Archive | April 2015

When Science Meets Reality – final part

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.

Wide view.

Wide view.

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.

Up & close.

Up & close.

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.

A mid-range view.

A mid-range view.

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.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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When Science Meets Reality – Part II+

My comment about “unless a scientist is independently wealthy or can attract wealthy patron, she is pretty much destined to work for organizations” elicited a reader’s correction. His point is well taken: In certain areas where the computer plays the key component in scientific exploration, some scientists can still operate independently. I even received a little tour of his modest facility, a small den equipped with a computer and a contraption with light bulbs, tubes, duct tape, lots of wire, etc. His enthusiasm was contagious – I was quite excited about the potential economic, technical, scientific, and social-psychological benefits – but his explanations of the physics principles were still opaque to me by the end of our half-hour encounter. And I admitted to him, “You know that within two minutes after I walk out of this building, all your explanations will have evaporated into the wind.” I would need at least another half-dozen 1-hour sessions…just to comprehend some of the basics.

A snowy reality in April.

A snowy reality in April.

I suspect such a scenario is fairly common in many organizations, scientists explaining their work to colleagues who lack a background in that scientific field but need to attend to other aspects of scientific work. In modern organizations, scientific work processes encompass delineating procedures, getting approvals, monitoring the various stages of the work, performing the actual work itself, and addressing its legal ramifications regarding not just potential accidents but also potential transactions with other entities outside the organizations.

Throughout the process, communication between scientists and “others” is not symmetrical. For example, a biochemist can explain a technical article to a relatively intelligent non-scientist, or even to another scientist not expert in her field, and the receiver may understand the main points and grasp the fundamental principles. But can the non-expert then pick up another technical biochemistry article and grasp its main points? No; the non-expert will require a fresh explanation by the biochemist to explain this new technical article. This cannot be the best use of the biochemist’s time, yet, in today’s procedure-obsessed organizations, everyone needs to be briefed before work can move forward. The people who “need” to be briefed for project X would need the same amount of attention from the same scientist for project Y, or from a different scientist on project Z.

The learning curve for non-experts has to be climbed each time.   Indeed this is the definition of non-expert: A scientist has spent decades accumulating knowledge and developing expertise that can’t be replaced with a few sessions of condensed teaching. Thus the asymmetry in communication between the biochemist and the non-expert. The tendency is for expert scientists to understand what management and operations staff need, but not the other way around. More personally, most people can understand what I, a social scientist, talk about, as long as I avoid jargon and use clear English; but were I an astrophysicist or a virologist, even using clear English would be inadequate to communicate the manifold and intricate connections, background and context, mathematical framework, and other details that comprise my technical discipline.

So, when I commented in the previous post that scientist-managers might want to consider including non-scientist colleagues in the work process, I didn’t make myself clear. These managers couldn’t possibly spend the hours necessary to bring non-scientists up to speed on the specifics of the endeavors – even if the non-scientists were interested in knowing the details. Still, if work procedures need various signatures and approvals, then managers might make the work process smoother by providing some basic scientific rationale, philosophy, and significance of the work to the non-scientists.

Not everyone can explain sophisticated scientific subjects clearly and understandably, and still generate excitement in the audience. Not all scientist-managers are good at such communication; such managers need to seek good communicators to facilitate such translation. But if there is only one expert on a subject in the organization, then, that person carries a heavy burden, having to explain his work to all stakeholders. When is he going to find the time to actually work, to genuinely accomplish something? Having multiple experts in subjects important for organizational capabilities – having people’s expertise overlap, sometimes called having “critical mass” in those subjects – is important for organizational learning. I am afraid, though, that during economic stress, top management always wants to reduce such overlap, mistakenly thinking that “critical mass” is wasteful, thereby making everyone carry an extra burden.

more snow cones

Most solutions to management conundrums are less scientifically grounded than philosophically grounded…though, data helps. So, the focus of next week will be on education and philosophy. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

When Science Meets Reality – Part II

On the one hand, we laud those who “follow what they believe;” on the other, we fault those who aren’t willing to entertain ideas outside of their beliefs. I am not referring to religion or current members of Congress; instead, my focus is on “when scientists become managers,” and continuing the theme from last week, “when science meets reality.”

Whenever people say, “Oh, management is just exercising common sense,” I feel like responding with, “And how are your family dynamics (including in-laws if you are married)? Are you managing them well? Surely, that’s just common sense stuff.” While it’s difficult to admit that “common sense” is largely socially constructed reality, once admitting that we need to be extra weary when people evoke that phrase. Nothing tests scientists’ humanness as much as when scientists move into management ranks, and from there attempting to exercise their brand of common sense.

female? or, male?

female? or, male?

Most literature on management and R&D focuses on strategic dimensions, such as dealing with environmental turbulence, international competition or cooperation, resource allocation, oursourcing, etc. All important topics and I can certainly get into lofty discussions in a heartbeat, but in today’s space, I just want to focus on some mundane issue that impact thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of employees working in scientific R&D. The mundane issue is that generic “safety and security”…again.

Is there a practice that for every new rule installed, at least one old or obsolete rule be tossed out? Conducting scientific experiments these days, a scientist must complete umpteen amount of paperwork (or, computer filing) to assure all rules and regulations have been obeyed. The university structure is generally flatter than non-profit (are there non-profit R&D organizations?), industries, and national laboratories. At universities, professors are responsible for all the safety procedures in experimental work. In industries, there are more layers of procedure and approval. But at the national labs? You probably need 23 signatures just to burp; God forbid if you need to sneeze! (Hence my parody of using goats as weed control, posted a couple of summers ago.)

From a bystander’s perspective, I hold top management at these institutions and their parent departments accountable for creating the slippery slope of piled-up rules and regulations. National labs have to respond to various stakeholder groups, DOE, NSF, DOD, etc., that ultimately trace back to Congress which has taken micromanagement to an (abstract) art form. Many managers at the national labs are scientists, and many of their counterparts at the sponsoring agencies, i.e. DOE, DOD…are scientists too. They are more familiar with the third law of thermodynamics than I can ever hope to, so they ought to know that tightening screws on safety and security ultimately exacts a costly toll on our collective efforts in innovation and creativity. I appreciate that part of the problem is the nature of incremental pressure: One keeps thinking that one more rule, one more measure to address that last incident/accident, one more training requirement to confirm the staff has read that most recent new measure, isn’t going to hurt much. And I definitely sympathize with anyone trying to “educate” the Congress. Still, these scientist-managers ought to know better; they do bear more responsibilities to ensure a more scientifically-attuned environment for their people, by educating the public, including colleagues who aren’t scientists. Instead, I have too often witnessed scientists’ turning into whole-hearted enforcers for regulations as soon as they assume their managerial position. It’s as if they succumbed overnight to the need to focus on a clean managerial record with little or no incident/accidents on their watch. Science gets subordinated to a “better safety record.”

Pouting.

Pouting.

Don’t even get me started on lawyers, professionally risk-averse, in such an environment.

Of course, being a social scientist, I cannot help but seeing other perspectives as well. There is always “on the fifth hand…”

The issue of observing rules and regulations for lower and middle levels of managers in R&D organizations is a little more complicated. These managers don’t have much power to make or change rules, so what are their options? Some would reluctantly cooperate with agents from stakeholder organizations, and some may proactively work with the stakeholder agents (informing and educating for better understanding) to strengthen working relationships…all the while wishing there was a better way. In the proactive approach, the payoff is ultimately a better working environment for the scientists, engineers…all staff members. Yet, how often do those holding the opposite perspective regard such a manager as a sell-out…cooperating with “enemies?” This then leads to a different approach, what I term “guerilla tactics,” in which managers try to stall, sabotage, stonewall, undermine, demean stakeholder agents. While tactics like these may seem driven by principles, the satisfaction is short-lived and the actions can backfire. For instance, when someone gets caught breaking rules that may have dire consequences, the entire staff suffers new rules, and the reputation of the organization takes a (further) beating.

Yes, I show my bias. Truth be told, my temperament actually might lead me to employ “guerilla tactics;” however, I like to believe that I would ultimately use my rationality to see the greater good for a larger population than my own personal satisfaction.

When activities needed to meet the accumulated rules and regulations take up more than 50% of a day’s work for most people in an organization, there is something seriously wrong with that work environment. At the end of a day, when a person realizes that he has done 8+ hours of work without a trace of accomplishment, it makes going back to work the next day just a little tougher.

When cranes meet lilies.

When cranes meet lilies.

I feel like I have a little more reflection on scientist-manager. Next time. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

When Science Meets Reality — part I

“I just want to be left alone to do my work.” A pervasive sentiment at workplace, I am sure; what I am not sure is if it’s more so these days than, say, twenty years ago. Since I have been closely affiliated with scientists of one kind or another for the majority of my life, I constantly hear from them uttering that expression, with exasperation and passion.   However, I am afraid that unless a scientist is independently wealthy or capable of attracting a wealthy patron, thereby having at his disposal all the equipment and resources that money can buy – not unheard of in the 18th century or before – scientists working in an organizational environment simply have to “put up with” other humans’ “meddling.” Further, since most of the “meddling” is socially constructed reality, sometimes it is difficult to assess who has the “righter” answers to complicated situations that involve not just science but politics, power, control, money (though all these factors grow pretty much from the same roots), different needs and priorities and their interpretations, etc. Scientists know how to read social cues, but when the chips are down, they feel their science should have the final say.

images-5After the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in April, 1990, the high hopes for awesome quality space images were quickly dashed. The initial images returned to the earth were slightly blurred. “An investigation finally revealed a spherical aberration in the primary mirror, due to a miscalibrated measuring instrument that caused the edges of the mirror to be ground slightly too flat.” (http://history.nasa.gov/hubble/) In other words, Hubble was somewhat myopic. (See the National Geographic April, 2015 issue.) The engineers rushed to manufacture solutions in time for Hubble’s first service mission in 1993. That successful mission corrected (or perhaps more accurately, compensated for) Hubble’s flaws. With additional service missions over the decades, we have since been benefiting from breathtaking images of the space … and untold valuable data for scientists, as originally intended. I am sure there were many moments of high drama and heart-in-throat suspense, but since there weren’t recorded disasters, we aren’t likely to see any Hollywood movies on Hubble any time soon.

Like all government-funded projects, Hubble mission was replete with negotiations, compromises, regulations and rules, oversight, micromanagement, and many other major and minor headaches. If scientists had total say and control, they would have preferred a much larger telescope stationed at a much higher orbit. Hubble’s initial “failures” probably only confirmed the scientists’ grumbling about “science…being subordinated to flyboy flash.” However, had Hubble with all its flaws stayed higher, out of the reach of the capabilities of the shuttles, it would have become a “12-ton dud.” Not that management should be awarded credit for knowing what they were doing – budgets ultimately dictated the final design — but sometimes the expert community’s “we know the best” isn’t true either.images

Scientists can commit fundamental flaws, both at the level of technical method and at the level of their humanness. Thank goodness, fundamental flaws don’t happen frequently.

In 2010, a team of scientists, funded by NASA, made a splash in the news, claiming that in the arsenic-rich Mono Lake, located in California, they found microbes manifesting an alternative life form, using arsenic instead of phosphorus in the DNA make up. The public might have reacted with “whoop-dee-do,” but it was a big deal for scientists, and many of them were skeptical from the get-go, with good scientific reasons. The research was published in 2011 Science. This was a groundbreaking claim, but its “sloppy” methodology was subsequently and soundly rebuked by at least two independent teams, who confirmed the customary role of phosphorus in these organisms.

Without going into technical detail – since I am not equipped to do so and I need a chemist to double check my writing — I’ll repeat this: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The original study failed utterly to provide any “extraordinary proof.” Instead, several of the authors responded to the refute with the attitude that “See, this is how science works. Someone can come and verify or disprove with evidence.” Well, shouldn’t the scientists have been responsible for providing clear and conscientious work – including extraordinary proof where it was so obviously called for – in the first place? Putting out poorly-tested ideas and relying on others to do the checking is not science; that’s wasting others’ precious time and resources. The leading critic of the arsenic claim, Rosie Redfield, has made three major scathing points: 1. It’s lazy to expect other scientists to verify the initial claim, when 2. the original slipshod methodology should have been spotted by the more experienced scientists on the team. And one more point: After the lead author, a postdoctoral at the time, was soundly refuted, the other authors of more senior status just seemed to hem and haw as they backed away. It’s as if, having another article on their vitae they had no more interest in defending the lead author.

An "ordinary" sky shot.

An “ordinary” sky shot.

By no means do I attempt to besmirch the public image of the (natural) scientific community. On balance, the public owes the community a huge debt of gratitude for an incredible body of knowledge and countless improvements to our lives. I just want to point out, again, that scientists are just regular human beings too. Given the nature of their profession, governed by data, evidence, assessment of evidence, peer reviews, careful examination…in other words, rigorous standards, scientists generally do well monitoring the integrity of each other’s work. Yet, when natural science and social reality collide, some stuff gets damaged. Since most of us peons don’t know or understand what they do exactly, scientists have to carry a little extra responsibility to educate the public, which is next week’s topic. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com