Will Company Conformist Cultures Limit the Impending Supercycle of Innovation?

In the 1930’s when the world was in a great depression, innovation creation excelled in the form or jet engines, televisions, synthetic materials, and even early computers. John Michaelson’s goes on in his Wall Street Journal article, “Prepare for a New Supercycle of Innovation”, to document how historically economic downturns are followed by intense periods of industrial growth led by inventions and increased productivity. This can only occur in corporate cultures that question the status quo, encouraging outside-the-box thinking. But are we encouraging this non-conformist attitude?

Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School notes that “across industries and jobs, employees are feeling pressured to follow established norms and practices in their own organizations. They tell of being frustrated by the lack of opportunities to speak their minds, to be the best versions of themselves, to bring their ideas to the table or suggest ideas for changing the status quo for the better.”  Are companies truly encouraging a culture of conformity, thus stifling a culture of advancement and invention needed for a strong post-recession super-cycle of innovation?

Michigan Technological University graduates over 80% of its students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related fields, a majority being in engineering disciplines. Eager to take their newly acquired knowledge for a test-drive, many engage in co-op’s or internships before graduation, starting as early as the summer after their freshmen year. So are they experiencing this conformist atmosphere during these corporate experiences?

A young Mechanical Engineering student who worked spring semester at Polaris was tasked with realigning instructions and illustrations being used in their productions processes with the goal of improving quality and efficiencies of the processes. He found that “quick thinking and innovative approaches from my side ensured he could find solutions” that were vetted, endorsed, and then implemented by his supervisors.

Another Mechanical Engineering student worked at Expera Specialty Solutions. He was tasked with reviewing their chemical delivery system used for their specialty paper orders and discover what was causing defects in their customized orders. The culture encourages innovation and understands that trial-and-error is accompanied by mistakes which he addressed in his comments “although I know I have made mistakes along the way, everyone easily dismisses the mistakes and focuses on what you have done to resolve the problem.”

Finally, a Chemical Engineering student was assigned to a team at Bemis that is developing a food-packaging product with high barrier properties. This innovation would be used to keep certain chemicals, flavors, and nutrients inside a package, opening up vast new markets for the company. She was encouraged to communicate her ideas, no matter how far outside-the-box which were welcomed and considered by all on the team. She did realize that “there is monotonous work that comes along with the job, but it needs to be completed in order to get to the exciting innovative tasks.”

Michaelson’s is predicting an upcoming Supercycle of Innovation, while Gino’s observations indicated an existing corporate culture of conformation will stifle this creative cycle. I argue that cultures of non-conformity still exist in companies like Polaris, Expera, and Bemis. If indeed this culture of conformity exists, it is not comprehensive. It is also possible that STEM focused graduates are being hired in greater numbers into these non-conformist cultures, for they have the tools to make innovation occur. The number of STEM graduates could be the ultimate limiting factor on the degree of economic success associated with the coming Supercycle of Innovation!


The Value of STEM Education in an AltFact Word

The Value of STEM Education in an AltFact World: At its very core the scientific method is a market economy, where the currency is truth.

In his book, The Death of Expertise published earlier this year, US Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols laments, “Americans no longer distinguish the phrase ‘you’re wrong’ from the phrase ‘you’re stupid.’ To disagree is to disrespect. To correct is to insult. And to refuse to acknowledge all view as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed minded.”

For all of the bluster about political correctness, free speech, SJW snowflakes, etc…neither side of the political spectrum has gotten any better hearing the words, “you’re wrong.” In fact, our communication bubbles have become so insular that we rarely take the opportunity to challenge the veracity of that which we are presented. Much has been made about this post-factual world, and post-truth politics. This worldview is one framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.

Psychologists are discovering how we, as humans, come to access, construct and evaluate beliefs. Most of us assume that our sets of beliefs and fundamental knowledge of the world comes to us as a set of constructs grounded in facts. We assemble these facts into structures upon which we build our beliefs. Psychologists are finding something different. Rather than building our beliefs assembled around a set of facts about our world, most of us tend to build our facts around a set of beliefs.

This is not a new concept. Researchers have studied the phenomena of confirmation bias for sometime. Confirmation bias is often defined as “the tendency to seek out information that supports and seemingly validates one’s own viewpoint” One famous example is the “lunar effect.” There are numerous studies that center on emergency room visits correlated with full moon nights. Systematic reviews of this research consistently demonstrate that there is simply no evidence for that the full moon causes an increase in emergency room visits. Why, then, do people continue to believe this? Data show that belief in the lunar effect remains at about 40-45%, even among those highly educated. The answer is simply, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is found when we notice, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already have, while ignoring, forgetting, or explaining away contradictory data. Belief in a lunar effect, therefore, feeds on itself. Cue the old saw, “the plural of anecdote is not ‘data”

There is probably not a single more visible example of confirmation bias in today’s news than in politics. In a desperate attempt to validate everything about our preferred candidate and discredit all about our opponent’s candidacy, we gather facts that align with our beliefs and tend to discredit the facts that are counter-productive to those thoughts. This has gotten to be so prolific that this year we’ve begun to hear about living in a post-factual world.

So what does this have to do with a STEM based education? Fundamental to a STEM-based education is deep understanding of the scientific method. The scientific method demands that one must suspend belief until data can show that that belief can be embraced.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that beliefs not supported by fact have no use. Actually, the opposite is true. Those are called hypotheses are as important to the scientific process as the facts themselves. But central to the scientific process is that our beliefs are wrapped around the facts. And what happens when the opposite happens? Sometimes disaster. The space shuttle Challenger for one. In that example, the desire to send up the shuttle loaded with the first teacher in space, was so great, beliefs that the colder temperatures the night before the launch would have no effect on the safety on the launch were bended around the facts.

And this is where STEM education becomes incredibly valuable. Much has been written about the doors STEM education opens, the jobs available to STEM college degree holders, the importance to the country’s global competitiveness that STEM education means. But to a lesser extent do we talk about what the scientific process can teach us within this post-factual world.

The entire exercise of science is figuring out what is true. The scientific method requires one to form a hypothesis, test it, get a result. And then one presents this work to a community of peers whose duty it is to attempt to poke holes in those results, to double check the work. STEM education, the scientific method itself, teaches critical thinking. And, most importantly, STEM education teaches one that the words, “you’re wrong” don’t convey disrespect. They don’t communicate intolerance or close mindedness. They don’t shut down a conversation or open up a flood of superficial anonymous insults in the comments section. In science, “you’re wrong” means progress! Even Jules Verne knew this, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”


The Importance of Recruiting Efforts, Don’t “Poison the Well”!

Career services departments on college campuses across America answer student inquiries on topics from resumes to where to find a job. A growing area of student frustration that has risen is communications with companies during the hiring process. Questions such as; how do I know if they got my on line application; when should I hear back from them after the interview; how often should I contact them before I become annoying; and why don’t they let me know if I received the job? With the labor market tightening this lack of corporate follow up is now producing a backlash from this young workforce.

Future Workplace LLC and human resource software company CareerArc Group LLC surveyed job candidates on this topic. Nearly two thirds of these candidate stated they were less likely to purchase goods and services from an employer who treated them poorly during the recruiting process. This trend is also impacting recruiting efforts.

Recently, a panel of engineering and information technology students were questioned by Michigan Tech’s Career Services Corporate Advisory Board members. Company representatives inquired what made a positive recruiting experience, their answers included:

  • Don’t make me fill out long on-line applications
  • Make us feel like you want us
  • Be sincere in your interest
  • Acknowledge receipt of our application
  • We place a high value on positive experience(s) with recruiters

Students went on to explain the type of work they expected in co-ops and internships work opportunities (and we would add full-time opportunities). They want meaningful assignments, hands-on focused work, and projects where they could see a start and a finish. There must be evidence of progress and impact to company operations.

Where did students get most of their information about a company and its culture? Number one source was their peers that had worked/do work at that company or had interactions with their recruiters (including what they had heard from other students). Take note companies interested in recruiting highly sought after candidates in STEM related careers, lack of follow up in recruiting or unstructured co-op/internship opportunities will not only poison your bucket of recruits, but potentially the whole well in both the short and long term

 


Defining Boundaries

If you’re a fan of the sitcom Seinfeld, you likely remember the close talker episode. Google it if you have no idea what I’m talking about—it’s a good time and well worth 2.5 minutes of your day.

As professionals, most of us have a good understanding of personal space and social awareness. If you work in admissions and have ever done a college fair, you have your table to thank for a built-in boundary.

But how do you define virtual boundaries? Every year there seems to be that one parent who just won’t leave you alone. The emails keep coming with question after question. If you’re good at your job and love what you do, you probably write back without thinking a thing about it.

Our role in higher education, especially in recruitment, is to help students (and parents) grow and develop skills they need to succeed in life. If you’re continually feeding them the answers they need, why should they do any research or (heaven forbid) read the material you send in the mail, when they can whip off an email or text to you and get an instant reply?

If you realize a parent or student may be taking advantage of your strong work ethic and good upbringing, it may be time to disengage. Try these ideas to help foster independence

  • Refer to the appropriate office or staff member who can provide the best and most accurate information
  • Shorten communications and cover only the essentials—don’t ask about their day, or the outcome of the recent vet visit they shared with you last week
  • Reply to email, voicemail, or texts only when a question is asked that you can help with—forward messages to colleagues to assist with other issues
  • Close emails without the offer of being able to “help with any other questions you have!”

Unsure what to do next? Talk to your supervisor or mentor for other suggestions or encouragement. Breaking up is hard to do, but you can do it!


Next Generation of University Career Services Annual Reports

Habit number two of Stephen Covey’s successful book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “begin with the end in mind.” This is the mantra of incoming college freshmen and their parents across the country. Some refer to it as the return on investment, but the bottom line is what are the job prospects and what will be their starting salary for careers in the major they are considering. Like a person who reads the end of the book to find out what happens, they forget to pay attention to the most important aspect of their education, the importance of engagement in their collegiate journey, the heart of each book that defines the value at the finish.

Members of the National Association of Colleges and Employers collaboratively worked together to identify key career competencies that have been identified as necessary tools for personal and professional success. The competencies include: critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communication, teamwork/collaboration, information technology, leadership, professionalism/work ethic, and career management. But how do students acquire these in their collegiate experience. Acquiring each one is not a pill they can take or one class they can participate in. Each student acquires them through a unique series of experiences that they choose to engage in, that matches their interests and aptitudes. One size does not fit all, and it shouldn’t.

Career Services annual reports at higher education institutions across the country focus on “the end” or results which include placement rates and annual salaries. They fail to tell the story of the student’s journey in relation to the outcomes they earn at the end of their collegiate experience. Michigan Tech’s Career Services 2015-16 annual report takes you on the journey of our students from their first campus visit to graduation. Career Services works with partners across campus to help create and execute many of these experiences, while working with students to help them communicate the career skills they have acquired from them. We encourage you to visit www.mtu.edu/career/ on January 31 to view the next generation of Career Services Annual Report.


In Praise of Maintenance

The greatest thing about listening to podcasts on a smartphone with earbuds in is that I can walk my dog on a fall Sunday evening on campus and geek out with no one being any the wiser.  A few nights ago I was listening to a Freakanomics episode called, “In Praise of Maintenance.”

The basic premise of the episode asks, “Has our culture’s obsession with innovation led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of?”  One just needs to look at our country’s roads, bridges, airports, and other infrastructure for evidence that the answer is “Yep, pretty much.”

For all of the glory we give new programs and initiatives, it seems to me might also be well served if we remembered to praise those that keep those new things running; those that make sure the metaphorical zerks are greased, the batteries are charged, and the arteries stay clear. Maintenance here at Michigan Tech comes in all sorts of forms.  It preserves what has been built, whether that be programming, processes, office culture, or websites.

So in this season of thanks, I want to say thank you to those who maintain and keep our new things sustainable.  In particular I’m thinking of the departmental coordinators, front line staff, anyone working with financial aid or immigration compliance, those great folks in the mailroom and print shop, and the SAIS warriors.  These are the people who are focused on taking care of the world we’ve already built here at Tech.  While others are zeroed-in (rightfully) on the new and nifty little thing, the maintainers are the people with the patience, the care, and the compassion for the institution (and for the innovators) who ensure that yesterday’s new and nifty thing stays new and nifty.

I visited with my four year old nephew a few weeks ago and we watched a They Might Be Giants show called Here Comes Science.  They’ve got this song about how important blood cells are to the human body.  The song tells how blood cells bring the oxygen, nutrients, and antibodies to every part of our body and how they even keep our insides clean by helping to haul out the trash.  Blood cells are our body’s maintainers.  And those who help us maintain here at Tech are our life-blood.  They are a life-giving force.  Thank you to those who perform those roles.  We need to give you all more praise and credit.


Brand Versus Campaign

Brand Versus Campaign

All too often marketing professionals blur the lines between brand and campaigns. It’s easy to do. Buzzwords like “brand campaign” muddy the waters even more. It is important to note that a brand and a campaign are different. Understanding this concept is key to successful brand management.

A campaign is for a targeted cause or initiative. Brand is enduring.

Campaigns should align with the brand, and target a specific goal. Sometimes a business or institution will have several campaigns concurrently, and that’s okay. However the one enduring theme that unites multiple campaigns together is brand.

I’ve seen businesses operate without a brand. These businesses churn out campaign after campaign–sometimes successfully. This approach certainly gets attention. However, this model is not sustainable. Usually the goal of a business is to be around for many years to come. This means succeeding in business objectives (campaigns serve as support), while solidifying and nurturing the relationship a company has with its intended audience (branding is pivotal). Campaigns can build on one another via the brand, and use the success of the previous campaign to help launch and empower the next one. This builds equity. And over time, equity is a business’s greatest asset for future growth.

Spilling Water is a Missed Opportunity
Imagine a brand as being like a potted plant. And every drop of water is a campaign. With every drop the plant receives, the plant grows. The more water, the more growth. When a drop misses the plant, it isn’t helping the plant grow. Continually misfire the water droplets and the plant dies.

A brand needs strong campaigns to strengthen it. This means the campaigns must align with the brand. Of course campaigns can be successful without brand alignment, but they will not help your business or institution grow.

Re-potting the Plant
When a plant grows too big for its pot, it’s time to replant. This kind of growth doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time. Doing it too early can disrupt the plant’s roots–doing it too often, prevents the roots from establishing themselves.

The same logic applies to branding. One shouldn’t meddle all too often. Of course if the target audience changes, or the business’s mission changes, then it makes sense. The biggest mistake one can make is changing a brand too frequently. It takes time to build a relationship with a brand. When changes to the brand are being considered, one must first question whether or not the change should be within the current campaign (or campaigns) instead. A general rule of thumb is that brand adjustments should be considered every 5-10 years, while campaign adjustments can happen yearly.

At Michigan Tech, it is important understand how brand and campaigns connect. This relationship positively affects the success of the short- and long-term goals of our University. So the next time a campaign is being discussed, ask yourself this question: “Are we spilling water?”


Mentors – Look Up, Look Down, Look Left, Look Right

October is Careers in Student Affairs month, a time in which we make efforts to explain our field of work and why we do it to those students who we feel may be interested or have potential.  One of the pieces we constantly emphasize is the value of mentors.  While there are many explanations of the term “mentor,” a quick Google search returns the result of “an experienced and trusted adviser.”

I realized that sometimes, when we say to “find a mentor,” students treated this like another task or homework assignment.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite from some sort of elaborate scavenger hunt.  It’s likely that all of us have mentors in our lives already, but perhaps we just haven’t assigned them that label and taken full advantage of them.

While I have served as a mentor for many of our students, I find myself reflecting on my own journey with mentors and how they have helped shape me into the professional and leader that I am today.

Supervisors

Since coming to Michigan Tech in 2009, I have had four different supervisors.  (Yes, that’s four supervisors in just over 7 years.)  Each of these supervisors has been very different and they have each given me things that I’ve absorbed along my professional journey.  During my time working for each, I’ve been asked difficult questions, been challenged more than I’ve probably liked, been rewarded for my accomplishments, and have been given the tools, trust, and encouragement needed to get the job done.  Most importantly, they’ve given me opportunities.  Opportunities to succeed, opportunities to fail, and opportunities to advance.  So while some people cringe at the notion of four supervisors in such a short amount of time, I take pride in this.  These folks, my mentors, saw potential, and through the challenges and scaffolding they provided, I was able to find other new and excited ways to move up in my professional journey while also still serving Michigan Tech.

Colleagues

It is often said that Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with advisers who were better educated and more experienced than him in certain matters.  This thought may make some of us uncomfortable if you consider the traditional supervisor/employee roles, but it really shouldn’t.  While I can’t say it was intentional at the time, I’ve found myself surrounded at times with some extremely challenging folks in some of my past roles.  At times, it was frustrating.  In fact, I’d walk away from meetings wondering why certain individuals were being so difficult.  Why weren’t they thinking like me?!  But then, I had a chance for them to evaluate my performance and I also had some of my other supervisors/mentors challenge me.  “Try another angle,” they said.  And I did.  How productive it was to not fight the current anymore, and instead, to have meaningful and healthy dialogue and disagreements.  I was often wrong.  And I’m comfortable with that.  Some of my peers and those who I have supervised have become some of my most meaningful mentors.  I trust them, and in turn, they trust me.  They taught me to be a better supervisor, and they helped form such a powerful and motivated team that had a true focus on the students. 

Students

Students…  18, 19, 20, 21 year olds.  How can they be mentors?  I’m sure they don’t see themselves as such, but I can say after working in this field for more than 10 years that they have been some of my most impactful mentors.  Each meeting with a student is something entirely different, and their words and experiences can often leave you speechless.  I often reflect on students I’ve worked with and advised, and I hope that I’ve served them as best as I possibly could have.  Many students have come to trust me, and I take pride in having earned that.  But why not flip this around?  For those students who have chosen to trust me, I’ve found much value in giving them my trust.  Even more importantly, I have found value in asking for their feedback and advice.  By doing this, not only are we giving students the voice they should have anyways, but we’re also receiving the best possible information and opinion, from the source.  This is the meaning of an adviser.  This is the meaning of a mentor.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

-Dr. Brene Brown

Learning happens at every moment, and everyone has something to offer.  Dr. Brene Brown is credited with the quote, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”  In the end, never underestimate the ability to listen and learn from everyone around us, no matter who they are.  By being vulnerable and truly listening and trusting, you may just find not only some great advice, but also a significant mentor.


The Critical Space Called “Pre-College Outreach”

Victorian era philosopher Herbert Spencer once penned, “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” As the workforce demands of the knowledge-based economy continue to require adept students with a burgeoning skill set, the timeline for developing this knowledge and crafting the foundation from which these abilities can be formed should arguably begin prior to enrollment in postsecondary education. Yet so often middle and high school educators find themselves consigned to a system rooted in measuring the surmised knowledge of students through graded assignments, quizzes, and other standardized tests, that they’re left unable to surround them with hands-on experiences to put that knowledge into practice and tangibly support critical learning through trial, error, and curiosity. Likewise, the validity of manifested outcomes inherent with knowledge refined through applied action is often devalued or dismissed when compared to those honed in the traditional classroom environment. This is a problem.  One solution is called “pre-college outreach.”

Here at Michigan Tech, we recognize the value and critical need for pre-college outreach and its impact on youth, and the belief in action-based learning is woven into the very fabric that defines our institutional mission. The scope and range of our outreach engagement is vast: from faculty-led activities funded through the National Science Foundation, to educational programming hosted by the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach, to APS Mobile Lab, to Summer Youth Programs and Mind Trekkers driven by the Center for Pre-College Outreach, just to name a few. Annually, Michigan Tech pre-college outreach events, programming and activities reach audiences averaging over 75,000 local, domestic, and international students. We do it by catalyzing partnerships with industry and foundations, mobilizing faculty/staff/student volunteers, and connecting opportunities with results. And we do it because we can.

To effectively cultivate the robust talent society needs to thrust forward, the talent that will be polished through postsecondary education, positively influencing and exciting youth with educational experiences that immerse their senses cannot be overlooked–especially when they’re not able to access these experiences anywhere else. Investment in this immersive process of authentic learning through earnest exploration has propelled affinity for outreach in departments across campus, bucking the precedent at many institutions wherein the case for outreach falls far secondary to most traditional functions of university, such as teaching, and research. Through unconventional programming and deployment of nontraditional learning spaces, Michigan Tech has doubled-down on facilitating multiple platforms of action-based educational experiences for volumes of youth that are catalyzing excitement and enthusiasm for learning across the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Impact of Summer Internships and Jobs on Michigan Tech Students

Each summer college students take part in a pilgrimage to summer employment destinations. These positions provide students funds to use toward their education and allow them to take their acquired knowledge for a test drive, helping them develop new skills and discover career aptitudes along the way.

Michigan Tech students taking part in employment opportunities in the summer of 2016 were polled to discover what they enjoyed most about their experience. Students noted their number one pleasure was working in a professional and collegial working environment. A student working at the Oshkosh Corporation in Wisconsin noted the “people first culture, making a global company have a small town feel.” Others appreciated the diverse workforce they got to work with, “to live and work with over 100 interns around the world and country.”

The hands-on use of their newly acquired knowledge ranked second among respondents. One student’s observation “I enjoyed learning how the same physical aspects of Civil Engineering intertwined with the technical aspects. How civil materials were tested in the lab for most practical and efficient use in the field.” Others were involved in challenges ranging from writing new training manuals for new and existing equipment to designing and approving all art work and designs for a business.

In the end, students enjoyed contributing to the teams and organizations they worked for, feeling that their contributions were valued. They noted being treated like full-time employees. This respect manifested itself in the responsibilities they were given such as: in charge of purchasing $50K+ of supplies, collected and analyzed component pricing globally then proposed next steps to help create a uniform pricing strategy, and supervising professional crews to complete multiple projects. Students left these positions with the confidence that they can successfully apply the knowledge they are acquiring. They also found themselves acquiring new skills involved in the careers they are pursuing ranging from leading teams to building web apps to monument preservation.

Summer jobs and internships play a vital role in the personal and professional growth of each student. The value of knowledge and acquisition of skills increase in value only when they are put to use productively. The value of summer break lies in more than just time off from school!