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Technology and Development

Revolutionising Strategic Decision-Making: The Power of Roadmapping in Business and Innovation

1 January 2024 Last updated: 17 April 2024
Dr Rob Phaal

How Cambridge Transformed Roadmapping for Decision-Making in Innovation

The strategic benefits of the roadmapping technique have reached far and wide, although the subject is not generally covered in standard business school teaching programmes. The University of Cambridge Online course in roadmapping helps to understand how this fascinating and powerful method can be applied effectively by participants in their own context.

Cambridge has made its fair share of inventions but can’t lay claim to ‘roadmapping’, a structured visual method for supporting strategy and innovation. The idea is thought to have emerged about 60 years ago in technology-intensive sectors in the USA, before gradually spreading around the world and between sectors. But what Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) has done is adapt and enhance roadmapping to benefit a rapidly expanding range of businesses and other organisations.

At the forefront of this work has been Dr Robert Phaal, Director of Research in Strategic Technology and Innovation Management (STIM) in the Department of Engineering. Phaal joined STIM in 1997, arriving from a mechanical engineering background, with a PhD in computational mechanics and industrial experience in technical consulting, contract research and software development.

Phaal hadn’t come across roadmapping before, but with a small group of Cambridge colleagues he started to observe how some companies were using it. At the time, very few researchers were thinking about the topic. Today, well over a thousand academic papers have been published.

Roadmapping Impact: Enhancing Strategic Decision-Making with Innovative Processes and Toolkits

Researchers at the IfM, part of the Department of Engineering, developed roadmapping processes and toolkits to help organisations make better strategic decisions.

The team has supported businesses and other organisations through more than 500 roadmapping and related projects since 2001.

Training courses have been delivered to more than 2,000 participants in over 20 countries to enable organisations to develop in-house roadmapping capabilities. Over £15 million in project revenue has been generated.

Phaal recalls: “When we started in around 1998, roadmapping was mostly used in large corporations in very technology intensive sectors. It wasn’t widely known about but there was a perception that it was a heavyweight tool for heavyweight companies. But we could see that lots of companies didn’t know how to develop roadmaps, partly because big firms weren’t describing how they used them.”

Roadmapping can support decision-making in a wide range of scenarios including new product development processes, strategic annual processes or review points where an organisation has to take decisions about resource allocation.

Phaal and his colleagues started conducting experiments with diverse companies to build an understanding of the concepts that could underpin a generic, agile roadmapping tool. They found that the plethora of tools and processes that were already available to support management decisions often failed to interact consistently, robustly or transparently, and set about trying to overcome this.

Driving Success: IfM's Roadmapping Collaborations Revolutionize Business Performance and Technology Adoption

IfM’s roadmapping collaborations have facilitated improved business performance and practices, and the adoption of new technologies in an array of primarily UK-based businesses and non-profit organisations. Much of this work is facilitated by the IfM’s knowledge transfer unit, IfM Engage, through training and consultancy. Through a combination of self-facilitating templates and training, the team helps organisations to develop in-house roadmapping capabilities.

Future Outlook: Roadmapping Gains Traction Across Diverse Sectors, Paving the Way for Innovation

The team has started to detect growing interest in roadmapping from new sectors, including healthcare, the legal profession, technology ventures and even Higher Education. Phaal says: “It’s exciting when you see methods working in one domain cross over into another. You just need somebody with the imagination to recognise that they have a similar problem and then a clever consultant-facilitator to work roadmapping into that space. Then you can see a real step-change.”

He adds: “Healthcare is wide open to benefit from roadmapping, but also Higher Education where the use of formal management methods is less common. We have started to get traction.”

Phaal remains frustrated by the seeming lack of interest in roadmapping shown by most business schools. He says: “A lot of managers don’t know about roadmapping because of the way their MBAs are orientated. There’s a big gap.”

Phaal is also impatient for governments to stop working in silos and embrace joined-up thinking to tackle systemic problems and, of course, to recognise that roadmapping is the perfect tool to support this kind of enlightened decision-making.

“Now we’re up against the wall with global warming and other problems, we have to start getting smarter. Roadmapping allows the intelligence of people in different positions to be tapped into much more effectively” – Dr Robert Phaal.

Our online course allows learners to tap into the benefits of roadmapping, understanding both the conceptual foundations of the method, and its practical application. The combination of self-paced presentations, resources, and opportunity to develop a roadmap with regular contact with experienced tutors provides a unique opportunity for participants to gain confidence in how to apply the method in their own context.

Written by Tom Almeroth-Williams. This article was originally published in the Department of Engineering News(Opens in a new window) magazine by the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Rob Phaal is Director of Research Strategic Technology and Innovation Management at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.

Are you interested in applying the roadmapping theory and technique to your business? Discover Rob’s course in ‘Product-Technology Roadmapping’ with the University of Cambridge Online(Opens in a new window): in a new window)

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Director of Research Strategic Technology and Innovation Management, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge