Science and Technology Brokering

A student of innovation, Mikko Ahonen, from the University of Tampere, Finland, is conducting his dissertation research on advancing our understanding of technology brokering. He raises a good point in his blog about where technology brokering–in other words, innovating by recombining existing ideas in new ways and for new audiences–does not explain the innovation process. The danger here, of course, is that a theory that applies everywhere applies nowhere well. But in this case, the question is whether technology brokering explains science. I’ve copied my response below:

I have run into the same questions about whether the processes underlying technology brokering can work outside product development. Namely, how general is the recombinant nature of innovation (the ability to put old ideass together in new and valuable ways) and the ability of people to innovate in thei fields by moving ideas from where they are known to where they are not? Put in these terms, technology brokering seems alive and well in many places where the presumptions of ex nihilo invention and discovery are strong.

Indeed, my reading of cognitive psychologists studying analogical reasoning is that the analogy is not just one way we think, it is the only way we think. We make sense of new experiences only by relating them to our old experiences (or the old experiences of others as shared with us…which is why stories and storytelling is so central to life).

Science is filled with examples of brokering. Coumadin, a successful blood thinner, was adapted from Warfarin, a successful rat poison, which was itself borrowed from a mold in sweet clover that was killing cows in Wisconson. Viagra was a originally developed to treat angina (and now is being explored for cardio-pulmonary indications in children. Indeed, the history of pharma is a history of moving compounds across “disease-worlds.” Only recently has technology given us the hubris to think we can invent new therapeutic molecules.

The real challlenge is social, not theoretical. Science likes politics because politicized diseases or crises can shake loose enormous research grants. But those grants seem to go to the large and established school to be spent in large and established labs focused on large and established research fields. How much is being spent on understanding the next sweet clover mold? And more importantly, how much is being spent to ensure that our understanding of the next sweet clover mold is connected to other fields across “science.”

This is an area where our understanding of the micro-mechanics of innovation (how people come up with new ideas and get them adopted) has enormouse implications for technology and science policy.

2 thoughts on “Science and Technology Brokering

  1. I think you inadvertently omitted the link for the Mikko Ahonen blog entry, it’s
    It seems to me the question(s) he was asking is whether technology brokering can be applied to scientific research as well as product development. Specfically
    What motivates people to act as a broker? (Step 2: Acquisition)
    Should personal interest expressions be integrated in idea gathering from other industries (in Step 1: Access)? (A HR and empowerment viewpoint)
    Could creative problem solving CPS tools be integrated in the brokering process (for example in Step 3: Storage) to support continuous and systematic idea gathering?
    Which question sets facilitating reflection, informal learning (Marsick & Watkins, 1990) and perspective making/taking (Boland and Tenkasi, 1995) should be integrated to support the brokering process?
    Which technologies supporting brokering are the most appropriate? (I started prototyping in mobile java J2ME, but now I am curious to integrate blog technologies.)
    ABH– Sean, these are all good questions, and much more focused on actionable items in managing scientific research. I’d love to see these questions fleshed out further… And perhaps hear what Mikko’s working on in this regard.

  2. Good point, Sean, originally I had two separate questions:
    1) What does technology brokering mean in scientific work? (A question originating from prof. Järvinen)
    2) How learning and creative problem solving could facilitate technology brokering?
    1) Customers are not necessarily the main source of ideas in science. More like, research reports and your fellow researchers are the main source of ideas. But…the view of the researcher may get very narrow if he or she only reads certain domain specific literature or visits only those conferences that are related to his/her disciplin. The challenge of brokering in science is: how to effectively exchange views with research/business people who are NOT related to your discipline.
    So, even if you had new insights and new connections, in science research ideas have many obstacles before they are realised. Many disciplines have their own concepts, approved research methods and ‘grounded’ literature. If you break these rules/settings, you often have problems with research funding. Well, creative people take (calculated) risks and building an innovation is always risky business 🙂
    You Andrew had a point: “Science likes politics because politicized diseases or crises can shake loose enormous research grants.” I have not yet seen enormous research grants in science and if there are such grants, they are normally applied to old areas, not innovative ones 😉 True, certain crises like WW2 shifted the focus in science, like it was the case with nuclear physics. For a scientist, it is sometimes uncomfortable to do contract research with trendy topics. Intead, we like to work on areas that are not (yet) popular 🙂
    2) Technology brokering is just one one model among others I am inspecting as part of my PhD work.
    For Tampere eBusiness Research Forum 2005 ( I am currently writing an article. In this article I am discussing how learning and (creative) problem-solving processes could be built in an information system. This article will be ready on the 30th November. You are welcome to check later those EBRF-pages or ask me to send this article.

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