How to Avoid "Convenience-Mart" Tech Scouting

October 28, 2020

Every week, we meet a few more companies that are transitioning Technology Scouting from an implicit, under-the-radar activity into a formal, dedicated innovation practice. That’s a smart move – and long overdue for many old-guard corporations.

The problem is that too many companies get stuck halfway through the transition. In some cases, by the time we meet them, they’ve already lost a year and burned through a wad of cash without getting the desired results.

Effectively, they’ve succumbed to the lure of “convenience-mart” tech scouting. And the longer the cycle of dependence continues, the harder it is to break.

Here’s a common story: Acme Corporation launches a new Tech Scouting team comprised of three full-time scouts. Each scout’s mission is to develop an externally-sourced pipeline of innovation opportunities on behalf of one of the company’s three primary business lines. Facing an immediate stream of requests from their stakeholders, the team hires a service partner to help them deliver on their first few projects. As such, an outsourced group of consultants conducts the external scans, prepares the research reports, and helps deliver the findings – all in partnership with the in-house tech scouts.

So far, so good. The scouting team has answered the call from the business, buying time and generating goodwill. They’ve gained practical experience that can lead to self-sufficiency over time.

That’s when the problems begin to surface. To keep up with demand, the scouting team continues to lean on outsourced project work. They come to rely on an expanding variety of third-party firms, shifting project-by-project based on who has the requisite expertise and connections in a given scientific field or sub-industry category. Over time, Acme’s executives begin to question the need for an internal scouting team acting as the middleman. If it’s just a series of outsourced initiatives, couldn’t the business have commissioned and project-managed each effort on its own? What are we really accomplishing here?

A steady stream of new Wellspring customers come to us in the wake of an initial failure. After enough repetitions of the cycle, here’s what we’ve learned: it is entirely possible to have an in-house tech scouting team that succeeds in its year-one mission. Indeed, doing so – whether it’s a reboot, or your first attempt – is usually far preferable than either: a) retrenchment back into implicit/informal scouting on a group-by-group basis; or b) asking the businesses to try and manage outsourced scouting work on their own. The former admits defeat, effectively shattering the organization’s chances of keeping pace with the rate of external technology change; the latter leads to inconsistent focus, scattershot output, and inefficient results.

To avoid the “convenience-mart” syndrome, your focus from the outset should be on acquiring tools and building processes that support a renewable in-house capability.

In terms of toolsets, there are many options, including Wellspring’s Tech Scouting platform – which combines comprehensive data with powerful AI to bolster both the breadth and efficiency of an in-house scouting team’s efforts.

But tools alone are not enough. Any new scouting team will progress through a learning curve, until they are running ecosystem scans that consistently go beyond just the obvious opportunities. Similarly, stakeholders in R&D and/or the business will need to build familiarity with the “right way” to ask for help from the scouting team, and over time the scouting team must learn to anticipate those needs without being “told.” Further, both sides must develop a shared language for how they define success and how they communicate through the scope of a given initiative.

If you’re in the early stages of this journey, it’s natural and reasonable (although not inevitable) that you might choose to work with one or more services firms. Done for the right reasons, third-party support can accelerate the learning curve, not hinder it. And as we have noted in Wellspring’s Tech Scouting: Build-vs-Buy whitepaper, there are valid reasons to continue using third-party scouting services in perpetuity, as part of a hybrid model. Even well-staffed teams will run into peaks and valleys of bandwidth availability. Plus, there will be niche topics where specific outside expertise makes a big difference.

If you take one lesson from this post, know this: building an in-house scouting team doesn’t have to be costly, nor does it need to take a long time. But you must exercise discipline and focus to imbue the new team with the boundary conditions for self-sufficiency. It’s not rocket science, but an astonishing number of companies struggle anyway. As a result, they fall into convenience-mart purgatory.

This is an avoidable mistake. Here’s hoping your organization can get it right the first time, by learning from the experiences of others.



Let's Talk