Our natural tendency is to get distracted by the next shiny object. Yesterday it was blockchain, today it’s the metaverse, and tomorrow it will be some other “verse.” But how do large companies really track, identify, and launch initiatives that create value from these emerging technologies? More often than not, the hype-to-reality cycle takes years — if not a decade — to see through.
Here are the 10 most popular tech scouting questions we’ve been asked over the years, and some best practice advice on what you can do to focus your efforts to maximize output in the short-, mid-, and long-term.
1. Why are our tech scouting efforts not creating transformative opportunities?
Here, we should take inspiration from the Future-Fit Manifesto, which encourages “creating alternate futures over responding to change.” Tech scouting initiatives are oftentimes too focused on the technology rather than the future state that the organization wants to create for itself and its stakeholder community.
A tried-and-true approach is to design discovery sessions that leverage the four lenses of innovation. In short, these sessions take you through a guided framework of gathering clues, drawing meanings, developing hunches, formulating insights, and discovering opportunities. The technologies that enable the solution you seek will reveal themselves accordingly.
One such use case is that of the New Zealand Hemp Industries Association (NZHIA), which set out to find white space opportunities for what it sees as the crop of the future. In collaboration with a nationwide community of researchers, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and more, NZHIA identified 31 breakthrough innovations using a single 8-hour discovery session.
2. How do we align our tech scouting efforts with our corporate strategy?
This problem especially manifests itself when organizations allow their tech scouting efforts to be dictated or distracted by inquiries that create a flood of requests — and, as it were, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. OKRs (objectives and key results) are an excellent way to set the right goals for the organization. The challenge is to ensure that they cascade down and across the organization to help frame the intent of each initiative and ensure its strategic fitness. This approach provides your team with exact areas to scout and is critical before spending too much time and effort going down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Examine your corporate strategies and brainstorm on ways to integrate new technologies to drive them forward. For example, try to conceptualize how you can expand into new markets using machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc. This helps to align tech scouting efforts with strategy while also motivating everyone to look at how these new technologies can positively impact the business.
Building close relationships and asking each business unit to request their top desired outcomes helps create goodwill between both sides, which you can later leverage to bring in prospective technologies they can help evaluate.
3. Why do our lines of businesses push back and choose not engage us in Proof of Concept (POC)?
Everyone is already busy doing their own thing. The last thing anyone wants to do is to take on new work they didn’t ask for. Building close relationships and asking each business unit to request their top desired outcomes helps create goodwill between both sides, which you can later leverage to bring in prospective technologies they can help evaluate. A good place to start is to ensure tech scouting opportunities are as widely appreciated as possible. It is a common misstep to assume everyone sees the value of working with new technologies, experts, and startups. Running workshops on the topic, or even regular company events such as “Coffee & Disruptive Tech,” are engaging ways to communicate the why.
4. How should we structure our tech scouting efforts?
There are two prevailing approaches, and each has its own merits. The choice will depend on the maturity level of your current team as well as your leadership support. The ideal method is to think about creating a center of intelligence. This means that from an organizational perspective, there is a commitment to work together, build a knowledge base, and ensure that information is shared in a way that allows people to leverage each other’s work without duplicating efforts.
A simpler and more pragmatic approach is to use a challenge-driven model that tackles specific problems with a clear start and end date. The beauty of this approach is that the outcomes are clear and there is a sponsor ready to fund the right solution. Organizations that are struggling or just getting started should opt for this model due to its low cost and quick turnaround.
Regardless of model, making technology scouting data accessible across the organization will ultimately increase adoption.
5. How many tech scouts do we need?
Technology landscaping can be focused broadly into three key areas: topic search, technology areas, and more formal tech scouting challenges. Depending on the function you have in mind, a typical tech scout can manage 10-12 targeted campaigns on an annual basis. The questions in turn are how many solutions are you seeking and what are the number of POCs you are willing to fund. Tech scout productivity can be aided by tools designed for this role that leverage AI technologies to find relevant data points in internal or external data sources and reduce costs by 30-50%. Using an expert network is also an excellent way to reduce reliance on internal resources, and run more targeted searches where traditional methods have fallen short.
6. What’s the difference between trend analysis, emerging tech, and corporate venturing?
It’s important to define and understand the differences between these areas. All three areas are reflected in the continuum of the kind of work you need to do across the spectrum. Trend analysis looks at what’s coming and monitors important market shifts you need to take advantage of. Emerging technologies are new, promising advancements that can change how your organization and customer jobs will be done in the future. Corporate venturing is the process an organization will invest in to evaluate and adapt new technologies. The Technology Readiness Level (TRL) is an effective model to understand and prioritize your tech scouting efforts and get a better sense of when and how to get serious about an area or technology.
7. When should we turn to external tech scouts for help?
Always. Going outside should not be the first or the last thing to do — rather something an organization should always do together. More than ever, combining internal resources with external ones makes good business sense. New AI technology allows an organization to tap into outside content and data sources more intelligently, but by definition, tech scouting means you don’t have all the answers. External tech scouts are now much more easily reachable through expert solver networks; they can create incredible opportunities by finding nascent areas and experts which may be difficult to surface in a mountain of data. There should be a few projects each year you mandate to be external only so that you build the knowhow and can continue to perfect the model over time.
8. How do we avoid getting a data deluge from startups?
Waiting for the right idea to drop or the right startup to reach out to you means that you need to sift through a lot of information. A smarter approach is to limit traditional interactions, and instead create online communities that allow you to receive suggestions that are bucketed by focus area. This also helps to send a strong message to your customers and ecosystem that you are serious about co-creation and collaboration. That online space can also be used to run targeted campaigns for specific events. This approach will also help better formalize your data collection efforts and ensure you have a classification system that will help you track and report on this work for many years to come.
Create a success story that you can use to share through whatever channels your company offers to showcase achievements others may want to adopt.
9. What’s the best way to start generating momentum for tech scouting?
It’s all about show and tell. Create a success story that you can use to share through whatever channels your company offers to showcase achievements others may want to adopt. It’s best to start with a single event or a POC that produces a targeted accomplishment that you can bring all the way to ‘winning’ status. Choose a typical use case that is likely to resonate with other business units and avoid doing novelties that don’t correlate to 80% of the tech scouting activities you would like to see across the business.
10. What are the most effective tech scouting metrics?
You’ll need a mix of activity and impact metrics. Activity metrics can include simple progress counts on work being completed against tech scouting topics, technology areas you are tracking, campaigns underway, POCs in play, and projects completed. You can then measure progress in terms of the tech scouting portfolio with opportunity areas scouted, technologies being considered, innovation horizons pursued, focus areas addressed, business units impacted, and potential deals in the pipeline. The goal should be to create enterprise-wide visibility through executive dashboards that enable everyone to see what’s working and where your efforts are focused.
11. How can your tech scouting program attract the right startups?
Unless you do something often enough, you do not have the right muscle memory to do it well each and every time. Working with the right experts can help you build a “Startup Showcase,” à la Medco Foundation, which makes use of focus areas that communicate your priorities and other time-limited challenges that outline the kinds of immediate solutions you are looking for. In both cases, you need to ensure you have a proper market outreach strategy that outlines your communication approach and reward considerations. It’s a crowded marketplace and there are many competing voices trying to be heard. Startups will gravitate to those that demonstrate a clear, concise, and consistent approach to collaboration.
12. How can tech scouting impact our sustainability efforts?
This is probably one of the easiest ways to ensure you have a clear, outcomes-based approach. Many sustainability challenges are rooted in digital transformation shortcomings. The good news is that they can be solved with the emerging technologies spawning from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda has put forth 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are fast becoming mandates for large organizations — so much so, in fact, that environment, social, and governance (ESG) reports now include these UN commitments.
4IR technologies such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, and augmented/virtual reality, among many others, have the potential to enable new approaches that reduce the cost of sustainability solutions and the timeline for delivering them. The SDGs are excellent focus areas you can use to drive alignment between tech scouting initiatives and the corporate strategy. As stated in the Future-Fit Manifesto, “continuous attention to emerging trends, regulations, and governance enhances future-fitness,” and a future-focused tech scouting initiative that uses the 2030 Agenda as a business lens will reveal sustainability challenges that can lead to breakthrough opportunities.