What is technology?

Journal of Technology Management in China

ISSN: 1746-8779

Article publication date: 2 October 2007


Li-Hua, R. (2007), "What is technology?", Journal of Technology Management in China, Vol. 2 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/jtmc.2007.30202caa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

What is technology?

I have been asked this question on many occasions when delivering seminars and workshops on international technology transfer. Owing to anthropological diversity, the attempt to define technology is quite challenging, and people in general may have different interpretations as they are positioned differently. This reminds me of the Chinese parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Megantz (2002) further elaborates on this in the preface of his book Technology Management: Developing and Implementing Effective Licensing Programme that technology is a wonderful, amazing, always-changing bags of tricks that help the human being to live healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives (although these could take place the other way around). To a scientist, technology is the end product of one's research; to an engineer, it is a tool or process that can be employed to build better products or solve technical problems; to an attorney, it is intellectual property to be protected and guarded; to a business executive, it may be the most important, yet least understood company asset. Technology is viewed as competitive advantage against rivals. Technology means state power to both developing and developed countries. It is regarded as a strategic instrument in achieving economic targets and creating wealth and prosperity in developing countries, as well as an important vehicle to make larger profits in developed countries. The effective use of technology is perhaps the most important issue faced by both developing and developed countries and will undoubtedly become even more critical in years to come.

The word technology usually conjures up many different images and generally refers to what has been described as the “high-tech” or high-technology industries. It has to be understood that limiting technology to high-tech industries such as computers, superconductivity, chips, genetic engineering, robotics, magnetic railway and so on focuses excessive attention on what the media consider newsworthy (Gaynor, 1996). However, limiting technology to science, engineering and mathematics loses sight of other supporting technologies. Technology includes more than machines, processes and inventions. Whereas, traditionally it might refer to hardware, these days it also refers to the “soft side” as well. In fact, there are many manifestations of technology: some are very simple while others are very complex.

What is technology?

But, what exactly is meant by the term technology? According to Dean and LeMaster (1995), technology is defined as “firm-specific information concerning characteristics and performance properties of production processes and product design”. While Contractor and Sagafi-Nejad (1981) describe technology simply as “a bundle of information, rights and services” Maskus (2004) defines technology as “the information necessary to achieve a certain production outcome from a particular mean of combining or processing selected inputs”. However, Maskus (2004) solely distinguishes between embodied and disembodied technology, whereas Kedia and Bhagat (1988) recommend a more detailed classification into process-, product- and person-embodied technology.

Technology represents the combination of human understanding of natural laws and phenomena accumulated since ancient times to make things that fulfil our needs and desires or that perform certain functions (Karatsu, 1990). In other words, technology has to create things that benefit human beings. Miles (1995) defines technology as the means by which we apply our understanding of the natural world to the solution of practical problems. It is a combination of “hardware” (buildings, plant and equipment) and “software” (skills, knowledge, experiences together with suitable organisational and institutional arrangement).

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has provided the following definition:

Technology is bought and sold as capital goods including machinery and productive systems, human labour usually skilled manpower, management and specialised scientists. Information of both technical and commercial character, including that which is readily available, and that subject to proprietary rights and restrictions.

However, according to this thesis, technology cannot merely be considered as a production factor, and it is not socially neutral (Mnaas, 1990). It seems much easier to consider the concept of “technology” as consisting of four closely inter-linked elements: technique, knowledge (normally being considered as “technology”), the organisation of the production and the product. However, knowledge does not make sense if the organisation of the relevant production goes without producing meaningful product. Therefore, technology must be applied, testified and maintained, which implies a demand for a further input of a suitable range of human resources and skills. However, it should be noticed that it is this latter input that is at the root of the difficulty in transferring technologies between different environments. A modern view emphasises the coherence of technology and knowledge and points out that technology transfer is not achievable without knowledge transfer, as knowledge is a key to controlling technology as whole (Li-Hua, 2004). Some even use technology interchangeably with know-how. Knowledge is closely related to technology since the pure disposal of technology is not sufficient for successful implementation. In the majority of cases, especially in complex technology, knowledge (particularly tacit knowledge), is required for a successful international technology transfer.

Technique covers the instruments of labour (machinery and tools), materials and the way they are brought into function by labour in the working process. Both, social dynamic (working process) and social contradictions (e.g. between machinery and labour) are inherent in this element of the technology as in each of the sub-concepts.

Knowledge consists of three principal categories: applied science, skills, and intuition. The weighting between these categories of knowledge is changing historically, but in every case, an adequate combination of types of knowledge must be present. Knowledge is the “key to control” over technology as a whole, which can be seen both at micro level (Taylorism) and at higher levels of social aggregation (technological dependency). However, it is helpful to understand that knowledge has recently been classified as explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

Technique and knowledge must be organised before they can bring about effective results. Organisation is therefore an integral part of technology. Organisation of a working process of technique and knowledge into a product may have technical causes, but mostly the actual choice of organisation will rest widely on socio-economic causes and reflect the general social structure of society. Product is an integral part of technology. The ultimate purpose of bringing technique, knowledge and organisation together is of course, to obtain a product. Without including this goal, it is in fact difficult to understand the other three elements properly. It seems natural to include the product in a comprehensive technology concept, not least because in practice, the choice of product often precedes the choice of the technique, knowledge and organisation by which it is going to be produced.

Rosenberg and Frischtak (1985) pointed out that the specificity of technology has close links with the nature of the inputs to its production and of the resulting outputs. In most advanced countries, at least 60 per cent of research and development expenditures are on development, namely expenditure to develop specific products or production processes. It is important to have this dissecting of technology and to have distinction between technology and knowledge. Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provide a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. it consists of truth, beliefs, perspectives, concepts, judgments, expectation, methodologies, know-how and exists in different forms such as tacit, explicit, symbolic, embodied, en-brained and en-cultured knowledge.

Explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge

Knowledge is increasingly being recognised as a vital organisational resource that gives market leverage and competitive advantage (Nonaka and Taekuchi, 1995; Leonard-Barton, 1995). In particular, knowledge has become a substance to be “managed” in its most literal sense. Polanyi (1967) considered human knowledge by starting from the fact that we know more than we can tell. In general, technical knowledge consists of two components: explicit and tacit. The greater the extent to which a technology exists in the form of softer, less physical resources, the greater the proportion of tacit knowledge it contains. Tacit knowledge, due to its non-codified nature, has to be transferred through “intimate human interactions”. In the meantime, it has to be recognized that tacit knowledge is the key to deliver the most competitive advantage and it is this part that competitors have difficulties in replicating. Tacit knowledge transfer is often intentionally blocked because people understand the significance of tacit knowledge.

Nonaka and Taekuchi (1995) describe some distinctions between tacit and explicit knowledge, which are shown in Table I. Features generally associated with the more tacit aspects of knowledge are shown on the left, while the corresponding qualities related to explicit knowledge are shown on the right. Knowledge of experience tends to be tacit, physical, and subjective, while knowledge of rationality tends to be explicit, metaphysical, and objective. Tacit knowledge is created “here and now” in a specific, practical context, while explicit knowledge is about past events or objects (there and then).

Having clarified the distinctive features between technology and knowledge, and between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge, it is now more helpful in this discussion to reflex the current debate on why China's technology strategy of getting technology by giving up its market partly failed. In the last 29 years of economic reform, China has achieved tremendous success. She has seen the most remarkable period of economic growth in modern times and will continue to do so. However, the debate is going on that foreign brands sell well in the Chinese market and foreign companies are strong competitors against local firms. Also, to some extent, China has not really obtained core technology in the car manufacturing industry. It has to be recognized that this thesis is not able to answer these questions. Bearing in mind that knowledge is a key to control technology as a whole, and that technology transfer does not take place without knowledge transfer, what China has obtained in principle is the “hard” ware, such as machinery, equipment, operational manual, specification and drawing. However, it has not yet achieved the “soft” side consisting of tacit knowledge, including management expertise and technical know-how and know-why.

Richard Li-Hua


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