Monthly Archives: July 2016

Running a Technology Station is a balancing act!

Of course you have seen pictures of those intrepid tight-rope walkers! Well, a Station Manager in the Technology Innovation Agency stable of stations has a very similar job to do i.e. balancing a number of sometimes opposing forces BUT while juggling quite a number of balls in the air as well. Much more difficult, hey? This concept of balance is an interesting analogy in terms of making a Station productive as well as successful. And, before you query it: No, this is not self-praise or braggadocio but rather an, albeit subjective, description of the nuts and bolts of Station life. This will help in terms of understanding how the Station operates, especially for those who see us as a sequestered cash cow or a spoilt brat of a unit 🙂

Let’s look at some of the factors in this management process:

  • TIA operational grant – we receive a fixed grant for Opex. Over the years our expenses (including our salary bill for a fixed staff of 8 persons) has slowly grown to match our annual grant. This means we have had to trim our operations to ensure that we remain “solvent, keeping in mind that we operate on a “not for profit basis”. If our opex overshadows our grant (which often happens to me at the ATM), we would be heading for trouble.
  • Costs for services – these costs are divided into two broad categories viz. “full cost” and “discounted/subsidised cost”. Full cost is based on properly costing a service (using a Cost Accountant?) and this is used to charge all large companies. SMMES, as defined by the Entrepreneur’s Toolkit (which in turn is based on that of the Department of Trade & Industry), may be charged a discounted rate based on a formula (this implies a “loss” for ATS). This discount does not last indefinitely but does end after a number of interventions with a client.
  • Discounts/Subsidies – As alluded to above, the discount only lasts for up to 5 interventions with a client. As also mentioned, this then becomes a “loss” to ATS but it is an acknowledged part of our expenditure (rather than income) since this is part of our mandate i.e. assist SMMEs with lower costs up to a point. ATS keeps track of this “loss” to ensure the balance sheet is always understood to have this loss (or potential income) and to put a quantity to it. It is very seldom (and actually discouraged) that 100% discount is allowed.
  • Balanced scorecard targets – this is an agreed set of targets expressed numerically in terms of our annual Service Level Agreement which forms part of the business plan. This contract is signed by TIA and CPUT management to acknowledge that failure to meet these target’s means either a reduction of the Opex grant or even a cessation thereof. Now, one thing you do not do to a Tech Station is touch it on its Opex!!! It is thus critical that the targets are met (more on this later).
  • TIA Monitoring & Evaluation – On a quarterly basis the Stations report to TIA on performance against the targets together with an unaudited financial statement. This includes evidence of performance which TIAs auditors then verify and moderate. Together with this TIA further conducts two M&E exercises per year by means of personal visits to Stations against a set agenda. This agenda interrogates a wide range of performance objectives, data and requirements outside the Service Level Agreement itself. This report is also used to gauge the health of the Station against the annual grant.
  • Advisory Board & Management Committee – These are two bodies that the Grant Agreement with TIA stipulates. The first is just that: an advisory body made up of industry and other external interested parties and meets twice a year. The Management Committee is an internal Committee which meets quarterly to approve any reports to TIA including the annual report, audited financial statement and other items needing discussion and decisions.
  • Reporting – The types of reports required by TIA have been mentioned in previous bullets and are compulsory and critical to assessing Station health. However, beside this, there has been an increase in the demand by the funder to provide more and more information for audit purposes, this in itself creating a lot more “work” in order to maintain compliance with changing requirements.

Now, after just showing you the bare bones of the management and reporting system, this is where the proverbial hits the fan. Keep in mind that the Station is a fully fledged Unit of CPUT funded by TIA and is not a TIA unit in itself only. This means that we operate under the CPUT brand and comply with all its policies and procedures. These in itself change over time and create its own pressures on capacity in the Station. An example is an increasing compliance requirement with financial processes which are being tightened continuously. This is a common frustration for the whole University community. However, we do understand this in terms of ethical use of funds and ensuring unqualified audits for the institution and for the Station itself.

And therefore the balancing act: in a rushed world where clients want things yesterday, TIA wanting us to meet deadlines and reporting requirements, CPUT wanting its own internal compliance, including ensuring that we run in the black and ultimately that we meet our TIA targets. We are happy to say that we balance and juggle simultaneously without having fallen yet. And if truth be told, we do not intend to fall but to grow the Station and its services as well as its outputs. We do need you to wish us luck though and also to understand the pressures we face when trying to serve the industry and academia simultaneously:-)

Larry Dolley

“Researcher” versus “Senior Technologist” – what are these animalcules?

First of all, what are animalcules? This was the term used by Anton van Leeewenhoek (1632 – 17223) to describe what he saw under his crude lenses of the day. In much the same way, I wish to examine the two job titles in a little more detail in academic context. This context relates to job titles in a University of Technology which has a unit such as the Agrifood Technology Station. This is an interesting situation which had a arisen during decisions on making a new appointment in either of the three Stations at CPUT, the other two being the TS in Clothing & Textiles and the AMTL Adaptronics TS.

For the uninitiated, the Technology Stations are DST funded vehicles to service the technology innovation and other needs in the SMME sector per the industry serviced by each Station. The question had arisen: Do the Stations require a Researcher or do they require a Technologist? You may at this point want to aver that a rose is a rose no matter by which name you call it! But, hold that thought right there.

A little more context: CPUT as an institution does use the word “Researcher” and has appointed persons with this job title. On the other hand, “Technologist” is less used and not necessarily a preferred term. In both instances, there is no fixed job description for the titles and they are used flexibly based on the need by the appropriate unit or department. And to muddy the waters even further, the term “Technician” is widely used at CPUT. This will be touched on later as well. However, in my mind, the first term is generally reminiscent of academic research of a nature that involves long-term studies leading to the publication of peer reviewed outputs in appropriate journals. This, as much academics know that it is not always true, is further reminiscent of research conducted in the chase for outputs and subsidy. This may be perceived, and sometimes in fact is, with less concern for the application of the knowledge or where the outputs are on the Technology Readiness Level (TRL)1 as an indicator of closeness to commercialization (see footnote to this blog). The TRL is probably something closer to the outputs of a Technologist. And that is where the difference between the two essentially ends i.e. purely a contextual and perceptual one. What does the public see when we use either of those two terms? And what would we like them to see?

Let’s look at formal definitions for these two terms and then also mix in the Technician. All three have slightly varying definitions but generally are defined closely over a range of references. In the interests of brevity, and hopefully objectively, I chose as follows:

  • A Researcher is someone who conducts research i.e. an organized and systematic investigation into something. Scientists are often described as researchers. This is also loosely translated as the person who sees a big picture, sometimes in an abstractor theoretical form and who then designs hypotheses which is tested in the laboratory.
  • A Technologist is deemed to be the person who takes the outcomes from the big picture above and applies it in the practical domain, this requiring a lot of intimate detail and knowledge regarding the research area as well.
  • A Technician is a person whose job relates to the practical use of machines or science in industry, medicine, etc. (someone who has mastered the basic techniques or skills in the field of expertise).

There is also much acknowledgement of the fact that the two titles need each other and, in a few cases, one person could be described by both names. More importantly for me though is the distinctive character of the Technologist i.e. the hands-on, practical, applications approach rather high up on the TRL (close to commercialization). This is one of the key outputs of a University of Technology and it is also one of the key mandates of Technology Stations. This is explained by the diagram below which shows where we are in the innovation value chain (represented by the TIA block):

Innovation Chasm

At the end of the day though, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But, if you are in the Rose Garden in Durbanville, you would very often need to know your Genus from your Species!

Larry Dolley

1A simple description of Technology Readiness Levels

1 Basic Technology research Basic science. Not application-focussed. Principles are observed and reported on.
2 Concept formulation Some practical applications identified materials or processes required and confirmed. Technology and hypothesis formulated. Research plans and protocols are developed, peer reviewed and approved.
3 Analytical and experimental critical function or research proof of concept established Laboratory measurements validate analytical predictions of separate technology elements. Hypothesis tested.
4 Validation in laboratory environment Test results confirm design and meet technical performance. Hypothesis refined. Formulations tested.
5 Laboratory scale validation in relevant environment Validation under relevant operational conditions, mimicked in the laboratory.
6 Integrated prototype system verified in relevant environment Prototype demonstration in the operational environment. E.g. Phase 1 trials
7 Integrated pilot system demonstrated in operational environment Integrated full scale pilot systems demonstrated in an operational environment or site.
8 Actual system completed and validated through test and demonstration Actual product completed and qualified through certification, tests and demonstrations.
9 Proven system and ready for full commercial deployment Product proven ready through successful operations in operating environment.