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Technology, innovation and management
Technology, innovation and management

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4.2 Hierarchies of technologies

Technologies are also connected in extensive hierarchies. By this we mean that component technologies and tool technologies are products that are applied within other product and production technologies, respectively. For example, although there may be few obvious components when you look at a car from the outside, many would have been added as it made its way along an assembly line, not least an internal combustion engine; whereas the welding machine that assembled the body panels represents tools. From the viewpoint of engines and welding machines, cars, assembly lines and other containers represent application technologies. Even the car may have been applied within another technology, probably a service operation such as a taxi service or police car.

The hierarchy connects not only technologies but also the organisations that produce and apply them. In the case of the car, a plant produces engines, whereas external suppliers produced many other components and tools such as the welding machines.

If we were to ask you to describe a particular technological artefact according to the distinctions in Section 4.1, you would also have to describe the perspective from which you were answering. This is because one person’s component (or tool) is another person’s product and yet another person’s application. This illustrates both the limitation and the usefulness of these categories. They are limited because they convey only relative meanings. They are useful because they help us to characterise and divide up technological innovations from the perspective of a particular organisation. Therefore, in larger organisations there will probably be a mix of approaches to acquiring and using technology. For example, one firm might innovate production technology but buy in tools.


Here is some guidance on categorisation to help you with Activity 3:

  • Product mode of enquiry and action might be a particular approach to research and development.
  • Product knowledge is about architecture and design (NB not designing), e.g. the arrangement of components in a successful working whole and the trade-offs that achieve the desired performance.
  • Product artefacts are component technologies within the product. (Note: the knowledge and artefacts incorporated in a product may be indiscernible to its users.)
  • Process knowledge is about the systems of operation and control, craft practices, and so on that produce the product.
  • Process artefacts are the tools used in these systems and practices.
  • Process mode of enquiry might be a particular approach to process improvement.

We suggest a template in Table 1 for analysing the meanings that an organisation bestows on its technology. Of course, because one technology’s product may be another’s component, a hierarchy of tables might be useful in some cases. We have put ideas into Table 1 representing our view of a hydraulic crane and an imaginary pharmaceuticals firm which is developing a ‘natural’ medicine. The reason we want you to undertake a similar exercise is so that you can relate the distinctions to your own experience and/or organisation.

Table 1 Meanings of technology
ArtefactKnowledgeMode of enquiry and action
ProductHydraulic ramsHeavy mobile equipment architecture and designMarket-driven invention/innovation
Bio-active ingredientsStructure of moleculesSystematic search for and analysis of medicinal plants
ProcessRobots, lathes, control softwareHeavy vehicle productionContinuous process improvement
FermentersDrug testing and approval systemContinuous process improvement

Activity 3

To illustrate the distinctions made in Table 1, we want you to think of two examples based on your own experience or background.