Strategic Planning of Research (3-Plane Chart)

Each ERC develops a top-level strategic research plan for all its operations using the ERC Program’s three-level strategic planning chart (see image at right) that depicts how engineered systems goals guide and motivate the center’s fundamental research, enabling technology and systems research, and testbeds.

Strategic planning of the research efforts is at the heart of what makes an ERC. Ideally, the proposed engineered system is something that cannot be realized at the time you write the proposal, but you should be able to articulate what barriers limit you from running out and building it immediately.  Some of these barriers might be at the system level, some at the intermediate enabling technology level, and some at the fundamental research level. Once the barriers are identified, you can start defining a research plan. The research you propose for the ERC should aim to understand the fundamentals well enough to find solutions that remove the barriers to the vision.

Once you have defined the engineered system and barriers, use the 3-plane diagram as a tool to illustrate the tasks that are needed to address or remove the barriers, integrate and assemble prototypes, and demonstrate performance milestones.

The important thing is that the diagram should be developed via a top-down thought process. Starting with your conceptualization of the engineered system(s) vision, articulate the performance requirements that must be designed into the system for the vision to become real. These requirements are conveyed down to the fundamental plane and used for project planning as shown in the figure.

  • Ask yourself which requirements can be realized immediately using off the shelf technology (OTS)?
  • Which requirements need the development of a work-around?

You can move swiftly into development for those projects using OTS technology. The so-called “work-around” requirements require research on physical systems, materials systems, devices, essential hardware, software, or networking systems, that are needed to find a way to remove the barriers you have identified. In this way, the system level requirements are used to drive the selection of research projects in both the fundamental and enabling technology planes. In the diagram, the research outcomes from the fundamental plane are fed upward into activities in the enabling plane and/or the systems plane to modify the outcome of performance demonstrations at these other levels. It is a feedback loop, so the outcome data from demonstrations is fed back down to aid the direction of research projects and assist in design improvements.

On the right side of each level in the diagram the barriers to actualization of the vision are listed.  Expect there to be barriers at all three planes: the fundamental, enabling technology, and system level planes. The “societal impact” mandate of the Gen-4 ERC means that you should be seeking input on requirements from industry and non-industry stakeholders. Therefore, at the system level where stakeholder input is received, legal, policy, or regulatory barriers may also need to be identified; especially if they will impact the ability to deploy the technology or are important for measuring the proposed impact on society. You should especially seek out feedback from entities that might perceive a potential negative impact, to help you identify potential unintended consequences.

A good 3-plane diagram is one that a disinterested third party, who has read the ERC vision statement, can look at and paraphrase what the main research efforts will be, the barriers of concern, and the types of testbeds or prototypes that will be used to demonstrate key concepts.

In summary, the steps to structuring a good strategic plan are:

  1. Start with a compelling vision.
  2. Develop a 3-plane strategic diagram that can be easily read by third-party strangers.
  3. Distill key concepts via short descriptive phrases.
  4. Fonts and images should be easy to read and interpret; photo images should have good resolution.
  5. Make sure the Engineered system is clearly defined and described.