One of the biggest challenges facing technology and product development is how to blend and combine human, analytical and digital processes. A new six-week course ‘Product Technology Roadmapping’ from the University of Cambridge, aims to help resolve these issues and show how the use of roadmapping can ensure technological decisions and developments are aligned with product and business plans.
Course leaders Dr Rob Phaal and Dr Imoh Ilevbare discuss developments in roadmapping.
Rob comments: “Both expert opinion and analysis are very valuable, but often processes are weighted to one or the other. By effectively combining these using roadmapping we can address both human and technical systems and promote successful strategy and innovation.”
How does roadmapping improve communications and strategy development?
Rob: Communication challenges and information asymmetries are a cause of conflict and inefficiency in organisations, and roadmaps, by providing a common visual framework and language, resolve many of these problems. I’ve always been amazed by how quickly strategic alignment can be achieved using this integrating structure, which brings together disparate perspectives.
Imoh: The use of the roadmap framework as a collective ‘sense making’ tool is very satisfying. It is quite exciting to facilitate the development of a product or innovation roadmap, especially when the different business functions collaborate to clarify and align their views, sometimes working through fundamental disagreements to reach a point where consensus and joint ownership in the roadmap is achieved.
Is roadmapping still a valuable strategic planning tool?
Rob: Yes. Roadmapping is a technique that emerged from industry rather than academic research, with innovation at Philips providing key early insights into the power of the method. Its applications in many sectors and contexts continue to inspire thinking and practice in this area.
The increasing complexity and rate of change are making technology development challenging. Roadmapping is uniquely capable of supporting strategic planning in such contexts, including engagement of the diverse stakeholders involved. Roadmaps directly enable horizontal functional alignment, vertical hierarchical integration and temporal synchronisation, which are all essential for the kind of system-of-system challenges we face.
For example, some of the most interesting work has involved early-stage research, development and innovation, when there is lots of uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity to deal with. Strategic decisions made at this stage have a huge influence later on, downstream in the innovation process. With appropriate adaption, roadmapping and related tools can be very effective, even in pre-commercial academic research environments
Although roadmapping has been established practice in technology-intensive manufacturing sectors for more than 50 years, it is seldom included in regular business school research and teaching despite its general applicability. There is a need to promote the method more widely, as being relevant to anyone interested in strategy and innovation management. This course provides a mechanism to promote the method more widely.
Imoh: Yes. The development of the Cambridge fast-start roadmapping approach has made roadmapping much more practical and people can readily see how it can work in their contexts.
This remains a key inspiration, and a reminder to keep things practical and useful, regardless of the level of sophistication required in roadmapping a system or strategic issue.
Looking further beyond, there have been very interesting applications of roadmapping in the US, especially in the areas of energy, defence, ICT and sustainability/climate action at a cross-industry level, to guide cutting edge research and development and enable positive change.
This shows the power of roadmapping to spur action; we are increasingly replicating these types of roadmapping activities and programmes in the UK and Europe, e.g. for R&D towards zero-carbon targets and for improvement of our health systems.
Do you need visual design skills to implement roadmapping?
Rob: Roadmapping is a structured visual method which enables communication and alignment in strategy and innovation. Many other practical tools also have a visual aspect. Such tools are often less effective than they could be due to the lack of visual design awareness of those who use such tools. The good news is that existing visual design concepts and methods are directly applicable, and everyone can upskill with some basic awareness-raising.
What have your students taught you over the years?
Rob: Because roadmapping is such a flexible tool, the diversity of applications has always been stimulating, along with the diversity of students wishing to learn about the method and how they can apply it. Students come from many countries, from organisations of all types, and with very different perspectives and challenges, which is very interesting.