Japanese firms have achieved the highest levels of manufacturing efficiency in the world automobile industry. (46) Some observers of Japan have assumed that Japanese firms use the same manufacturing equipment and techniques as United States firms but have benefited from the unique characteristics of Japanese employees and the Japanese culture. However, if this were true, then one would expect Japanese auto plants in the United States to perform no better than factories run by United States companies. This is not the case. (47) Japanese-run automobile plants located in the United States and staffed by local workers have demonstrated higher levels of productivity when compared with factories owned by United States companies.
Other observers link high Japanese productivity to higher levels of capital investment per worker. But a historical perspective leads to a different conclusion. (48) When the two top Japanese automobile makers matched and then doubled United States productivity levels in the mid-sixties, capital investment per employee was comparable to that of United States firms. Furthermore, by the late seventies, the amount of fixed assets required to produce one vehicle was roughly equivalent in Japan and in the United States. Since capital investment was not higher in Japan, it had to be other factors that led to higher productivity.
A more fruitful explanation may lie with Japanese production techniques. Japanese automobile producers did not simply implement conventional processes more effectively, they made critical change in United States procedures. (49) For instance, the mass-production philosophy of United States automakers encouraged the production of huge lots of cars in order to utilize fully expensive, component-specific equipment and to occupy fully workers who have been trained to execute one operation efficiently. Japanese automakers chose to make small-lot production feasible by introducing several departures from United States practices, including the use of flexible equipment that could be altered easily to do several different production tasks and the training of workers in multiple jobs. (50) Automakers could schedule the production of different components or models on single machines, thereby eliminating the need to store the spare stocks of extra components that result when specialized equipment and workers are kept constantly active.
The technological revolutions of the last two decades have placed a severe burden on the concept of technology transfer. It is quite clear that the concept has serious limitations; with time, it is not at all clear that its methods have improved or its result progressed.
(1)The underlying assumption in “technology transfer” is that the application of new discoveries to the development of new technology by the developed countries produces results which are applicable to underdeveloped countries. Although this assumption has never really been put to a true global test, it is by now clear that this cannot be the main means of technological progress in developing areas such as Africa, Southeast Asian and Latin America, irrespective of its possible utility elsewhere. (2) The question is whether such an outcome is inevitable and inherent in the process or whether it merely reflects the shortage of resources and improper management. It is my contention that “technology transfer” as a vehicle of progress for the developing countries is irreparably flawed and cannot succeed.
The fundamental flaw is that “technology transfer” is cast in the die of a colonial process whereby developed countries do things in ways that they find acceptable for their former colonies, the developing countries. (3) Whether the development process is carried out by citizens of the recipient nation or not is irrelevant; the philosophy upon which” technology transfer” is based, beginning with training and ending with application, is composed of a set of socio-culturally and economically determined values within the institutionalized fabric of science, which select the questions found to be meaningful, dictate the preferred research plans and evaluate the significance only of the results obtained.
Clearly, technology based on the set of determinants is not likely to be very relevant to the vastly different economic and socio-cultural conditions of developing countries. It will hardly get to the needs of the developing countries, perhaps even serving to slow progress.
(4) This situation must be replaced by a new process which might be called “basic knowledge transfer” as part of growth of a forefront science in the developing countries. This approach contains the following features:
• Given full access to new scientific discovery at the cutting edge of science, that is, at the region of high intensity transfer from basic to applied knowledge, the scientists of developing countries can create their own technology transfer from basic to applied.
• Scientists in the developing countries, in active dialog with other elements such as government, community and industry, can identify and prioritize problems and develop a practical situation.
(5) The problem of internal “technology transfer” will require for each country or region a suitable number of trained scientific specialists; means for maintaining the competency of these leaders will need to be developed by each nation or region.