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.
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.
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.
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