In This Issue
Engineering Culture
March 1, 1997 Volume 27 Issue 1
Most of the fundamental changes in our modern society and way of life have been brought about, directly or indirectly, by technology.

Institutional Cultures and Individual Careers

Saturday, March 1, 1997

Author: John Armstrong

Boundary-breaking behavior by engineers will be key to successful, and needed, institutional change in industry and academia.

One can not read IEEE Spectrum or any engineering monthly, Science magazine, or The Chronicle of Higher Education without finding a discussion of corporate research, development, and engineering (RD&E) downsizing, of funding cuts threatened for many fields of academic science and engineering, and of pressure of many kinds on the federally supported national laboratory structure. Our institutions are living through troubling times.

But it is not only in quantitative and financial terms that our institutions are beset. The very cultures of our institutions are being stressed as never before, and defects are showing up that have been glossed over for decades. By "institutional culture," I mean the partly explicit, partly implicit set of goals and rules that determine how we interact with our colleagues, what we expect of them, and what we expect of ourselves in our institutional settings. I have learned over the years that these institutional cultures are very important, very different, and very hard to change. I have also learned that they can be very confining.

Most of our RD&E institutions had, until 5 or 6 years ago, enjoyed 40 years of almost uninterrupted growth. However, no institution can enjoy decades of success and constantly increasing budgets, expanding programs, and increasing staff without developing a lot of bad habits and without sweeping a lot of problems under the rug of ever-expanding resources.

A consequence of this has been, I believe, that most if not all of our RD&E institutions have become clinically addicted to growth and are now suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. I mean for that analogy to be taken literally. It is very helpful in clarifying otherwise mystifying behavior.

If I am even partly right about this aspect of our current situation, then there is an additional benefit that may come from this gathering. For, just as you represent many fields, so you also represent different institutions and cultures within the academic, industrial, and public engineering sectors. There is an opportunity for you to learn from and influence each other with respect to institutional change.

Troubles from Within
I am not suggesting that our institutional cultures are mostly dysfunctional or that radical change is needed. I am suggesting instead that the troubles of the RD&E enterprise come partly from within and are not entirely due to external causes.

Indeed, each of us is nurtured and empowered by our institution to do our work; few of the achievements of the RD&E enterprise over the past 5 decades could have been made by engineers and scientists working in isolation. Our RD&E institutions are the most successful the world has ever seen; they are a crucial part of the technical infrastructure of our country.

My first major point is that to the extent our institutions are troubled, each of us has a personal, ethical responsibility to try to understand how to help. The current stress on our RD&E infrastructure raises individual as well as national issues. It is important to keep in mind that institutional cultures not only support us, they also constrain the choices we feel free to make. These constraints are, in my view, part of the problem now to be faced and overcome. My second major point is that much of what needs to be done to strengthen our institutions will also improve opportunities for personal career growth and success. I hope you will indulge me while I illustrate these points with a few incidents from my own career in research and development.

I had the good fortune to graduate from college in 1956, right at the start of the golden age of postwar science and technology. I applied for and received a fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to start graduate school that fall. But just before graduation, my housemaster asked if I would like to apply for an all-expenses-paid year abroad, on what is known as a traveling fellowship. No formal study would be allowed, I would be expected to move every 6 weeks or so, and I would have to stay away until the money was gone. (At that point in my life, I had never been outside the country.)

Naturally, I talked to my senior advisor. He said, "Don't do it; it will ruin your career." That was easily the worst advice I have ever received, but I don't blame him so much as the institutional culture. That culture felt, and still feels, that if you are serious about a professional career, you don't fool around. You get on with it. Understandable but narrow-minded to say the least.

To finish the anecdote: I had the good sense to listen to the institution at its best (offering me the chance of a lifetime to benefit from complete freedom and to spend a year relying entirely on my own initiative) rather than listen to the institutional culture at its narrowest. It was one of the best things that ever was done to and for me; it changed my life, and I guess many observers would conclude it did not ruin my career.

Something similar happened to me later at IBM Research. After 18 years of doing research and then managing successively larger groups of researchers until I was reporting directly to the director of research, I decided to leave research and transfer to one of our product development labs, where I would manage about 650 engineers doing advanced bipolar process and circuit development. My colleagues in research could not believe that this was a voluntary act; they concluded that I had somehow offended my boss and was being banished. But I went, and it was one of the best periods of my entire technical career. Here again, the institution in the larger sense offered me a wonderful chance (including, of course, the chance to fail), but the local professional research culture was strongly discouraging. The moral of this tale is that the expectations of one's colleagues can be very stifling.

During the 2 years that I was in advanced technology development, I would occasionally visit the research labs and run into former colleagues; they were simply incapable of understanding why I was both enthusiastic about my new post and, as far as they could tell, happy. It was beyond them. Their attitude was an example of the insidious intellectual pecking order that most of us pick up from the air and water in graduate school. I refer here to the view that "research is better than development," "science is better than engineering," "physics is better than chemistry," and so on down the line.

In those days, manufacturing was so far beyond the experience of top-flight science and engineering schools, it did not even make the bottom of the pecking order. This pervasive but foolish set of intellectual prejudices is one of the most dysfunctional parts of the university culture. Things have improved some in the last 10 to 15 years, but not enough. You academic engineers should work to help stamp out this nonsense, although you will get scant help from your colleagues in the sciences.

A footnote to that story of industry culture is that during my time in product development, I saw enough of the manufacturing culture to realize that the engineers there subscribed to a compensatory, but equally perverse, pecking order. For them, the engineers who worked in manufacturing, who were actually responsible for producing products that customers paid for, were the true heroes--the top of the pecking order. All the others involved, even the engineers who had, for example, invented the processes being used in manufacturing, were way, way down in the manufacturing engineers' hierarchy of contribution and worth.

These two anecdotes featured choices made in the face of prevailing local prejudices that suggested rejecting choices offered by the institution as a whole. I have risked boring you with personal history because, during the course of my 35 years in the RD&E enterprise, I have seen more careers stifled and made mediocre by conventional choices than I have seen careers hurt by unconventional choices. This is one of the principle thoughts I would like to leave with you. Think carefully, look before you leap, but try to free yourself from the conventional wisdom of your institutional culture. It is worth the risk, and it will set a valuable example for your less adventurous colleagues.

Weakness Derived From Growth, Success
I have said that our institutional cultures suffer from weaknesses derived, at least in part, from decade after decade of growth and success, so it is appropriate for me to be more specific. I will start with industrial RD&E, which I know best, and then discuss the weaknesses of academic culture, as I see them.

It is my hope that these remarks will stimulate or perhaps even aggravate you into discussing among yourselves of these issues of institutional culture and their impacts on your own careers.

Despite all the articles and the public hand-wringing about the decline in recent years in industrial R&D, and despite the fact that there certainly have been downsizings, I hold a contrary view: Industrial RD&E organizations are, in general, at the moment, in better shape as institutions than their academic and national laboratory counterparts. (I am not claiming they are necessarily happier places.)

The industrial labs are in better shape precisely because they already had, and continue, to engage in a thorough reexamination of their past effectiveness and their present relevance to corporate goals. They have faced the task of reassessing the portfolio of those research and engineering fields that are good bets to give the corporation an advantage in the future (which is, after all, why companies do research and advanced engineering in the first place). These reappraisals have been agonizing, but they are now largely in the past, and the industrial labs I know best are looking forward to new successes--not bemoaning past glories.

The academic sector is not as far along in this agonizing reappraisal. And though it will be unpopular for me to say so, I firmly believe that the academic RD&E sector could learn a lot from a detailed and sympathetic examination of our recent industrial R&D experience. It is hard, indeed, to shrink across the board. But shrinking across the board, although seemingly "fair," is mindless; the opportunity must be taken to correct some of the mistakes of the past good times. Examples might include mistaken toleration of mediocrity and outdated resource allocations, such as departments that are no longer competitive or those that are in fields no longer seen to be either scientifically exciting or at the forefront of engineering.

Back to industry. The two examples provided by AT&T Bell Laboratories and IBM Research often are in mind when observers deplore recent changes in industrial research. (And the observers always deplore; they never understand that management is doing what it is supposed to do.) In the not-too-distant past, there were substantial changes in the research arms of Xerox, GE, and RCA. As the RCA case shows, not all industrial labs go through these hard times and emerge vigorous. However, most have weathered these storms well and have emerged better prepared to serve their sponsors effectively.

Basic Research: Small Part of the Whole
Research, as understood in the university system and in the popular press, has always been a small part of total industrial RD&E investment, and the part of research that was ever basic research was always very small indeed. At IBM, for example, despite the outstanding achievements and Nobel prizes in basic research, it never amounted to more than 0.2 percent of the total R&D effort. Moreover, as a numerical fraction of the nation's total effort in basic research, the industrial component was always tiny.

Nevertheless, recent changes in corporate basic research get a wildly disproportionate share of public attention and worrying. These are the views of outsiders; insiders know that since basic research is such a small part of the whole, the most significant weaknesses in industrial RD&E will be found elsewhere. For example, in the late 1980s, IBM had about 60,000 technical workers in hardware, software, and systems development and engineering. Many of us felt that this was tens of thousands too many of some types of engineers and many hundreds too few of other kinds.

How could such a perverse allocation come about? It is a wise saying that "your success is also a potential source of weakness." One can pay too much attention to enhancing the highly successful products of the past and be too ready to react to the inexhaustible demands of customers for enhancements to those products. And since the amounts of money and personnel involved are large, owing to past success on a large scale, these parts of the RD&E agenda tend to monopolize management energy, attention, and political capital within the organization. Success brings many problems and gives rise to aspects of the corporate culture that are eventually counterproductive.

Another defect of large, successful RD&E organizations is that they become too inward looking, too wrapped up in their own world, and too little inclined to reach out and interact with the worlds of academic engineering and small rival firms. Big firms, in general, pay too much attention to their big competitors and not enough to their small ones.

I remember sitting in an R&D planning meeting at IBM headquarters in the late 1980s during which the appropriate size of our R&D budget--overall--was under review. Someone showed a chart giving the total of all the R&D expenditures of the 12 next-largest computer companies in the world. IBMs budget was comfortably larger than that sum.

I don't know what moral you draw from that story, but one of the morals I have drawn is that it is possible to spend too much money on RD&E: too much because the money is being spent on the wrong things, or too much because the money is producing results in the forms of processes, new product designs, and new capabilities faster than the rest of the corporation can absorb and exploit them. (By the way, you may want to ask yourself, as I have, whether or not a country can make the same mistake. That is, can it spend too much on the wrong kind of R&D or be unable to appropriate a sufficiently large share of the fruits of its RD&E enterprise for its own benefit?)

There are two paths that can be taken in dealing with an RD&E budget that is believed to be too large. One is to try to remove the deficiencies impeding full exploitation of the bountiful fruits of R&D. The other is to readjust the portfolio of R&D projects to create a better match with the needs of the organization supporting the work. Both approaches are probably required in most cases.

Large, complex industrial organizations also suffer from the universal tendency of people to identify too closely with their local unit and to view other parts of the same company as rivals. The wonderful book Augustine's Laws (1987), written by the just-retired chairman of the NAE, Norm Augustine, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, has several chapters on this destructive form of internal rivalry.

These are some of the weaknesses of industrial RD&E culture. What are some of the remedies? There are no miracle cures for these weaknesses, but what might be called "internal travel" or "internal cultural exploration" is very good medicine for most of them. By "internal travel" I mean individuals experiencing working in different parts of the company.

It is usual for candidates for future executive management to be expected to move around as part of their company education. But, in my experience, it is very helpful for any organization to have a larger fraction of all of its engineers and scientists acquire personal experience of the cultures, the problems, and the satisfactions of other parts of the organization.

The reason is as profound as it is simple. There are crucial things to know about how one's firm works that can only be learned by experience. Prejudice and ignorance about the rest of the organization are sources of a lot of the weakness of any large industrial firm--as they are of any large, complex organization (including, I fear, many universities).

So, I urge you young engineers who work in industry to seek out opportunities to enlarge your personal experience of the organization. There is every likelihood that you will find it challenging and enlightening, and I think it is probable you will find the experience fun as well. Furthermore, it will improve your effectiveness as an engineer, even if you have no interest in higher management.

During my years of working with scientists and engineers, I never met any who were not very proud of the contributions they had made to the companys products. In fact, the chief source of dissatisfaction among my engineer colleagues was the difficulty many of them had making such an impact. If more of them had had personal experience working with other parts of the company, they might have had an easier time achieving their principal source of satisfaction--namely, visible impact. This is a good example of my claim that what is required to improve the institutional culture will also be a source of improvement for individual careers.

Now, what about the university cultures of science and engineering? The first thing to say about university culture is that it is a wonderful, supportive, and effective context for research, scholarship, and teaching. But a closer look shows that it suffers from the following problems, among others. First, the disappearance of mandatory retirement for tenured professors is a major challenge for the long-term health and vitality of universities. Different universities have had very different degrees of success in dealing with this challenge. What has been created is a situation in which de facto age discrimination--against the young--will be a feature of academic life for a generation.

The Need for Effective Management
My own counsel to senior faculty has been that they have a moral responsibility to their institutions to make room for the appointment of younger tenured colleagues. Acting in this morally responsible way need not mean being shut off from one's department or one's research, for there are many types of emeritus status allowing one to continue, although perhaps in less grand space and with more sharing of support. The key thing is for senior faculty to draw their remuneration from funds in the retirement pool, thus freeing up endowment funds for young people.

Large, complex organizations, including research universities, require effective management. But the academic culture is scornful of management, which is seen, at best, as a necessary evil; if it is your turn to be department chair, do it with as little attention as you can get away with and get back to "real work" as soon as possible. I apologize for the caricature, for I realize that some of you probably have risen above these limitations of your surroundings. But let me remind you that I am discussing these issues both because they are impediments to your own careers and because you each have a responsibility to the future health of your institution. It is not enough to say, "If I do the best work I can, that is the best, and only, contribution I need to make to my university."

Recruiting Leadership
It is useful to think carefully about the issue of rotating department chairs--the notion that everyone must take a turn--that characterizes some of our universities. This is nonsensical from the point of view of effective management. Management skills are at least as thinly distributed in the population as is the ability to become a tenured professor. There is a very small set of the general population that has the ability to become leading-edge contributors to science or engineering, and there is at least as small a set of the population with the talent and the psychological maturity to be effective managers. The overlap of these two sets is distressingly small, yet it is from this overlap that all healthy research organizations should recruit their leaders. This constitutes a serious dilemma for every organization with which I am familiar.

But understanding that not everyone should be expected to take a turn does not justify the scorn and abhorrence of management that are part of the warp and woof of the academic culture. One of the career options each of you has to explore, in one way or another, is whether you have both sets of talent and therefore fall into the very small set whose duty to your institution is to spend part of your career in a leadership, management position. By the way, mature, successful organizations try to make it possible for their members to explore management and, if they are not suited to it, to return without stigma to a purely professional role.

Whether or not you personally should be in management, as academics you should each try to help stamp out the scorn, or at least the low esteem, with which your culture views management. The point is not that you all have a duty to become deans but that you have a duty to create an atmosphere in which they can do their work effectively, and you and your colleagues should understand and support that atmosphere. This is vital if your university is to deal successfully with hard times ahead.

Ironically, just as corporations are finding it advantageous to flatten management structures and to have, in general, less management, universities are finding that they need more management and better-shared understanding of what management means. It has always struck me as evidence of institutional weakness that most academics do not distinguish between the functions of "administration" and of "management."

Parenthetically, I must add as an experienced senior manager that one must always be on guard against "volunteers" for management responsibility. Often, they are interested more in the title and supposed power that go with a managerial position than they are in the responsibilities of such a position. The best managers in any organization often have to be coaxed and cajoled into testing their talents in this area; it is only after a successful "test run" that they appreciate what it is that they can contribute to the institution and what the personal satisfactions are.

The general low esteem for management in academia is part of what I call the "culture of irresponsibility," which is a rather confrontational shorthand phrase for "the lack of a feeling of personal responsibility toward the larger interests of the institution." All large RD&E enterprises suffer from this to some degree. The culture of irresponsibility in academia has been aggravated by pervasive dependence on outside agencies for research funds. Since one's funds come from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NSF, or the Department of Defense, for example, one does not need to care about the health of the university generally. This is doubly the case where all or part of salaries depend on "soft money."

The final aspect of the academic institutional culture I will touch on is the excessive reverence for disciplinary boundaries that is built into the departmental structure of our universities. Much attention has been given to this issue over the past 5 or so years; indeed, this meeting is an attempt by the NAE to counter the ills of overspecialization and to promote interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration.

As a former vice president of an R&D organization, my principal complaint about overspecialization is that it produces graduates with a very narrow set of career expectations, low intellectual self-confidence, and a reluctance to strike out themselves in ways that are intellectually adventurous. Our companies need highly trained engineers, of course, but they also need engineers who are confident in their ability to master new areas and to go forth on their own across traditional boundaries. The university culture they bring with them usually is a decided hindrance to being intellectually and professionally adventurous.

The traditional disciplines are useful for teaching and for some aspects of research, but we should never lose sight of the fact that these disciplinary boundaries have almost nothing to do with nature. Nature is not organized like the wall of mailboxes at your local post office, with physics in one box, electrical engineering in another, biology in a third, and so on. God did not make the world that way. Nature is much more like a mass of cooked spaghetti; each strand touches and is wound up with many others. You young professors of engineering owe it to your students to allow them, and encourage them, to move across traditional boundaries. You are leaders; you will lead best by example.

I wish you well in your individual careers. I hope you will think seriously about taking more risks and will be cautious when trying to fulfill the expectations of your peers. From my all-too-brief stay with you today, I am encouraged to find that many of you are, yourselves, adventurous.

I wish you well in your individual institutions; I hope that with your help they will emerge stronger from dealing with the formidable challenges of the next decade. I suggest that the kind of boundary-breaking and expectation-shattering careers that I have been endorsing will be a large part of the solution to the problems of your institutions.

Augustine, N. 1987. Augustine's Laws. New York, N.Y.:Penguin Books.


About the Author:John Armstrong, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is retired vice president for science and technology at IBM. A similar version of this talk appeared first in the book Frontiers of Engineering: Reports on Leading Edge Engineering from the 1996 NAE Symposium on Frontiers of Engineering (National Academy Press, 1997).