Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Curious coincidence

During a recent business trip I had to spend seven hours on the train. As my favourite task on such occasions is reading I have equipped myself accordingly.

On the way out I have read almost entire `Winning' by Jack Welch (the one of GE fame). It is a no-nonsense, clearly written book on good business practices, touching topics such as finding company values and mission; setting goals; finding, cultivating, motivating and firing employees; and managing crises. Most of the ideas are straightforward - the key lies in their execution, the capability to walk the talk. I could recognize, from my own experience, some of the good practices, as well as many of the bad examples. However, in describing the balancing act that company CEOs face everyday, between creativity and obedience, Welch argues (with the successes at his posts in GE giving the arguments much weight) that the importance of creativity is much higher - and the companies should be built with the tools that enable all employees their voice and dignity. In a chapter on hiring Welch describes the qualities necessary for any candidate: integrity, intelligence and maturity, but then moves to qualities that do make the difference: energy, capability to energize others, edge (defined as capacity to make decisions) and finally ability to execute, and lastly - passion.

On the way back, I have decided to switch to more scientific subject and begun to read Lee Smolin's `Trouble with physics'. As I did not have the mental capacity to dig into string theory controversies, I have started the book from the last section, dealing with Smolins remarks on status and future of Science. And, without much surprise, I have found all the signs of, what Welch would undoubtedly describe as very bad management, in Smolin's description. Of course, Smolin devoted most of his examples to US, but I was coming back from a meeting with ... a leading Polish University! And the problems look so similar... maybe even worse here, as there is less money, less opportunities, less capacity to choose.

Discontinuity between the expressed values and mission of Science (we all know what it is, don't we?) and the practice. For example, hiring, advancement and funding principles, favouring the old and tried or just plain fashionable topics, and inhibiting research into new ideas. As the old joke has it: to write successful grant application use results you got last year as your goal. This way you can be sure of success... Jokes aside: such approach forces innovativeness out of established research. Which is wholly contrary to the Science ideals, isn't it?

Highly hierarchical structure that fosters politics and groupthink/conventional wisdom. Using yesterday's solutions to tomorrows problems is just as killing in business as it is in Science.

Egalitarian culture as opposed to differentiation: giving each team `a little piece of the cake' may keep bickering down, but would not lead to necessary concentration. Giving everyone `nice evaluations' might be considered nice and friendly, but does it breed dedication and passion? But there's another side: putting all the eggs in one basket (as has been done with the string theory) may result in missing some other opportunities. Business practice of the best companies, pitting internal teams against each other in the competitive environments - or just plain good old commercial competition - is the way that ensures the keenness of the cutting edge.

Last, but not least, demographics. My experience with business (IT to be specific) shows relatively quick career paths here. While not a dinosaur, I am now one of the older people in the current company. And young age - as Welch duly notes - does not inhibit maturity. On the other hand it does correlate with inquisitiveness and lack of `conventional wisdom'. Quite a few of these young people are successful entrepreneurs and managers. In Science - in US (according to Smolin) and in Poland (my observations) the average age of attaining self-sufficiency (permanent position, funds sufficient for research) is moving to greater and greater values. Whether this is a result of closed circle of established Professors defending their turf (as Smolin suggests, and I would tend to agree) remains to be proven - but then who would allow a grant for such a study to be approved?

All in all, my trip has resulted in rather pessimistic outlook on the today's capability of rejuvenating Science - which seems necessary to bring it back to the rightly earned place in Humanity decision making. It can not be, as it is, on the defensive against pop-culture, mass-disinformation or fundamentalist religions. But to move out of the ivory tower Science needs young, passionate entrepreneurs of its own, with all the qualities described by Welch: energy and capability to energize, edge and execution, and integrity ensuring strict adherence to the mission: discovering the truth about Nature.

No comments: