INTRODUCTION

The growing impact of technologies on competitiveness is forcing firms whatever their size, to implement scanning systems to help them seek and acquire new technologies (Radnor, 1992). Past research has mainly concentrated on large busineses. Some authors (Schafer, 1990; Fann and Smeltzer, 1989) have observed that very little is known about technological scanning (TECHSCAN) in small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs: firms with less than 200 employees), nor about how it is organized and managed (Martinet and Ribault, 1989; Baumard, 1991). The main factors distinguishing SMBs using new technologies are management quality and, more particularly, the firm’s ability to obtain and process technological information (Julien and Raymond, 1994; Lefebvre et al., 1990; Silem, 1988). We now have a good idea of the micro- and macro-economic reasons underlying the use of new technology (the 'why'), the kinds of technology selected (the 'what') and the SMBs that use it (the 'who'). However, we know very little about the methods used by SMBs (the 'how') to manage technological change, and in particular about how they obtain and use scientific and technological information (Raymond et al., 1996).

The aim of the research described here was to provide a better understanding of the manifestations, configurations and determinants of TECHSCAN in manufacturing SMBs.

 

ANALYSIS OF THE LITERATURE

The Concept of Technological Scanning

Jakobiak (1991), who, like Radnor (1992), focused on the instrumental role of TECHSCAN in technological innovation, defined technological scanning as the observation, analysis and dissemination of information on the environment for the purposes of decision-making. Deschenes (1993), on the other hand, took a process-oriented view and defined TECHSCAN as a set of technological information acquisition, analysis and evaluation activities aimed at clarifying choices and decisions. We have taken into account both the instrumental and the process aspects in our definition. We define TECHSCAN as "an organizational activity through which the information needed for technological change is gathered, analyzed and disseminated with a view to increasing the competitiveness of the firm".

 

The Dimensions of Technological Scanning

Theoretical and empirical studies on scanning in general concentrates on three areas that we will refer to as strategic orientations, domain of application and management practices.

Strategic orientations include the objectives, reasons and motivations underlying scanning practices. Although many different theories have been developed around this first component, very few have been verified empirically. Robertson (1992) suggests that the goal of scanning is innovation and the development of competitive advantages. Some other authors consider scanning to be a key factor in business success and strategic decision-making (Brusch, 1992; Fann and Smeltzer, 1989; Specht, 1987). Johnson and Kuehn (1987) associate information search with improvment of productivity. Scanning is also considered to be a strategic tool that enables firms to respond effectively to environmental changes (Schafer, 1990; Smeltzer et al., 1988). Other authors believe scanning to be a key factor in organizational survival (Radnor, 1992). Most, however, agree that it is a prerequisite for technological change. In 1993, the OECD reported that TECHSCAN was used in SMBs to satisfy many concerns: commercial (opportunities identification), technological (new technology adoption) and competitive (watching competitors).

The second component is the domain of application of TECHSCAN. The questions raised here concern information needs and the sources used to obtain information. Most of the empirical research carried out so far has addressed these issues. Information needs are generally classified to distinguish the different types of scanning (technological, commercial, competitive, strategic) and the scope of scanning practices (operation as opposed to general environment). According to Johnson and Kuehn (1987), SMBs managers spend much of their scanning time seeking market-related and technology-related information. With regard to TECHSCAN, Jokobiak (1991) distinguished four types of information: scientific, technical, technological and technical/economic information. The OECD research mentioned earlier (1993) noted that informations considered important by manufacturing SMBs revolve around a relatively stable core. In the area of technological information, SMBs consider information on products, materials and innovations to be the most important. With respect to information sources, Brusch (1992) distinguished between personal (customers, business contacts, competitors, suppliers, etc.) and impersonal sources (business publications, brochures, advertising, newspapers, etc.), and between formal (telephone surveys, structured interviews, etc.) and informal sources (telephone contacts, personal discussions, etc.). Fann and Smeltzer (1989) confirmed Specht’s (1987) findings that SMBs use mainly personal sources.

The third TECHSCAN component refer to management practices. The questions generally raised here concern staff participation, the methods used, the organization of scanning activities their level of formality and frequency and the inclusion of scanning in strategic management. Fann and Smeltzer (1989) observed that most small business managers obtain information in a highly informal way. They observe and analyze their competitors’ products, and also talk to customers and suppliers. Raymond and Lesca (1995) found that TECHSCAN is underdeveloped and highly informal in small businesses. The scanning activities revolve around the owner-manager, who runs the process in a relatively unenlightened way. The most detailed descriptions of scanning organization are theoretical in nature and have been provided by researchers working on scanning typologies. According to Jain (1984), scanning practices develop in four distinct phases: the primitive phase (no effort), the ad-hoc phase (awareness of the need to scan but no formal system introduced), the reactive phase (unplanned, unstructured activities) and the proactive phase (rigorous, intensive practices). Fahey et al. (1981) distinguished three types of scanning: irregular scanning (reactive), periodic scanning (partial integration of activities with objectives) and continuous scanning (structured opportunity seeking). These authors, after verifying their typology with a sample of professionals and managers, observed that the most complex scanning systems fell into the periodic category.

 

The Research Model

Given its instrumental role, we would expect TECHSCAN to be subject to the same factors that encourage or inhibit technological innovation. The literature suggests that the contingency factors related to scanning practices can be divided into four groups, concerned respectively with management, the firm, the environment and the information networks (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1
The Theoretical Model

 

Radnor (1992) stated that managers who are unable to perceive the potential of technology cannot benefit from the dynamic element of technical change, nor can they seize opportunities or predict risks. Julien (1995) mentioned management quality, and emphasized the importance of the experience and training of the owner-manager and his/her assistants. He also noted that individual and collective scientific learning is a precondition for seeking and using scientific and technological information effectively, and added that a certain R&D capability is needed if scanning practices are to be effective. Different company-related factors have also been identified. Miles and Snow (1978) observed that the type of strategy adopted by a company affects the type of scanning. Similarly, Miller and Friesen (1982) noted that the nature of the information process varies according to company strategy. Johnson and Kuehn (1987) implicitly raised the question of size when they observed that small business managers spend more time than corporate managers on information seeking. According to Jain (1984), the need for a systematic scanning practice increases with organization size and complexity. Rothwell (1990) maintained that a firm’s ability to integrate outside know-how depends on the presence of specialized technical staff, management proactivity and level of education, and intensive use of communications networks. Network use depends in particular on accessibility and information quality (O’Reilly, 1982). According to Daft et al. (1988), environmental uncertainty is a good predictor of management scanning frequency. As perceived uncertainty increases, managers tend to diversify and intensify their use of information sources.

 

The Overall Research Hypothesis

Given the exploratory nature of the research, we retain the following general research hypothesis: that TECHSCAN practices are influenced by the owner-managers' profile, the characteristics of the firm, the perception of the environment, and the information networks.

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Last Updated 1/15/97 by Geoff Goldman & Dennis Valencia

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