Top Technology Management Trends to Watch in 2017

By Greg Holden, Business Writer & Social Media Manager, Industrial Research Institute

The research working groups at the Industrial Research Institute (IRI) take a good, hard look at how they, the practitioners, not academics or theoreticians, approach the everyday management of technology innovation management at large technology companies. These members are on the front lines, doing the real work of managing R&D at some of the world’s largest, most innovative companies. The scholars and subject matter experts who are attracted to IRI, and who volunteer their time to provide support to these working groups, are also interested in the practical applications of their theories at real companies. This is the IRI crowd, and it is vibrant. So when we at IRI see a trend in our web and content analytics, we pay attention. Based on 2016 data, a few trends stood out.

Exciting New Technology Management Buzzwords

Anyone following the news knows there is a cycle of catchy, buzz-sounding terms that spring into existence and then die out. When it comes to technology, however, these buzz terms often transform into new ways of understanding complex topics. For example, “Internet of Things (IoT)” is a term often discussed today as a way of understanding the networks and nodes that collect data from technologies and sensors in the field to better report on and optimize their maintenance and performance (an oversimplification, of course). The idea of IoT emerged in the early 1980s, with the term “Internet of Things” believed to be coined in 1985. The implementation of IoT and its now almost-ubiquitous use by industry is a demonstration of a catchy-sounding idea eventually becoming a way of understanding something very deep and complex that is currently in use today.

Cloud Network
It’s all connected

In tech, these buzzwords are not meant to sell products; they are designed by practitioners who work diligently to explain what they are seeing and experiencing.

Agile is another such “buzzword.” What can probably be traced to the 1950s and Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing framework, Agile began to emerge as a term separate from Lean only in the 1990s with the arrival of several methodologies that, down the road, would get lumped into one basket that would be called “Agile methodologies” today. These included Rapid Application Development (RAD), Rational Unified Process (RUP), Dynamic Systems Development (DSDM), Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP), and a few others. It was only after the publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001 that these methodologies became grouped by the common buzz word of “Agile,” a way of explaining a new approach to development that was less rigid and required more frequent client interaction. Even today, the term “Agile” seems to remain inadequate for capturing this concept as a few researchers are looking at agile hybrid models to explain recent advances in new product development management.

What we see over the past year in terms of what our members are reading are several such buzz terms that we believe represent an emergence of new ways of understanding complex topics. These terms are “Smart Manufacturing,” “Biomimicry,” and “Frugal Innovation.”

1) Smart Manufacturing

Smart manufacturing means many things. Boiled down to its essentials, it represents the injection of intelligence into the manufacturing process. This is accomplished via computer monitoring, data analytics, and the ubiquitous connectivity of sensors and devices. Smart manufacturing allows for the availability of all information regarding the entire manufacturing process to be at hand whenever it is needed, and in a form that is meaningful, so that manufacturing organizations can make rapid adjustments to physical processes to better respond to a dynamic market.

Control Cabinet

The term “smart manufacturing” emerged around 2012 when practitioners and scholars began looking at how big data analytics, modern IT systems, advanced robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have all affected manufacturing ecosystems. The idea that manufacturing is part of an ecosystem is also relatively new (PDF report, see p. 4) and may have led to the emergence of smart manufacturing becoming one of the key terms to explaining what practitioners were seeing and experiencing with the rise of advanced automation technologies and IoT connectivity. It’s all related.

Why We Believe This:

#1 Most Read RTM Article in 2016: “3D Printing Disrupts Manufacturing” by Irene Petrick and Tim Simpson (professors at Penn State)

Top Rated Presentation of IRI’s 2016 Member Summit: “The 21st Century Brilliant Factory” by Stephen Biller (GE’s Chief Manufacturing Scientist)

See Also:

RTM Article: “Rethinking Additive Manufacturing and Intellectual Property Protection” by Thomas Kurfess and William Cass

IRI Annual Meeting Keynote : “Disruptive Technologies in Manufacturing” by Stephen Hoover

IRI Community Forum Discussion: “Barriers to US Manufacturing


2) Biomimicry

While biomimicry is not necessarily a new term, being discussed in several forms as early as the 1960s (see biomimetics, bionics), it began rising in prominence in the mid-1990s when scientist and writer Janine Benyus used it in her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, where she defined biomimicry as the science of observing nature to find solutions to human problems. A topic of several IRI meeting sessions and RTM articles (like this, this, this, and this for example), this term is gaining ground among technology management practitioners as a useful confluence of several ideas: flexible product design, sustainability, and renewability.

Nano Gears

Each of these topics independently has garnered much attention and we believe “biomimicry” may be an attempt to synergize them into a working management framework. The details of that framework are still murky at best, but the idea of using the study of nature to devise better, more renewable and sustainable product designs is growing as a trend and it is one worth watching.

Why We Believe This:

#2 Most Read RTM Article in 2016: “Biomimicry: Streamlining the Front End of Innovation for Environmentally Sustainable Products” by Emily Kennedy (PhD candidate at Akron Univ.) and Thomas Marting (Facilities and Resources Management Director at GOJO Industries)

#3 Top Rated Brown Bag Webinar: Biomimicry: Streamlining the Front End of Innovation for Environmentally Sustainable Products” with Emily Kennedy (PhD candidate at Akron Univ.) and Thomas Marting (Facilities and Resources Management Director at GOJO Industries)

Highly Rated Breakout Session from IRI’s 2016 Annual Meeting: “Leveraging Nature as an Innovation Partner” by Michael Dupee (former VP of Sustainable Innovation at Keurig)

See Also:

What Would Nature Do? The Rise of Biomimicry” by Manny Frishberg (in RTM’s Perspectives column)

The Path to Sustainability-Driven Innovation” by Phil Metz, Sue Burek, Tawnya R. Hultgren, Sam Kogan, and Larry Schwartz


Green Leaf

Special Note: Join a free Brown Bag webinar, February 3, 2017, at noon Eastern: “Biologically Inspired Design for Industry: An Evolving Practice” with Georgia Tech’s Michael Helms, PhD


3) Frugal Innovation (or Reverse Innovation or Innovation Blowback)

This term is not what its name necessarily implies. One might assume that “frugal innovation” means innovating on a tight budget, which is only partially correct (and in a manner that is less related to the organization’s budget than the budget of its customers). But that misses the bigger point of what this type of innovation represents. Frugal innovation is the creation of products and services for markets that may not have the resources to afford them in their standard form. It means creating cheaper items for the less well-off segments of society and then marketing them to the developed world as low-end products. In his keynote address at one of IRI’s Annual Meeting, Vijay Govindarajan explored the topic of “Reverse Innovation,” where companies innovate for the bottom segment of the market, mostly in developing economies, and then scale those products up for the rest of the world instead of vice versa.

Vijay Govindarajan
Vijay Govindarajan

This idea of reverse innovation, however, was described as early as 2005 by John Seely Brown and John Hagel III when they wrote a paper on “Innovation Blowback” that described how the underdeveloped markets of Asia were creating products with the market potential to leapfrog the West. This was because they existed on the edge of the world’s market periphery and therefore matured without much notice by their competition until it was too late. This topic has been a big deal for years because many companies have been doing it, but lacked a way of describing it. These three different, but linked, “buzzwords” are attempts to explain a new trend in how products are made and marketed and how they are changing the product development landscape for R&D managers.

Why We Believe This:

#3 Most Read RTM Article in 2016: “Frugal Innovation in Emerging Markets” by Marco Zeschky, Bastian Widenmayer, and Oliver Gassmann

#2 Top Rated Brown Bag Webinar: “Accelerating Your R&D: How GE is Bringing Better Products to Market Faster and Cheaper” with Mark Little (GE Global Research) and Andrea Kates (GLIDR)

See Also:

Reverse Innovation” by Vijay Govindarajan

Reverse Innovation at Speres” by Simone Corsi, Alberto Di Minin, and Andrea Piccaluga

The Principles of Frugal Innovation” an interview with Navi Radjou

Strategy is Innovation,” [Video] a keynote presentation by Vijay Govindarajan


Are there any other technology management trends worth watching for this year? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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