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Universal University? October 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management, Writing.
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What is modern education?

As we experience rapid advances in science and technology, there is increasing social pressure to produce graduates ready for the modern workforce.  Especially in the U.S., a university education has become what the high school diploma was just 20 years ago.  Despite skyrocketing tuition costs, politicians tout university as one way to reverse everything from our lack of competitiveness to the offshoring of technology jobs.

And they are right — to a point.

This article suggests that our emphasis on technical and vocational education has unintended consequences.  Namely, the decline in liberal arts degrees is hollowing out our former ability to have educated debates around facts rather than beliefs.

This is an interesting thought, but this is only part of the problem.  As I’ve written before, there is more to running a technical business than mere technical skills.  And, just as we would like to have politicians that can speak about and understand science, we also expect scientists and other technical professionals to have broader educations as well.  This is, of course, why we have bare minimum liberal arts requirements for various technical degrees (whether this is sufficient…well, that’s another story).

To be sure, universities have been around much longer than our modern concepts of education, technology, and even employment.  Just because we have developed an entire economy out of courses that just happen to have the same description as what has historically been called a “university” doesn’t mean it’s the same animal.  Indeed, there is a place for liberal arts, but the modern university may simply not be the place for them.  Despite sharing the name, what we now call a university isn’t the same as it was.

However, there is no doubt that the value of liberal arts has remained steady over the decades, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.  Philosophy, language, political and social science, art, music – these will always be fundamental expressions of human thought.  To believe they have no place in modern life – whether taught at a university or some other institution – is to ignore the centuries of progress that brought us to where we are now.

Appropriate Rules December 21, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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I play a lot of games with my kids.  Every game, naturally, has its rules.  But each also has other, intangible goals.  Some teach strategy, some teamwork.  Quick thinking, observation, and word skills are also important.  Games teach us, even when it doesn’t feel like learning.

So when I play with them, I will often adjust the rules to fit their personalities and ages.  My 8 year old son will not have fun playing the same way that my older daughters will.  The important point is that we don’t just ignore the rules to make the game easier; we think about the goals of the game, and adjust the process to attain them in the manner most appropriate to the players on that particular day.

Some people are hard-wired to follow each and every rule the way that it is written.  Someone sat down and designed the game the way that it is, and that’s the way it will be played.  But remember that people can’t foresee every circumstance that the players will encounter.  Game designers also assume a certain level of general experience, but can’t be expected to know each individual’s abilities.

Or perhaps there is tradition to consider.  We rarely change the rules of chess, for example.  That’s a case where, like a language, if you want someone else to understand you, you have to agree on a common set of rules.

This adjustment of the rules extends to other parts of life as well (and indeed, along with learning strategy, is an important life skill that comes from games).  Anyone that works for a living knows there are countless rules that govern daily actions.  Policies, procedures, paperwork, informal networks, etiquette, and culture all set up constraints to the work we do.

The important point is that if you are all working toward the same goal, it is okay to adjust the rules to fit the players.  This particular form is onerous and not adding value?  Stop filling it out.  That department isn’t allowed to request supplies directly from the vendor (even though it is cheaper and more expedient)?  Make an exception.

Games (and work) are not necessarily about everyone playing by every single rule.  They are about having fun and reaching an end goal that everyone can agree on.  Leading an organization means knowing which rules are negotiable, to what degree, and to whom any changes should apply.  Following the rules for their own sake means not understanding the true goals in the first place.

It is Us May 19, 2009

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Can you imagine a time in which your predictions about the future were spot on?  What about completely off?  What if every prediction you made in the last six months about the next six was totally wrong?  Is your firm prepared to deal with the consequences?  How closely are you watching the outside world while keeping the firm going day to day?

SWOT analysis (or any similarly structured evaluation) can yield some surprising insights, especially when performed with an actively brainstorming group.  Objectivity is important, but if your firm struggles with strategic planning, groupthink may be an acceptable initial price to pay to gain some first-step ideas.  As I mentioned before, however, the external “threats” can often be a hard item to objectively evaluate. (more…)