FEd August 1994 Newsletter - WE'RE NOT A 'BUSINESS', WE'RE ACADEMIA!

August 1994



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Mark Paul

Recently, a department head at a graduate school of science and technology asked me to support their internal improvement process. He wanted to capture those elements of the latest thinking in organizational development and decided to retain the services of a management consultant. As a physicist by training (and now the President of my own leadership consulting firm), I was in a unique position of being able to evaluate how to optimize their organization's ability to do the best science possible. Although the results reported here are for an Environmental Science and Engineering department, the process and the insights gained are applicable to many different scientific organizations.

Although scientific organizations are not in the habit of thinking of themselves as businesses, by doing so they can gain insight on how to optimize resources and improve productivity. A strategic planning process was undertaken to define the current situation and the desired state of the organization by identifying strengths and weaknesses of the department, and assessing current and future challenges and opportunities. The department recognized that organizational optimization leveraged their time so that they could be even more effective at doing science. This balance was found to be essential to become even more competitive for dwindling financial resources.

The general results of the consulting effort indicated the focus on identifying and satisfying the needs of the `customers' of the department could be improved. An organization has both internal and external customers. In academia, internal customers -- those inside the organization who bring in the most revenue -- are the faculty. By serving their needs, they will become more effective at obtaining funds to perform research and producing highly qualified graduates.

External customers consist of students (current and alumni), grantors and the companies and government agencies that hire the students and pay for research. Meeting the needs of funding agencies and companies that pay for research is probably already well suited to most department's core capabilities. As "end users" of our product (read: students), we must continually listen to the changing needs of academia, government and industry and respond accordingly.

Attracting high-quality graduate students is essential to producing good research. By offering the opportunity to develop those skills desired by students (and deemed necessary by employers), a program can attract and retain the best students. Alumni -- past customers -- are in an excellent position to provide feedback on which skills are necessary for success and whether they received these skills during their graduate schooling. Although we must balance the needs of all external customers with one another and ensure that we don't fail because we're trying to be all things to all people, I will concentrate the rest of this article on the results of the study, performed as part of the consulting effort, as they apply to graduate education. To satisfy the needs of customers, a process for evaluating these needs must exist. We polled each set of customers to determine how the department could better satisfy their needs in the future.

Current students were asked: "What knowledge, skills and experience do you feel you will need in order to obtain a high-quality job, once you graduate?" Answers were developed using an Affinity Diagram. Masters and Ph.D. students (each as a group) came up with a list of responses, which were then organized into like groupings. `Science skills' refers to the development of research skills, breadth of scientific knowledge, and, in the case of Ph.D. students, teaching skills. Business skills include leadership/management skills, written and oral communication skills, networking, problem solving ability and fundraising . Career skills include job-finding skills, such as writing a resume or c.v. and understanding the needs of businesses, as well as personal traits such as the ability to self-motivate. Experience refers to hands-on practical experience in the form of laboratories, internships or field experience. Each student was given a fixed number of points and allowed to distribute those points to each topic as he or she desired. Figure 1, which summarizes the weighting given each area by the Masters and Ph.D. students, represents the responses of approximately 40% of the graduate population. In general, Masters students emphasized practical application of skills in both coursework (including case studies and `real-life' examples) and practical experience (internships and other field work). Ph.D. students wanted exposure to a larger variety of skills and emphasized networking and fundraising skills.

These results show that Ph.D. students and Masters students have different "recipes" for success and suggests that different programs for the two desired endpoints might be beneficial. This general trend is also visible in the alumni results. Alumni were asked two questions. These were: "What knowledge, skills and experience did you need in order to 1) obtain a high-quality job, and 2) perform, once hired?" The results are shown in Figures 2a and 2b. Ph.D. students reported that the single biggest factor in finding a high- quality job was contacts and networking, while Masters students emphasized technical skills and knowledge. Among business skills, Ph.D. students and Masters students both emphasized presentation and speaking skills, while only Ph.D. students mentioned writing skills. Both groups agreed that, in addition to technical excellence, communication, management, writing, work experience and other non-science-based skills are required. This balance is essential to leverage scientific capabilities to achieve even greater results.

Those companies and government agencies who have hired or will hire graduates from the institute were asked what skills were required of employees. Again, Figure 3 indicates the necessity for a balance between scientific skills and business skills.

As a result of this evaluation, the department's approach to educating graduate students evolved into a `student development program' to prepare students to provide even more value to their employers and themselves. The curriculum is now viewed as part of the entire process and is being constantly updated to meet the needs of all involved. Increasing competition and limited resources emphasize the importance of leveraging technical and scientific capabilities to achieve even more. Leadership and management techniques, proven effective in business, are just now filtering into academia. These tools can help technically excellent institutions become world class competitors. The only thing stopping these improvements will be our own attitudes and culture.

Mark Paul (phoenix@ortel.org) is president of Phoenix Management, Inc., a leadership consultancy dedicated to supporting the improvement efforts of organizations within industry, academia and government. Figure 1: Responses of current students to: "What knowledge, skills and experience do you feel you will need in order to obtain a high-quality job once you graduate?" Figures 2a and 2b: Answers from alumni to the questions: What knowledge, skills and experience did you need to a) obtain a high-quality job and b) perform, once hired Figure 3: Responses from corporate and government employers