Sunday, February 26, 2012

Novel approach to staff development: deep dive to transform the organisation

In 2009, IRL - a Crown Research Institute in New Zealand - conducted the novel "What's Your Problem NZ?".  This program has  been analysed and evaluated by staff in the Victoria Management School of Victoria University of Wellington.  The reports can be found here:

The program itself was novel and exciting: but even more exciting  was the fact that it was a program that emerged for the leadership development program conducted by IRL.  This program has been running since 2007 and has resulted in many projects been initiated, planned and executed by multifunctional teams drawn from across the organisation.  

Rather than tacking a more traditional approach of focusing on culture and skills/attitude change, the professional development activities of IRL focus on real organisational needs - projects to directly improve productivity, new ways of doing business, and the development and piloting of new services to client.  The staff learn from the strategic transformation of the organisation.

In term of the following diagram, the IRL development program operates on the right hand side - effecting deep change.  Projects benefit from intense ownership by participants who are mentored by members of the executive (whose roles are strictly advisory and are expected to remove organisational impediments to project delivery).  It is a deep dive process. 

A key aspect of the program is that management does not take the idea and manage it's implementation - rather the project is approved and total planning and execution is left with the teams undertaking the program. (I acknowledge my experiences with IMD in  Lausanne, Switzerland for the  pedagogical framework.  See  IMD )
Recent reviews of various of our research groups has reported widespread change in language and engagement of staff, indicating that culture and skill changes are resulting, and probably more quickly than more traditional approached that tend to focus on change management, rather than organisational transformation.

The above mentioned report gives a flavour our the results.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Dynamics of Discovery

From Archimedes to Edison, attempts to improve quality of life have dictated a need for advances in science and technology. These advances are now widely understood as the key enablers of increasingly prosperous societies.

Despite this long history, the process of managing the expanding frontiers of new knowledge in a way that will benefit society is a work in progress. This is largely due to the unpredictable nature of scientific discovery most famously illustrated by Archimedes, when, upon stepping into the bath, he suddenly realised that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the submerged portion of his body.

His discovery provided the solution to the previously intractable problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects and led to further advances in assessing the density and purity of precious metals among other things. In the modern world little has changed in how new knowledge is acquired. However, in an attempt to get the best value for their limited investments, governments have devised processes to manage its discovery.

Interestingly there has been a propensity to divide scientific research into a one-dimensional continuum starting with pure (sometimes known as blue-skies) research progressing through to applied research and on to technology transfer; the defining characteristic of pure research being that it seeks new knowledge with no view as to its application, while applied research seeks solutions to industrial problems.

Such a continuum has been the basis of R&D funding prioritisation in advanced economies around the world since it was promulgated by Vannevar Bush following World War II. In the past few years this mindset has been challenged as it does not accurately reflect the process of science and technology development.

The dynamic nature of the discovery of new knowledge and its commercial application can be observed in the remarkable career of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose breakthroughs ranged from the first rabies and anthrax vaccines to paving the way for germ theory and pasteurisation. Pasteur was not driven by a quest for new knowledge for its own sake but was motivated by a desire to better understand and solve the problems of industry.

In his early career, he concentrated largely on uncovering new knowledge, but as he did so, came across other, previously unforeseen questions. While working as a chemist at the age of 22 he sought a theoretical understanding of why tartaric acid crystals derived from bio-mass rotated the plane of polarised light while the chemically synthesised form did not.

His experiments revealed that the naturally occurring compound is chiral, meaning its molecules exist in one of two possible crystal structures, each the mirror image of the other. In the process of uncovering this new knowledge, he laid the building blocks for the modern experimental science of crystallography, which is today used in one form or another in everything from gemstone cutting to DNA analysis.

Pasteur’s remarkable career uncovered whole new branches of science – such as microbiology – and, as he developed as a scientist, he began to seek to satisfy both theoretical and practical goals.

Of particular note is the fact that as the problems Pasteur chose to solve became increasingly applied in nature, the nature of his research became more fundamental. Pasteur’s research agenda was use-inspired. Understanding and exploiting the dichotomy between applied and theoretical goals is perhaps the reason behind the breadth of his contribution.

This philosophy is instructive for modern policymakers seeking to get the most from limited investment funds and move away from the outmoded, linear model. The effective management of applied research operations is much more complicated than simplistic models suggest.

Modified from a contribution in Solutions. Discovery

Climate change - how should science work?

In the Wall Street Journal of 27 January 2012 (p12) sixteen prominent scientists have reflected on the climate warming debate, and suggest that drastic actions are not needed to stop global warming.  Note that they do not deny climate change; rather they reflect on how the debate is playing out.  In particular they suggest that many scientist fear speaking about the topic in case they are passed over for promotion or worse.

The article is well worth reading (No need to Panic About Global Warning, Allerge, Wall Street Journal, Asian Edition, 27/1/2012, p.12) and reflecting upon! Here is the article -  no need to panic

Amongst other things, it is a good piece on how science should, or should not, work. 

For balance, readers should also read a response from the American Physical Society. APS response found here

There is one element of the contribution that should meet with widespread support in the science community.  Interestingly the article points to the need to support fundamental research to increase our understanding of climate.  This is a classic case of research in Pasteur’s Quadrant – the more the results of scientific research are applied to practical problems, the greater our need to discover new knowledge to inform the application.  This is not blue skies research : rather it is use-inspired fundamental research.

A leader must break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.

In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadershi...