Tag Archive | work vs. accomplishment

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