Vol. 1 Issue 1
Bridge Pic
Technology Transfer in Manufacturing, Transportation and Communication
By Paul Roman

In this article, I examine some of the features of technology transfer within the core technologies of major work organizations.  In many respects, this is the “beating heart” that has created much of the Western world as we know it today.  This is a very large topic, and may seem like a digression from technology transfer in substance abuse treatment.  It is, however, a very important contextual issue if we are able to broaden our thinking about technology transfer to draw on other literatures and experiences to enrich our understanding of our own efforts. 

The focus here is upon the central outcomes of organizations' productive activities.  It is thus useful to keep these transformations distinct from transfer of techniques of management practices. Technology transfer in management practice, in contrast to treatment or intervention practices, has considerable relevance to the substance abuse treatment industry as well.  The latter topic will be discussed in a subsequent issue.

With the birth, spread and refinement of capitalism, invention and innovation assumed great prominence as an engine of social change.  As was discussed earlier, worlds governed by royalty and tradition had no concept of innovation.  Invention was not encouraged and inventors were often seen as mad fools. 

- Change Was the Exception -

This does not mean the world was changeless.  Changes in social organization could occur through conquests following wars or through natural or man-made disasters.  But, in sharp contrast to today, change was the exception rather than the rule, and it usually involved high mortality and a great deal of transitional pain.

Major social upheavals that involved the replacement of religious and secular authorities, including the Protestant Reformation, led to the emergence of entrepreneurial thinking that in turn led to major change in the organization of economic life.  According to the sociologist Max Weber, Protestantism revolted against the hierarchical organization of the Roman Catholic Church, and less directly, again the notion that people were born into inherently unequal social positions, i.e. royalty vs. the masses. 

Weber’s description of the Protestant ethic as a motivational force behind the growth of capitalism is that all men (women were generally not mentioned) were essentially equal at birth but eventually demonstrated their worth to God by their achievements.  The main measure of such achievements was the accumulation of wealth, but to enhance the likelihood of salvation, one had to combine such accumulation with the demonstration of good works and generosity.  

Further, wealth took on a different meaning, for unlike the earlier royal orders, one did not use wealth for retiring into extravagant pleasure, but persisted in demonstrating virtue through devotion to continuing work, accumulating more wealth and performing more good works.  Thus new forms of values, beliefs and social organization slowly and fitfully emerged.   What was to eventually arise from this thinking was the principle that there are no inborn limits on anyone’s chances to achieve, a principle with which we continue to struggle.

- Social Order Turns Upside Down -

Although it took many centuries, social order in the Western world gradually was turned upside down.  In this new order, especially in America, one could not be born to greatness, but needed to earn it.  Dramatic demonstration that these values are alive and well today occurred during the past year with announcements that the bulk of both the Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway holding company) and the Hilton (hotels) family fortunes will go to good works rather than inheritances.  Without citing the myriad of other examples, there can be little doubt of the continuing value of hard work and strategic achievement as the core of American cultural beliefs.

In many sectors during the early decades of American history, aggressive capitalists enjoyed fast and vast fortunes through monopolies as they were the first to offer a particular new product or service.  These were challenged, relatively quickly, by competition involving either new ideas or the need for extending services to new territories.  Thus the centrality of invention and innovation began, and was quickly evident to be at the heart of achievement.  “Getting the first” was a chance for only a temporary fortune. 

As these changes occurred, entrepreneurship became more evident as both intertwined and drove capitalist achievement.  Entrepreneurialism opened the door for innovation, while at the same time slowly creating the foundation for a system of economic competition where innovation would play a central role. 

Entrepreneurship has multiple meanings, but is perhaps captured uniquely by Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction.”  While embedding new ideas or new applications of old ideas, entrepreneurial approaches succeed through carefully planned but dynamic and changeable strategies. 

- Invention vs. Innovation -

Invention and innovation are not the same thing, and both are tied to entrepreneurialism. As is found in every elementary school history textbook, the marvels of electricity, telegraphy, steam and gasoline engines, railroads, construction equipment, the automobile and the airplane, and finally, the computer technology of today, were the products of inventive genius.  While these inventors continue to be viewed heroes in American history, the numerous steps in the technology transfer process receive little attention except among historians of science and engineering.  

The spread and growth of these inventions is evidence that the transfer of these technologies worked, even though we may not give credit to the heroes who strategically designed the transfer techniques. 

For example, once the telegraph was invented, the question of how signals would be transmitted first led to burying cables in the ground.  This seemed logical and indeed, in the beginning, it worked. 

However, very quickly this technique proved not only highly expensive in terms of digging trenches across rugged landscapes, but also demonstrated its lack of feasibility by the rapid deterioration of wiring in the ground as well as danger of its being accidentally or deliberately cut.   

While it may be difficult to conceive of a roughly finished log as an invention, its being placed upright with a crosstie at the top led to lines of telegraph poles throughout 19th century America.  This means of bringing technology to its users had major consequences in terms of making stable and relatively permanent telegraphic transmission feasible across wide and rugged territories.  The transfer method remained in place to later accommodate electrical and telephonic transmission, although in the late 20th century improved technology rediscovered and re-invented buried transmission lines that are now both effective and widespread.

- Technology Transfer: A Cyclical Process -

This technology transfer was and remains a cyclical process wherein the old is often replaced by the new or in some instances the old remains and is enriched by the new.   Many replaced technologies are remembered only in museums, and in some instances, the ability to implement them gradually disappears from the array of transmitted human skills.

There are several critical defining features of these changes in social order, but of great importance is the fact of competition, and what some might regard as the dark side of invention and innovation.  Interestingly, most of our discussions about evidence-based practices today never mention innovation adoption as a means to generating a competitive edge.  In our own field of expertise, we have never heard anyone talk of treatment organizations using new substance abuse treatment technology to put their competition out of business.

There is an assumption that in our own field, for example, the bottom-line goal of service delivery organizations is enhancement of the public good.  There is also, and perhaps unfortunately, an unspoken assumption that quality will be enhanced by greater standardization and reduced diversification. 

But there can be little doubt that technology transfer and the decision to adopt or not adopt changes in manufacturing, transportation and communication combines to define the directions of our American economy.  It certainly can be seen in fluctuations of the stock market.  Struggles with obtaining energy from sources other than fossil fuel demonstrate these uncertainties.  There can also be little doubt that these transfer processes occurred in environments which were highly competitive and where the winners remain prominent but the losers typically diminish and often disappear.

Going back to my not-unhappy childhood memory of the DuPont Corporation's efforts to better the lives of myself and my friends, it is important to note that these developments occurred in a context of competition that was often very fierce, directed toward eliminating competitors, and frequently resulting in great wealth for a very few.  Most aggressive and competitive companies in manufacturing, transportation and communication had their own laboratories, where they conducted research that was not necessary for the public good but for the good of the parent organization. 

- Patent Process Created -

This was certainly not a willy-nilly process, for to allow innovations to come to market and for the inventors to profit from the fruits of their creativity, the patent process was created.  Thus, there were boundaries around secrecy, but at the same time there was and remains a brisk underground enterprise in spying and espionage that could undermine the competitive edge of the inventor and her sponsors. And it also should be clear that patents are not awarded on the basis of contributions to the public good, or even on the basis of an improvement over an earlier technology, but on the basis of scientific and engineering integrity and originality.

Finally, we would not be straying too far from our mission to generate debate and discussion if we point out that our manufacturing, transportation and communication industries function only partially for the public good, with a generous share of their organizational motivation directed toward their own good.

Thus, as inventions are translated into innovations, new and different products and technologies may not improve the public good, but indeed may undermine it.  As any American consumer should know, the approach to the marketplace of new equipment, services and technologies needs to effectively combine a degree of trust intermingled with some healthy skepticism.  I believe this context is of considerable relevance to technology transfer in substance abuse treatment. 



Return to Top | Back to Home