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Technology and Development

A Q&A with the course leaders of Product Technology Roadmapping from University of Cambridge Online

22 January 2024 Last updated: 17 April 2024
Dr Imoh Ilevbare, Dr Rob Phaal

Q1: What are your current research interests?

A1 (Rob): I am interested in the development of scalable integrated toolkits for strategic technology and innovation management, building on roadmapping as a platform and knowledge hub. This involves understanding the fundamental principles of such tools, establishing their general forms and how they relate to each other. This is conceptually interesting, but also very practical given the applied nature of management tools

A1 (Imoh): I am interested in understanding how integrated organisational roadmapping systems might be designed and implemented efficiently in the short and long term, through a combination of principles and practices from fast-start roadmapping, agile, strategic/innovation ambidexterity and change management, and the use of appropriate software as an enabler. We address some of this in the course and give learners some tips for launching and maintaining successful roadmapping systems.

Q2: What do you find most interesting about roadmapping?

A2 (Rob): I’ve always been amazed by how quickly strategic alignment can be achieved using the integrating structure provided by roadmaps, which brings together disparate perspectives. Communication challenges and information asymmetries are a cause of conflict and inefficiency in organisations, and providing a common visual framework and language resolves many of these problems.

A2 (Imoh): 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. The use of the roadmap framework as a collective ‘sense making’ tool is very satisfying.

Q3: What are the key challenges in the field of roadmapping?

A3: One of the biggest challenges facing roadmapping, and other management tools, is how to blend and combine human and digital/analytical processes seamlessly. Both expert opinion and analysis are very valuable, but often processes are weighted to one or the other. By effectively combining these we can address both human and technical systems involved in successful strategy and innovation.

Q4: Tell us something interesting about your work

A4: 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.

Q5: What did you have in mind when conceiving this course?

A5: Roadmapping has been established practice in technology-intensive manufacturing sectors for more than 50 years, but 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.

Q6: What do you hope learners will gain from your course, Product Technology Roadmapping?

A6: Learners will have the opportunity to learn about a practical method that they can apply immediately within their own organisational context, together with the underlying concepts that will allow them to adapt the method to their particular situation, now and into the future. A key learning point will be how roadmapping can be combined with other management tools, and its role as an integrative platform for toolkits.

Q7: Why do you think this is an important area?

A7: The challenges we face in the 21st century are becoming more challenging due to increasing complexity and rate of change. 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.

Q8: Who are your inspirations within this field?

A8 (Rob): Industrial practice has provided the main inspiration for me, as roadmapping was a technique that emerged from industry rather than academic research. Innovation at Philips provided key early insights into the power of the method, and applications in many sectors and contexts continue to inspire thinking and practice in this area, as utility is the key measure of interest for management tools.

A8 (Imoh): The development of the Cambridge fast-start roadmapping approach (work led by Rob Phaal, David Probert and Clare Farrukh at the Centre for Technology Management) has made roadmapping much more practical and people can readily see how it can work in their contexts. This is was what attracted me to the study of roadmapping and I’m sure it has helped many others benefit from roadmapping. 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(Opens in a new window) and for improvement of our health systems(Opens in a new window)

Q9: What books or other media have you found useful in this area?

A9: We have found many books on visual design to be inspirational for the design and implementation of roadmapping and related methods. Roadmapping is a structured visual method, which enables communication and alignment in strategy and innovation, and 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.

Q10: What have your students taught you over the years?

A10 (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.

A10 (Imoh): We have trained many professionals who have gone on to apply the approach and some have fed back their results. Not only have they shown us new ways to adapt and apply our methods, but they have demonstrated that there is a significant need for collective sense-making in many organisations and that roadmapping is very impactful in that regard, especially in creating the momentum for change.

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Principal Specialist in strategic technology and innovation management (STIM) at IfM Engage, University of Cambridge
Director of Research Strategic Technology and Innovation Management, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge