Vol. 1 Issue 1
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Exploring Key Concepts in Technology Transfer
By Paul Roman

So far we have established background about the cultural context of technology transfer and some of the fundamental issues that affect movement of innovative ideas from science to practice.   It is now important to gain some clarification of the key terms that govern discourse in the field of technology transfer.  I offer some of the ideas that I have developed over the years. I include an open invitation for others to challenge these notions and offer alternatives.

The first of these defining ideas is that of technology. Few stop to consider this definition when approaching the topic of technology transfer since it seems so basic.  I would argue that in order for something to be regarded as a technology it must include several vital ingredients.  For my purposes, a new technology is a set of procedures or practices, which can be observed, measured, and documented.  There are many ideas that seem to comprise technologies, but which in fact failed to meet these criteria. 

An example in the business world is a very attractive notion that, to the greatest extent possible, employers should try to create a “family-friendly”workplace.  Introducing family-friendliness would appear to be a relatively straightforward process.  Quick examination indicates that there are a multitude of possible definitions of what might be defined as either family or friendly. 

While such a policy might be introduced unilaterally from the top of an organization and sidestep any disagreement, one can imagine the conflict and confusion that would arise in a committee assigned to define these two terms for a particular organization.  Nevertheless, there are a large number of consulting firms and service providers, who will readily offer any company the ”technology” to make it “family-friendly."

- Good Ideas May Not Be Technologies -

Working only from this single example, it is evident that there are many good ideas that are not necessarily technologies, as well as many good ideas which are represented by multiple technologies.  In the substance abuse treatment field, this problem becomes particularly evident when we talk about intervention strategies that are labeled by everyday words.  What is for one therapist or counselor a certain type of counseling approach (group therapy being a perfect example) is very different in the mind of another.  Indeed, following up on this example, we find that if any single practice dominates substance abuse treatment, it is group therapy.

On the other hand, there may be technologies that are not recognized as such.  In this journal, we hope to have the opportunity to address a range of managerial practices that are designed to improve substance abuse and addiction treatment but which are not in any way treatment strategies themselves. 

These focus on improving clinical essentials such as intake, engagement, retention, and attraction to aftercare expectations.  At present, much work is being done to introduce these practices into substance abuse treatment across the nation through several projects, the most prominent being the NIATx project based at the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering.  Increasing the efficiency by which the treatment process is managed, as well as designing and implementing systems that maximize quality in the overall care delivery process indeed involves technology transfer.   As indicated above, however, substance abuse treatment practitioners have become used to thinking about technology transfer only in terms of treatment interventions.

- Defining Innovation -

Innovation seems like a clear-cut and easily understood term, and does indeed have a legal definition from the point of view of the U. S. Patent Office.   Proven uniqueness and novelty are indeed the key criteria for the granting of a patent.  While medications that have been developed to aid in the treatment of addiction are involved with the patenting process, most of the innovations which we consider in the technology transfer process are not patented.  Copyrights are easily obtained for newly published materials, but this is a quite different process than that involving patenting.

So probably the best way to approach the definition of innovation is to think in terms of the recipients, and the degree to which it is novel to these recipients.  We can each think of technologies that could enhance either our personal or organizational lives that have been around for decades, but that we have not adopted.  Most of the steps in the transfer process are not dependent on the novelty of the idea at its source, but rather the novelty of the idea at the point at which we desire utilization.

One of the commonly mistaken ideas about innovations is that their definition as such embeds evidence that they are a statistically significant improvement over existing practices.  This is not a part of their definition, nor is it part of the definition of the widely used and abused term, "evidence-based practices."  This will be a topic discussed at greater length in future issues of this journal.

Innovations have several different interrelationships with existing practices.  They are:

  • Those which are explicitly designed to replace an existing practice.
  • Those that are explicitly designed to be linked to an existing practice.
  • Those that are designed to supplement or bolster an existing practice.
  • Those that are designed for universal application in a practice setting.
  • And, those that address only a portion of those targeted for service delivery.  

Perhaps a simpler way to view these categories is in terms of innovations designed as replacements versus those designed as supplements.

- Communication: The Core of Diffusion -

Diffusion is technically the first step in the actual technology transfer process.  I choose to use this term, although there are many among my colleagues who prefer the term "spread."  That term makes me think of mayonnaise, oleomargarine or an old paint trademark whose aspiration was to cover the world.  It may be however that those who have adopted "spread" as their favorite term far outnumber those of us who stick with the word diffusion.

 At the core of the diffusion process is communication.   The study of communication is the core of several different research disciplines, and we will be examining a great many of these details in future issues of this journal.  Of particular relevance to technology transfer in substance abuse treatment is marketing.    Marketing strategies emphasize an innovation’s most attractive features and attempt to make it appear in its most attractive context for those who are targeted as the potential adopters.  

Obviously this is very challenging when the potential adopters are satisfied with their current practices.  One aspect of this type of marketing is to bring the innovation as close as possible to current practices in order to make it appear minimally threatening to those who may adopt it.   Indeed, successful marketing must make adoption appear as a rewarding experience.   Threat has proven to be a poor strategy.

- Adoption Measurement Difficult -

Adoption seems also to be easily measured, but in point of fact is one of the major problem areas for measurement in technology transfer research.  While there may be disagreements among my colleagues about this definition, I would reserve it for those instances where an innovation has been utilized in an organization.  This definition requires that I accept a single usage as evidence of adoption.  While this is true it need not be a single use, however.  The key point is that even a single use represents a first step in seeing how the innovation works in a particular service delivery setting. 

To a degree adoption can be seen as representing an experimental stage, where three elements are critical: positive outcome, feasibility, and practicality.   From my perspective, these elements are critical for movement to the next phase in the transfer process, but they are not guarantees of such movement.

Implementation may or may not follow from adoption.  Again, with possible disagreement from others, I define evidence of implementation as utilization of the innovation in those instances where it may be regarded as clinically or organizationally appropriate.  It is possible to think of implementation as including several sub-phases, and this will be discussed in greater detail in later issues of this journal. 

- Avoid Confusing Adoption and Implementation -

One cannot expect implementation to occur in a one step process, but there are many organizational contingencies which affect the way in which implementation occurs and how long it takes to occur.  In examining implementation is important to also consider those instances where it stalls or where it leads to discontinuation of use.  The critical point is to avoid confusion between adoption and implementation.

Sustained Implementation is a better term for what is often referred to as sustainability.  Sustainability is a characteristic of an innovation in a particular context and not a description of an organizational behavior.  Sustained implementation indicates that a practice has become routine and is part of the everyday service delivery of the organization, as well as part of the training for new employees, who become part of the clinical team.  There is, however, no guideline for the length of time required for the label of sustained implementation. 

There are other concepts which will become prominent in later discussions in this journal.  In considering this last definition, an interesting paradox arises.  As we think about the overall pattern of organizational encouragement for quality improvement in substance abuse treatment, we must recognize that while we encourage the movement of technology transfer through sustained implementation, every new practice that is introduced, faces the barrier of sustained implementation of earlier practices.   If we follow our own logic in this regard, the success stories of sustained implementation today may become the stories of resistance at some point in the future.

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