitoring these environments," says Ron Bennett, director of St. Thomas' manufacturing systems and engineering program. A formal technology forecast can help extrapolate market trends and build cross-impact and trend-impact models to improve crucial business decisions.

Engineers can also carry out a technology transfer report by systematically seeking and evaluating new and useful technologies, and then learning to license and implement them. More and more technical professionals are participating in transfer agreements and other multi-company affiliations in order to keep up with market demands. Because there is often little or no time to innovate alone, well-crafted cooperation is becoming an essential survival strategy.

On the other side of the customer service equation, St. Thomas' professors say engineers can "enhance product realization," or shorten product development cycles, by working more closely with suppliers and consumers. They can also conduct global, concurrent engineering efforts to help streamline development and avoid potential problems, says Mr. Bennett.

Other essential technology management skills emphasized by St. Thomas' faculty include: preparing market entry strategies; analyzing costs in uncertain situations; improving decision making using optimization; conducting risk analyses; managing for improved quality; synchronizing supply chains; understanding information technology needs; understanding intellectual property concepts; and managing innovation, projects and departmental programs.

Necessity drives academics

St. Thomas offers several degrees in manufacturing and technology management, including its new M.S. in Technology Management. Following two years of development, this four-year, 15-semester course program was launched in fall 1998 with 20 students.

"Engineers and manufacturing executives reported they weren't getting the strategic training they needed for themselves and/or their subordinates," says Mr. Bennett "They wanted to be able to accomplish longer term planning in an uncertain environment and be able to deal with galloping changes in their industries, which include product and process technologies, factory automation, and information technology."

Author Information

Jim Montague, news editor,

Mentoring can nurture innovation

One traditional technology management technique that can be useful to engineers involves St. Thomas' use of mentors. Not only must its technology management students be recommended by their company management, but they must also have a mentor from their home organization who isn't in their direct line. These mentors help the students, but they also meet with St. Thomas' instructors and the university's Industry Advisory Board to make sure the program is teaching useful material.

"Mentoring helps professionals cross pollinate, share ideas, and network. It also makes their managers aware of how much they know, and gets them beyond their former roles," says John Povolny, associate director of St. Thomas' manufacturing systems and engineering department. "I was in industry at 3M for 39 years, and I had many mentors. They helped me do more than I thought I could do, often just by asking, 'Have you considered...?'' Today's accelerated control and automation environment may allow little time for mentoring, but seeking answers to a few simple questions could also spark a few crucial innovations.

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