Monday, April 22, 2019

Risk and Reward

I think I've written on this blog before about the Technology Roadmap that my association maintains for the industry we represent. If not, as a quick introduction, our Technology Roadmap describes an industry-wide consensus regarding the pre-competitive research and development needs associated with improving the design, manufacture, and function of fluid power components and systems. We update it every two years, and we share its results broadly, hoping that companies, universities, and other research organizations will use it to guide their decisions on research projects of importance to our industry.

We are in one of our update cycles right now. We've already identified the eight broad areas of development that we think are important to help our technology meet or better meet the needs of our industry's customers, and we are now conducting a series of conference calls -- one for each of those areas of development -- so that a working group of industry and academic representatives with expertise and interest in each area can help us define the specific objectives for research projects that would help us make the appropriate advancements.

Our industry is a broad and diverse one. Having been through this update cycle a few times now, I know that every time we open up conversations like these, we wind up with more research objectives than our research partners can possibly act on. To help provide some focus, I usually ask each working group to not only identify the appropriate research objectives, but to prioritize them as well.

Imagine that we had limited resources, I often say (which, of course, is not far from the truth), and we could only invest in one of the many research objectives we just identified. Which one would we pick? Which one do we think we are most likely to see successfully achieved?

And every time I say that, someone, with the best of intentions, will start asking me questions about risk and reward.

Wait a minute, this person might say. Why are we focused on the one that is most likely to be successful? If we're prioritizing, shouldn't we pick the one with the largest possible reward for our industry? After all, you know what they say. Low risk, low reward; high risk, high reward.

It is an excellent point. And if we were building a roadmap that we actually had the capacity to act on comprehensively, I'd probably be the first person to agree. We should probably develop an entire risk vs. reward matrix, and plot every research objective on it.

But one of the things that's different about our roadmap from those developed by other organizations is that it really has no directed execution phase associated with it. We're not taking a holistic approach to its resulting recommendations, allocating resources in accordance with its prescriptions and predictions. We, the association that sponsors and organizes this roadmapping activity, has no such resources to invest.

Our goal, as strange as it may be to say, is not to actually develop any new technology for our industry. It is, instead, to engage the academic community in research projects that are important to our industry. We certainly want those research projects to be successful -- yes, for the industry that stands to benefit from the research discovery, but more importantly for the principal investigators and graduate students that create it. That is how they become interested in our industry's technology, and how they decide the devote their research and teaching careers to it.

And that is actually the reward we're looking for -- a group of academic faculty teaching our technology to a new generation of undergraduate students. When we're prioritizing our objectives, therefore, let's make sure we pick the ones that are most likely to get people interested and excited about our technology.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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