Scientists understand social cues and are, like the rest of us, equipped with human emotions. Their take on socially constructed reality might be slightly askew (by whose standards?), but their social construction of reality is just as valid as another group’s social construction. Managers in R&D organizations face the same kind of relational issues and group-intergroup dynamics as all other managers. So, the education of future scientist-managers should touch on the same fundamental principles as for management in general. And I stress “general.” When it comes to education, my bias is toward the liberal arts tradition that strives to provide a broader base of knowledge.
I find resonance for this broader education focus in Fareed Zakaria’s “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous,” published in Washington Post a few weeks ago. In contrast to the current calls from many sectors in the society to emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Mr. Zakaria lays out reasons why a broader education agenda would be more beneficial for society: “A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.” (Remember what “STEM” was called in the 18th and 19th centuries: Natural Philosophy.) While his argument is targeted at broadening science education, I regard his argument as pertinent not just science but also to management education as well.
Part of the push for STEM comes from our collective angst over mediocre performance of US students in international ranking in sciences, math, and reading. However, as Mr. Zakaria points out, even during the post-WWII golden era of our scientific and technological dominance, American children’s academic performance wasn’t all that impressive by global standards. While US continues lags in test scores these days, it is still highly rated internationally in innovation and entrepreneurship, along with Israel and Sweden, whose test scores are mediocre as well. Zakaria attributes the economic success of these countries to the following common traits: “They are flexible. Their work cultures are non-hierarchical and merit-based. All operate like young countries, with energy and dynamism. All three [countries] are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods and services.”
There are plenty of examples of how technology/science interplays with consumers’ needs and wants. For instance, computer designers have to understand what people desire to produce marketable products. So it is for all technological and scientific products, even if usage may be confined to smaller groups, such as exploration of outer space or medical treatment for rare illnesses. Even when starting from limited usage — generally for very expensive endeavors — the transfer of science and technology to more popular consumption eventually comes from people who can imagine beyond the formulae and equations. The ability to think creatively does not come from, and certainly does not require, a STEM-focused academic background.
Of course, no one suggests that we should applaud ourselves for mediocre performance on international tests (or for that matter, mediocrity in anything); being mediocre doesn’t automatically lead to creativity and innovation. However, the solution is not to narrow our education focus. Taking away art classes, shortening recesses, eliminating gym…all would contribute to students’ feeling boxed in, stressed out, and short-changed overall. Like Mr. Zakaria, I also came from a system in which the students are taught how to take tests and driven to score well on tests (although the normal distribution curve still applies). For me, I didn’t feel that I was truly engaged in my own education until I came to this country to finish my undergraduate education. And for the first time in my life, I felt unfettered and excited to pursue whatever my imagination would lead me toward … though it still took me a long journey to allow myself to imagine, without guilt and apprehension. In Taiwan (and I suspect in China as well), we were never taught to have fun; in fact, admitting having fun was frowned upon. Babysitting experience during my undergraduate years in the States taught me a lot about Americans’ childhood.
All these arguments apply to general management education as well. I recall a conversation with a group of executives from Hong Kong, a much more westernized place than most other Asian countries. Many of them commented to me about how they admired and envied the Americans’ creativity and innovation. Yet, in the next breath, they’d complain about Americans’ irreverent attitude and how it bordered on being disrespectful of laws. As you’ll have suspected, I pointed out that all these things come in a package: You cannot ask people to be creative by telling them what to do and expecting them to obey exactly. I still remember the reaction on their faces: Oh!
Our business schools have been adopting a STEM-like framework, inculcating MBA students with “the important” tools and skill-set without emphasis on reflection, philosophy, or arts (not necessarily painting or sculpturing, but perhaps language arts, learning appreciation for fine-tuned expressions, effective capture of emotions, influential choices of words). (Ironically, in many technical organizations, new employees are taught technical writing!) Real time management often involves exercising the art of decision-making or making “wise” choices, i.e. making judgment calls. Patents discuss prior art, make note of “those skilled in the art,” and make other references to art. “Art” and the wisdom to recognize and appreciate it in its broadest sense and definition are essential for STEM. Data and evidence are important but they have their limits. Wisdom comes from wider views, richer experiences, and a diversity of interactions with the world.
My words and reflections are woefully inadequate in addressing complicated issues like education. But I know that putting more focus on STEM can only be one component of a starting point. Similarly, management education needs to go beyond strategy, economic principles, marketing tools, metrics…
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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