Archives—May 2017

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.”