Roadmaps as a foundation for effective R&D management (Part 1)

2 Mar 2012 Sandeep Mehta

I am writing a paper on the use of R&D plans as a foundation for effective R&D management.  As a part of the effort, I am collecting prior research on R&D planning and roadmapping.  I plan to summarize some of the interesting papers I find along the way.  The first is from a roadmap seminar given by two MIT professors at Harvard Business School in 2004.  It provides a good background on some work done on longer-term technology planning and touches upon near-term product planning.

Roadmaps provide a framework for thinking about the future. They create a structure for strategic planning and development, for exploring potential development paths, and for ensuring that future goals are met.

One reason for developing roadmaps is to address many sources of uncertainty in the face of complexity:

One must weigh many sources of uncertainty and try to comprehend how a large number of complex and dynamic factors might interrelate and influence development of a process or a technology. … Roadmapping is not the only tool for this type of strategic planning, but it is practical and straightforward in its approach and gaining increased attention and usage.

The article lays out two types of roadmaps: Exploratory and Target Driven.

Exploratory roadmaps are what are sometimes called Technology Push roadmaps that are envisioning emerging technologies.  These roadmaps are used to “Push” technologies into products without there being a well defined need for the technology’s benefits:

Exploratory Mapping is used as a framework to explore emerging technologies and to examine potentially disruptive technologies. The process creates a map of the technology landscape by surveying possible future scenarios. There is not necessarily consensus on the technology or its evolution at this stage.

It appears that some of the leading work on exploratory roadmaps was done at Motorola:

“Roadmaps provide an extended look at the future of a chosen field of inquiry drawn from the collective knowledge and imagination of the groups and individuals driving change in that field. Roadmaps include statements of theories and trends, the formulation of models, identification of linkages among and within the sciences, identification of discontinuities and knowledge voids, and interpretation of investigations and experiments.” – Robert Galvin

Roadmap implementation is hard, and data shows that less than 10% of R&D organizations use roadmaps.  In my experience, exploratory roadmaps are the prevalent form of roadmaps implemented.  They are used more like a marketing document for the technologists to get continuing funding rather than a real planning document (More on this in a future post). The other form of roadmaps is to communicate products under development: Target Driven Roadmaps:

Target-Driven Roadmapping used to drive toward a specific technical target. The technology objective is clearly articulated and there is a level of consensus on what the targets should be. The roadmap serves to drive innovation and resources toward reaching that end goal.

These can sometimes be called as Technology Pull roadmaps – where different technologies are “pulled” forward to satisfy specific market needs.  Some work has also been done in Target Driven roadmaps.

“Typically based on strategic plan requirements, roadmaps incorporate product attributes and layout goals, development requirements, allocations priorities, and defined evolution plans for flagship or core products and platforms.- Strauss, Radnor & Peterson

Even so, the roadmaps are still used mainly for communication rather than as a foundation for R&D management:

The output of the technology roamapping process is typically a product-specific roadmap which, in simple visual representations of hardware, software and algorithm evolution, links customer-driven features and functions to specific clusters of technologies.” – Strauss, Radnor & Peterson

This is borne out by the article as well.  They suggest that

While the processes and outputs of these two types of roadmapping can vary significantly,
there are common elements. Roadmapping requires:
– a social and collaborative process;
– an analytical method of assessing and planning future development;
– a means of communicating using visual or graphic representations of key targets or goals as a function of time.

Clearly, roadmaps do provide a structured foundation for R&D collaboration.  Although the second bullet mentions an analytical method for assessing R&D, I am yet to come across an organization that uses roadmaps for that purpose.  In fact, very little of the article is dedicated to the second point.  The article focuses on social / collaborative use of roadmaps and outlines a workshops-based process to develop roadmaps.  This seems to have become the primary form of roadmapping.  In many organizations I have visited, roadmapping has a tendency to become a bureaucratic check box and is hardly ever used for driving innovation.  In fact, most of the benefits of true roadmapping process outlined in the article (and described below) are hardly ever achieved.

1. Establish a vision for the future.

Roadmaps can definitely communicate a vision and is a great benefit of roadmaps.

2. Encourage systems-thinking. A comprehensive roadmapping framework forces the roadmap participants to think about technology development within the context of a larger system and aids better understanding of the linkages among technology, policy, and industry dynamics.

This is where structured target driven roadmapping becomes important.  In most physical systems, this is hard to do in a workshop / social environment.  Product development plans are complex and require knowledge of tens (if not hundreds) of engineers.  Organizations need better roadmapping processes that places technology roadmaps in a system context.

3. Planning and coordination tool. Roadmaps align technologies and products with market demand by representing the co-evolution of technology and markets. Roadmaps can help in uncovering common technology needs within an organization, enabling the sharing and consolidation of R&D, supply-line and other common resources

This is probably the most important benefit of roadmaps.  However, as President Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, planning is everything.”  Most roadmaps are static, kept in PowerPoint documents and revisited once a year (at best).  Hardly an effective foundation for planning and coordination.

4. Accelerate innovation. Roadmapping provides a better understanding of the potential paths for innovation, helping to visualize new opportunities for future generations of product developments. 

This is the critical and often overlooked benefit of roadmaps.  Innovation happens at the intersection of technologies (not just one technology).  So, an iPhone requires capacitive touch screen, low power electronics and user interface (among others) to come together for innovation to be delivered to market.  Nokia for example had a touch screen phone years before iPhone, but could not bring it to market.  Not only do the technologies need to mature simultaneously, all the related engineers need to know what others are capable of doing with them.  Roadmaps can allow all team members to understand the projected state of other technologies and hence drive innovation.  Since the number of technologies involved in modern systems is quite large, the workshop-based roadmapping process described in the paper is probably not sufficient to drive innovation.

5. Communications. Within corporations, roadmaps can provide a crucial link between management teams, marketing, engineering and R&D – improving communications and providing a clear sense of near term and long term targets. 

Pretty self explanatory and some what related to point 1.

My thesis remains that R&D plans can actually become a foundation for effective R&D management and can do much more than the five benefits outlined above.  Plans can help optimize resource allocation.  R&D plans can be used to measure and guide R&D operations.  They can also be used to forecast skill-set needs.  However, that will require plans that are a bit more controlled than those developed primarily for communication. More on this soon…

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