#69 Brave New World-Revisited!

by Steven Cerri on August 11, 2008

But what exactly will you learn?

Hello everyone!

For those of you who do not read my blogs regularly, this blog is a follow-on to last week’s blog. So if you haven’t read last week’s blog you might want to read last week’s and this week’s.

That said, here goes.

Last week I wrote about how we humans are very efficient learning machines. And I said that much of what we do in our adult life is a function of what we learned when we were children… the non-technical stuff I mean. Like how we treat others, what our concept and relationship is to authority, management, conflict, etc. These early learnings drive our movement through the world in our professional lives. These early concepts generate the structure that ultimately leads us to our professions.

So this week, I want to expand this concept a whole bunch! I want to talk about the implications of what I wrote last week on managers, how we train managers, and how we teach and train our engineers and scientists.

Let’s agree that we behave… toward each other in regards to conflict, creativity, change, uncertainty, authority, management oversight, people’s voices, being told what to do versus being asked what to do, and being appreciated, to name just a few categories, in ways that are greatly a reflection of what we learned during our “formative years”.

Then, some of us become engineers, scientists, technologists. Some of us look at the world and say, “I want to understand how it works and I want to create and predict how my creations will behave. I want to have some control over my world!” That’s great!

And, it is fair to say that, in the past, science and engineering produced advances that changed our world at a moderate pace.

However, scientists and engineers are now producing change through their discoveries and products at a break-neck pace. The world is getting smaller and smaller. And this process will only accelerate.

The implications of this rapid change are overwhelming for our societies. And the responsibilities for the impact of this change does not only rest on the shoulders of the politicians and social leaders, it should also rest on the shoulders of the men and women in technology.

In the past, most scientists and engineers could work free from political and social implications of their work until after they did the work. They produced the science and the engineering and it was the politicians and the social leaders and the military who decided to use it for ill or good. A scientist or engineer could do their work, release their work and then, when the world used it for whatever purposes, the engineer or scientists could effectively wash his or her hands of the applications. They only did the engineering and science. They only did the “pure” part of the work.

Those days are gone. Oh, to be sure, we’ve had our scientists and engineers who spoke up when their inventions or science were not used for wholly honorable purposes. But they were the exception.

We must now have engineers and scientists who can join in the discussion and debate with politicians, social leaders, and the general population regarding their work. They can’t just do the work, release the work and wash their hands. They must be citizens of the world they help to create. But not just typical citizens. The engineers and scientists of the world are much more listened to than average people and perhaps more so than politicians.

We must have engineers and scientists who are “techno-social” members. They must be able to think about the social and political implications of their work. And they must be able to articulate their work and the implications of their work to and on the greater social, political, and ecological arena. They must have a heightened interest in their fellow humans and in the social structures they help to create.

The days of working in the lab or in the dark or free from social-political-environmental considerations are gone.

I often hear young engineers and young managers tell me that they joined this company or that company because, “I wanted to change the world”. I would suggest they change their wording. Their phrase has no “value” in it. Change for better or worse? They apparently don’t care. They just want to create change.

The phrase ought to be, “I wanted to create a better world”. Now at least we can begin a discussion of what “better” means and how we would recognize it.

So how do we train our engineers, scientists, and engineering managers to move in this direction? What should be the fundamental underpinnings of their education, in addition to their engineering and science courses?

They must have courses in the following disciplines:

1. Communication. Not the typical theoretical communication courses that give a survey of different ways of communicating. But communication processes tied to neurological understanding of how all people communicate. Our future engineers and scientists and technical managers must be comfortable communicating across social, political, and religious divides. We must begin early to train our young engineers, scientists, and managers in successful ways to communicate with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations.

2. Management flexibility. The days of managing with one management style, or at most two styles are gone. With outsourcing, immigration, teams dispersed all over the globe, and teams made up of people of different cultures, educational backgrounds, and values and beliefs, managers must be able to manage and lead a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations. We must train our young engineers, scientists and managers in successful ways to manage early in their educational process and early in their careers.

3. Implications of membership in the Human Community. Until recently, many engineers became engineers because they didn’t want to necessarily spend a lot of time with other humans, or at least time with humans who were not similar to them. Those days too are gone. We must begin to train our engineers and scientists what it means to be a member of the human community. Companies will demand more and more positive social interaction and we do a great disservice to our young people by not throwing them in the social river earlier rather than later. We must train our young engineers and scientists in successful ways to effect the social directions of their work and to be willing to enter a discussion/debate of the implications of their work.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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