Many in the mass media – and, as a result, the general public – conflate these knowledge-dependent fields of endeavor from science to commerce into some sort of amorphous mass with varying components: science, technology, and engineering, for example, are commonly treated as one (possibly because their technical materials are beyond the grasp of most reporters). Because this pernicious confusion is filtering into managers and business people, it's worth spending some time going over the differences.
This image separates the interests of those fields of endeavor by identifying each one's key question.
Science is the search for truth using the theorize-experiment-criticize-repeat method, the scientific method, or some approximation thereof. When doing science, the payoffs in terms of applicability are not important: it's understanding the world that matters. That scientific results can be used to develop technologies is important for a society but need not be for the scientists themselves.
Technology concerns itself with making things that perform a certain function, same as Engineering. The difference is that a technology is achieved when something performs its function in the controlled conditions of a lab, while engineering goes much further and requires the function to be robust to the environment. Many technologies never leave the lab as other, lesser-performing in the lab, are easier to engineer into actual products.
Some authors map technology and engineering into research and development, but this is not quite accurate: a company doing research on human factors for its computer interfaces is doing so as an engineering task, not a technology task. The metrics and incentive systems for these two (technology and engineering), let alone the recruitment and promotion policies, are necessarily very different, and their confusion with research and development blurs the differences.
Production (sometimes called production engineering) is about making engineered products in a economical way, that is, making efficient use of available resources. While the differences between technology and engineering have to do with bringing the usage environment to bear on the product, the questions of production have to do with bringing the production environment to bear on the product. So, while the former cares about usability questions, the latter may worry about securing supply lines for critical components.
Commerce, usually kept separate from the other types of knowledge-based value-creating processes – at least in the mind of many engineers and scientists – is a essential value-creation process: that of making products realize their value by getting them to the people for whom they are designed.
To illustrate some of the problems with misunderstanding the differences between these fields, here are a few examples:
- Expecting investment in science to have a technological, or worse commercial, justification. (Trying to predict which branches of science will have what applications is myopic.)
- Funding a company based on a technology superiority without regard for engineering concerns. (The product never materializes; technologists blame the "users" for not understanding how great the product is and therefore rearranging their lives around it.)
- Funding a company based on a well-engineered product without regard for production issues. (Unfortunately very common, now that a turnkey outsourcing mentality that has contaminated MBAs and even more seasoned executives.)
- Funding a company based on a production-feasible product without regard for market conditions. (Just pick up any Marketing 101 textbook, the examples in the first chapter are plentiful, and – assuming you weren't a stockholder in these examples – hilarious.)
A manager needs to understand the differences and use management skills to foster communication between people with different interests, to take advantage of the opportunities created in the five fields of knowledge-based, value-creation endeavors.
Otherwise, business/society will be coasting along its declining path, by eating its seed corn.
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Note to any former students reading this: Don't you feel special that you got all this in 2006, a five-year lead on the rest of the world? And you got the color pictures too.