Monthly Archive: November 2014

Understanding Technology

There are various meanings that help to analyse technology. In modern common usage, the word ‘technology’ essentially means ‘kit’, which is to say technology as artefact (product). This refers to made objects, and also to what they do (examples in table below). This usage of the word is quite recent. Dictionaries – which tend to lag behind common usage – almost all define technology as a body of knowledge and practice, for example “a particular practical or industrial art” (Oxford English Dictionary). Past definitions have distinguished other categories, namely technology as knowledge and technology as mode of enquiry and action. These meanings are different ways of understanding technology. They can be conceptualised as a dependent series: There can be no artefact without action, no technological action without knowledge, and no knowledge without enquiry. This implies that two sets can create meaningful combinations, such as “application knowledge”, or “product mode of enquiry” (Fowles, 2005).

Artefact Knowledge Mode of enquiry and action
Application Formulation, symptom relief Diagnostic indications Clinic trials
Writing electronically Observing office work Prototyping, software development
Product Bio-active ingredients, systemic effects Molecular structure Systematic search for and analysis of medical plants
Word processor Convert keyboard keys to strings Developing software modules for communication
Production Fermentation and fermenters Drug testing and approval system Process improvement
Compilers, assemblers Software engineering Understanding software development and quality standards

Table 1: Meanings of technology and examples for medicine and IT

Knowledge is not easy to picture: Although knowledge is sometimes written down, very often it resides only in people (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). Let’s consider the assembly line in a car fabric: It implies product knowledge of the design of car bodies – such as the arrangement of parts, the suitability of materials etc. It also implies production knowledge of the organisation of an assembly line and the manner and sequence in which parts are fitted. Some of these were important subjects at certain points in the technology’s life cycle. We can imagine business conditions, such as a high rate of change and degree of complexity, where production knowledge creation, using a “continuous improvement” method such as ‘Kaizen’ (Imai, 1986), would be an essential part of an organisation’s technology strategy as product performance.

The mode of enquiry and action refers to technological method. It is what develops a technology as time passes. R&D is a prime example. More generally, it is a way of doing things that is concerned with observation, problem solving, inventing, improving, management of change, etc. Here are some guidelines on categorisation (Fowles, 2005):

  • Application mode of enquiry and action might be trial and error to see how a technology is best used, sited, etc.
  • Application knowledge would include knowledge of use, siting, maintenance…
  • Application artefacts comprise the framework within which a technology is ultimately used. The framework might include ancillary mechanisms to improve performance, such as guidance for users.
  • Product mode of enquiry and action might be a particular approach to R&D.
  • Product knowledge is about architecture and design, e.g. the arrangement of components in a successful working entity.
  • Product artefacts include the product as delivered and component technologies within it, and the effects they have.
  • The production mode of inquiry and action might be a particular approach to process improvement.
  • Production knowledge is about the systems of operation and control, craft practices etc.
  • Production artefacts are the organisations, structures and tools that enact these systems and practices, and the effects they have.