Opportunity Finding

By Jim Euchner, Editor-in-Chief, Research-Technology Management Journal

The medium is the message.

                  – Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan theorized that every new technology (or medium) carries with it an implicit meaning, a set of implications that go beyond its direct, utilitarian purpose. The meaning of the technology plays out over time and shifts the ways that we think about and interact with the world. Thus, technology not only fills needs in today’s world, but also sows the seeds of new needs and desires.

McLuhan explored the meaning of a new technology using a tool he called the “tetrad,” which he used to identify the four implications of any new technology:

  • It obsolesces some things (as the Internet obsolesces mail).
  • It recovers others (as the Internet recovers a sense of community and the “public square”).
  • It amplifies some aspects of our lives (as the Internet amplifies the reach and frequency of communication).
  • It reverses or “flips into” others (as the Internet, at times, flips communication into a stream of superficial drivel).

The ramifications can be far-reaching, stretching out over decades. The automobile is an example of a McLuhanesque technology. It fills a direct need for faster transportation, but its meaning (or message) is freedom, independence, a smaller world. With its wider implications, the automobile created a middle class, spurred the emergence of the suburbs, and gave impetus to a more footloose population. To those able to see them, the opportunities created by the automobile went well beyond the vehicle itself; they touched almost every aspect of people’s lives.

Although at times there may appear to be pauses in progress, the cycle of change is never-ending: technology drives new possibilities for fulfilling current needs and (eventually) spawns entirely new classes of need. Opportunity stands at the intersection of these two, at the nexus of feasibility and need.

Few people have the vision to make these connections, to sense inchoate needs and desires and connect them to the edges of technology’s newest possibilities. Still fewer are able to translate this vision into action in a corporate setting. But when these remarkable individuals succeed, they disrupt the status quo and create whole new industries.

I have known only a handful of such people, and I often wondered whether they were crazy or I was just missing something. It sometimes took years for me to see clearly the meaning they were trying to create. Like most of us, I am often too deeply embedded in a construction of meaning that derives from today’s (and yesterday’s!) technologies. We see clearly how to do better what we already do, but not so clearly how to fill the void of latent, tacit, and truly new needs created by our ever-emergent world.

Corporations have sought tools to make this process more predictable and manageable. The tools they have developed might be called “tools of vision.” This collection highlights a few of the most useful:

Petrick and Martinelli, in “Driving Disruptive Innovation,” provide one approach to systematically seek emergent opportunities. They divide the process into “problem-finding steps” and “problem-solving steps” and present specific tools and techniques for each step, drawn from the authors’ work with Intel. They make clear just how difficult the process is and how much support is required, from leadership and from cross-functional teams, in order to be successful.

Farrington, Hanson, and Crews go into more depth on problem finding in their paper, “Research Foresight: The Use of Strategic Foresight Methods for Ideation and Portfolio Management.” They discuss in some depth PepsiCo’s use of foresight methods to shape the company’s long-term R&D agenda. Three conclusions are clear from their work: any foresight program has to be customized to its context; it is essential to translate the future into actionable points of view; and building support for the findings through engagement and collaboration is as important as getting the right answer.

In “Technology Landscape Mapping,” Spitsberg and colleagues focus on the particular challenges of foreseeing relevant technology trends. The paper, based on Kennametal’s experience, lays out a process for identifying technology trends, assessing their readiness level, and identifying opportunity spaces that they enable. The authors illustrate the method with a specific example of a technology landscape developed for thin coating technology.

Goffin and colleagues address the other side of the equation—the identification of emergent customer needs—in “Beyond the Voice of the Customer.” Describing ethnographic methods for understanding emergent customer needs, they focus on tools for use in contextual interviews and methods for systematizing qualitative observations.

The techniques are illustrated with four case studies from a variety of industries.

It is almost a cliché, but the world of innovation has become kaleidoscopic. Technology has made a stunning array of new offerings possible and, at the same time, created whole new classes of needs and desires that translate into opportunities for those with the vision to see them.

All this is happening in the midst of a competitive environment that is shifting in fundamental ways. Disruption is increasing at a rapid pace, in industries from computing and media to the automotive industry. This rate of change is enabled, in part, by a whole new infrastructure for creating new businesses. A visionary with a good idea can fund the startup phase through crowdfunding platforms, use crowdsourcing to test and refine concepts, leverage manufacturing through distributed supply chains and cloud services, and market through social media. Disruption from outside the corporate walls is easier than it has ever been.

To stay competitive with these lean and nimble upstarts, companies need to get good at identifying new opportunity spaces, moving quickly to innovate within them, and acting decisively to bring innovations to market. The collection of papers in this reprint book should help.

To purchase your copy of this reprint book, visit the IRI Bookstore.

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