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Why making decisions on technology is about far more than just the hardware

6 October 2015

The article at a glance

Do we control technology, or does technology control us? That’s a question that every business, government and individuals should be asking themselves …

Double exposure of city and business man using digital tablet

Do we control technology, or does technology control us? That’s a question that every business, government and individuals should be asking themselves on a regular basis – the temptation to “follow the trend” when it comes to making business decisions about technology is all too easy.

Managers today are faced with major technological choices that will affect both internal efficiency and customer satisfaction, often in the long- as well as short-term, and these choices are becoming more complex – and therefore difficult to get right. At the same time decision-makers face increasing involvement from government and other public bodies in setting standards and introducing regulation.

Professor Michael Pollitt
Professor Michael Pollitt

Indeed, it is this conundrum that draws students and employers to the MPhil in Technology Policy, according to Professor Michael Pollitt, who will be leading the programme from next year. “The way we teach technology policy is not purely about the workings of specific technologies – it is as much about the social science that surrounds them,” he says. To this end the group is located within the Economics & Policy group of Cambridge Judge Business School (although it enjoys strong links with other Cambridge departments, in particular Engineering).

Pollitt points out that many of the sectors currently undergoing the greatest technological change are also the areas of greatest public concern, such as health, energy and transport. “When you are making a choice as to which way to go technically,” he says, “you need to be able to evaluate the downsides as well as the upsides and to be able to evaluate how to manage potentially catastrophic loss as well as incremental gain set against increases in costs. That’s why a business school is the natural place to learn about technology policy.”

It was certainly an experience alumnus Mark Ramsdale found helpful. A mechanical engineering graduate who had already worked in Westminster and Whitehall, he joined the course back in 2007 because he wanted to add a more formal skills set to his existing knowledge. Today he’s employed in public affairs advocacy and communications within the spheres of technology and sport, and says he found that his studies not only broadened his experience but also “gave me some of the more subtle skills required to deal with the non-technical issues involved in making these big decisions. It’s important to be able to explain a complex technical topic in a concise, approachable way to the eventual policy makers so that they can take informed decisions.” His experience at Cambridge helped him develop these “softer” skills that he employs today when, for example, promoting Bloodhound, potentially the world’s fastest car, to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Dr David Reiner
Dr David Reiner

The current Director of the MPhil, Dr David Reiner, might not have had exactly that scenario in mind when he talks of the need to put technology policy at the heart of government, but he welcomes his former student’s proactive approach. “Historically, business has tended to respond to government,” says Reiner, “but political initiatives have profound implications for the entire direction of certain sectors. It is important that the process of decision-making be interactive – and that there are people equipped to deal with the complex interplay of government regulation and corporate strategy.”

He points to the fact that Shell has tripled the number of people within the organisation who deal with government, not purely in lobbying but in the fundamental analysis of strategic direction. “We need to provide individuals who can put their technical training to good use by developing the skills needed to operate at this interface. To that end we are unusual: an MBA is common currency, but we are offering a more unconventional approach by combining technology with economics and strategic thinking.”

The course offers plenty of opportunity to get out into the wider world, as Head of Educational Teaching Support Carmen Neagoe points out. “Halfway through their year here, the students spend a couple of days in somewhere like Brussels, for example, sitting in on sessions, meeting MEPs and administrative staff. Of course, they visit the Houses of Parliament, as well as major projects such as the Thames Barrier and the London Eye. We ask them to address major questions such as ‘Why was it built? Why did it receive government support? What have been the implications?’ It’s not a sightseeing trip: one year we took them to see the Anglian sewerage system.”

The sphere of study is international; recent case studies include technology forecasting in Malaysia and data protection issues within the EU Commission. As Pollitt says: “Technologies go across borders but what people do them with them is often country-specific, and local regulation systems can be frustrating.”

Reiner points to the example of power outages in India. “You can’t understand the technological side of the energy sector there unless you put it in that political context,” he says. To that end, from 2016, his colleague Jaideep Prahbu, Professor of Indian Business and Enterprise, will be leading a new module on technology in developing countries.

The need is pressing. There has always been high demand for the numerate graduate; now there is a requirement for that graduate to be able to not just work within the context of public policy but to be actively involved in the formulation and strategic direction of policy initiatives – wherever they are in the world.