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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 1.3 (2003) vii-x

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In This Issue

Technology transfer is a complex social process. Although transfer implies a process both mechanistic and impersonal, nothing could be farther from the truth. Efforts to move technology from bench to market encounter many obstacles and risks, including market conditions, organizational complexities, communication challenges, and regulatory environments. Such activities constitute an interactive process with organizational, social, and ethical implications. Frequently, the focus of attention downplays these circumstances, highlighting instead successful stories of technology transfer. Experienced business executives are presumed to have knowledge that helps them to plan, implement, and seek feedback concerning technology transfer activities. Yet if transfer were easy to accomplish, there would be little need for special offices in federal and state government agencies and universities, economic incentives for private sector firms, or special programs to encourage development and transfer.

In this issue of Comparative Technology Transfer and Society, several articles focus our attention on the difficulties that lie in the path of technology transfer activities. Engineers have long recognized that it can be possible to learn much more from failures than from successes (Petroski, 1985). We agree, and approach the issue of success and failure in technology transfer from several directions. A couple of approaches focus on activities in the business and private sectors, a stance appropriately in line with the questions and emphasis outlined by W. Benjamin Martz and Gary Klein in the Editors' overview (The Metronome of Technology Transfer) that opens this issue. Attention to these real-world issues reflects the journal's stated goal of bringing together the viewpoints of both academics and practitioners concerned with transfer and diffusion. Yet that is not our only point of departure, and the cases presented here examine situations where technology transfer did not go as planned in a range of institutional settings, industries, and eras from World War II to the present. Taken together, the content of this issue redirects the study of technology transfer from a primary focus on process design factors to a primary focus on dealing with process context factors. Among the critical questions that emerge are these:

  • Can we specify the project design, implementation, and feedback characteristics needed to create payoffs by changing people's attitudes and behavior?
  • With respect to project design, can we discover the keys to successful problem appreciation, specify the change desired, forecast the steps involved, identify probable constraints and opportunities, and select from alternative paths?
  • With respect to project implementation, can we identify the mechanisms required to change the process and stabilize the outcomes?
  • With respect to strategic planning, can we assess proposed projects from a cost-benefit perspective (e.g., easy to hard process, low to high risk, low to high payoff)?
  • In sum, can we look inside the black box of technology transfer and examine the factors that contribute to success or failure for the organizations involved?

The first article in this issue (Barriers to and Measurements of the Diffusion of Technology from the University to Industry) is an essay from two of the Editorial Board members that continues our efforts to delineate the broad parameters for the coverage of this journal as seen from their viewpoints. Scholars Marion G. Sobol and M. Karen Newell discuss obstacles to the effective cooperation of universities and industry in the realm of technology transfer. Many problems are due to differing cultures, in this case the need to balance an open scholarly environment dominated by the publish-or-perish ethos against the perceived need for secrecy in a competitive industrial framework. This cultural difference, when combined [End Page vii] with specific factors such as royalties and licensing, intellectual control, time constraints, and the high cost of patenting and development of products, raises barriers to cooperation. The authors propose preliminary measurement criteria for assessing the impact of these barriers, and methods for overcoming them. It should be noted that the authors' conclusions understandably reflect a university perspective on this issue. Hopefully, this article will initiate a wider discussion that will incorporate other viewpoints, such as those of industry and government. Regardless of the perspective taken...


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