There is a widely held assumption that innovation is a straightforward linear process.
According to this view, new knowledge is created through fundamental scientific research by scientists and engineers. This knowledge is then applied to create novel products and processes which, when adopted by industry, automatically translate into business improvement and boosted productivity.
Evidence, however, suggests that the linear view of innovation is mistaken.
Innovation is complex
There is now a large literature suggesting that in reality, innovation is a complex, non-linear iterative process. More importantly, it shows that a functioning innovation system relies on the diffusion and translation of research by individuals who can see how new technology, techniques and processes can actually be applied by businesses. According to this perspective, technicians – people who possess intermediate-level skills in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics – make an indispensable contribution to innovation.
However, the UK is facing a significant hurdle in this regard. The technician’s role in innovation – the adoption and application of new technologies and diffusion of new knowledge – has long gone unrecognised and undervalued.
At present the UK is facing a shortage of technicians and technical skills needed to drive innovation by facilitating the take-up of new technologies in the UK. However, this can be remedied. And reforms to educational institutions and to the rules that govern them have a key role to play.
Technicians are vital to innovation
Technicians facilitate innovation in numerous ways. Skilled technicians draw upon specialist theoretical knowledge in science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics and practical skill to solve the real-world problems which arise in research and development, production and maintenance. Evidence suggests technicians with higher technical skills in particular increase the capacity of businesses to adopt and use new technologies for commercial gain.
The nature of their role, and the knowledge and experience they accumulate, allow technicians to make direct and indirect contributions to both radical and incremental innovation. For the former, radical innovation, technicians draw upon their practical expertise of engineering, materials and process to design and build many of the experimental rigs and instruments used in research, often only guided by a rough sketch and objective from the researcher.
One high-end automotive manufacturer reported that it had greatly improved the process through which its composite components were made by having technicians in its design office, who had a feel for what can and can’t be made, and which designs can be made quickly and reliably and which cannot.
A skilled technician’s intimate familiarity with manufacturing technologies, machines and processes means that they are able to suggest how they can be improved, thereby contributing to incremental innovation. Such minor adjustments and modifications of technologies may be of small consequence individually but can accumulate to be a highly significant contribution.
However, companies report shortages of technicians, as well as in many cases an ageing technician workforce. Some employers have attempted to tackle these problems by recruiting graduates. However, whilst recruiting from the abundant graduate pool can offer short-term relief, it has given rise to trickier issues. Whilst a graduate may possess a higher level of theoretical knowledge than that needed to fill the technician role, they often lack the practical nous which is so critical to innovation in the workplace. Graduates also often have unrealistic expectations about the kind of work, add pay, enjoyed by technicians.
So how can we produce the technical skills needed to thrive?
At present, the UK has a smaller percentage of its workforce qualified to level 4/5 than many of its international competitors. The DfE recently launched a consultation on what can be done to raise the profile and esteem of higher technical qualifications, so that we can begin to produce the skills employers need and close this gap. Hopefully, this is the first step in answering employers’ demand for skilled technicians with the blend of theoretical knowledge and practical skills employers desperately need.
Ultimately however, we need to invest to develop the technical skills we need. As outlined in my latest report, Technicians and Innovation: A Literature Review, funding could and should be used to incentivise training providers to run courses which will equip the workforce with the higher technical skills needed to facilitate the successful adoption of new technologies. In the past, such programmes have been thwarted by the “tyranny of small numbers” – that is the problem posed by the fact that the high fixed costs of providing the training in question and the level of government funding available all too often make it uneconomical for training providers to offer the relevant courses, given the total number of apprentices wanting to take them.
However, this could be overcome if we focused efforts on creating a few centres of excellence that offer the requisite training in areas where there is a concentration of relevant manufacturers. The existing Catapult Centres are prominent candidates for such a role. The new Institutes of Technology would also fit the bill. Those institutions have the potential to play a critical role in helping to equip people with the knowledge and the skills needed to facilitate the widespread diffusion of new technologies that lies at the heart of innovation.
By recognising the true nature of a fully functioning innovation system – dynamic and iterative – and the crucial contribution that technicians with the right blend of theoretical and practical knowledge make, we can start to ensure that we develop the skills required to meet the needs of the future rather than the unbalanced blend shaped by myopic views of innovation that belong in the past.