INSTITUTIONAL CULTURES and INDIVIDUAL CAREERS


Dear LEOS Reader,

We at LEOS were indeed privileged to hear Dr. John Armstrong give an illuminating presentation to open the Plenary Session at the LEOS Annual Meeting last November in San Francisco.  Dr. Armstrong spoke about the cultural changes in R&D that have occurred in industry and academia over the past several years.  He has a unique perspective on the subject, having been involved at the highest levels of corporate R&D as IBM’s V.P. for Science and Technology.  The presentation was hailed as a key highlight of the Annual Meeting, sparking intense discussion and introspection among the attendees throughout the week.

Dr. Armstrong was gracious enough to allow LEOS to reprint his presentation for the benefit of all those who were not able to attend the talk at the Annual Meeting.

Enjoy reading the article below.  We are now in changing yet very exciting times, and Dr. Armstrong’s wonderful insights can help each of us manage our transitions towards a flourishing career!!

Alan E. Willner,
Univ. of Southern California Program Chair, LEOS ‘97 Annual Meeting


LEOS Conference, San Francisco, Nov. 10, 1997
John A. Armstrong
IBM
VP, Science & Technology (ret)
Amherst, MA

For many years, back in the 60’s and 70’s I was part of this research community, working on picosecond pulses, optical shocks, and non-linear spectroscopy. But my topic is more general than even the very broad range of disciplines represented on the program for this conference.

One can not read IEEE Spectrum, or any engineering monthly, or Science magazine, or Nature, without finding a discussion of corporate 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 though troubling times. My focus is on R&D institutions in the U.S., but I believe the same is true in many other countries as well.

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 which determine how we interact with our colleagues, and what we expect of them, and 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 the U.S. R&D institutions had, until 5 or 6 years ago, enjoyed four decades 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 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 that analogy to be taken literally. It is very helpful in clarifying otherwise mystifying behavior.

I am not suggesting that our institutional cultures are mostly dysfunctional, or that radical change is needed. I am suggesting 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 five decades could have been made by engineers and scientists working in isolation. Our R&D institutions are the most successful the world has ever seen; they are a crucial part of the technical infrastructure of our country, as they are of the infrastructure of all developed countries.

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 R&D infrastructure poses individual as well as national issues. I am certain this is true in the United States; I suspect it is true in other countries as well, although I realize the role of the individual in the governance of overseas institutions is often different from our model in the U.S.

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. And 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 just at the start of the golden age of postwar science and technology. I applied for and received an NSF graduate fellowship 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 travelling fellowship. No formal study would be allowed, I would be expected to move every six weeks or so, and 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 university 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 career in physics, 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 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 eighteen years 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. A far cry from picosecond pulses and multiphoton spectroscopy.

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 whole technical career. Here again, the institution in the large 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 two years I was in advvanced technology development I would occasionally visit the research labs and run into former colleagues: they were simply incapable of understanding why I was 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 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 topflight science and engineering schools that it was not even at 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.

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 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 that were 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 a prevailing local prejudices that suggested rejecting choices offered by the institution as a whole. I have risked boring you with personal history because, over 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. That is one of the principal thoughts I would like to leave with you, as individuals. 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 to your less adventurous colleagues.

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 the contrarian view that industrial RD&E organizations are, in general, at the moment, in better shape as institutions than their academic and national lab counterparts. (I am not claiming they are necessarily happier places. And, of course, I am talking about the U.S.)

The industrial labs are in better shape precisely because they have already had to engage in a thoroughgoing re-examination of their past effectiveness, their present relevance to corporate goals, and have faced up to the task of reassessing the portfolio of research and engineering fields, which 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, even though there are some in those labs who are quite bitter about the changes they have seen.

The U.S. academic sector is not so far along in this agonizing reappraisal. And though it will be unpopular for me to say so, I firmly believe that universities 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, outdated resource allocations, such as departments that are no longer competitive or are in fields no longer seen to be scientifically exciting or at the engineering forefront.

But, back to industry: the two examples of AT&T Bell Laboratories and IBM Research are often 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 have been substantial changes at the research arms of Philips, Xerox, GE, and RCA. As the RCA case shows, not all industrial labs go through these hard times and emerge as vigorous laboratories. But in fact, most have weathered the storms well, and emerged better prepared to serve their sponsors effectively.

Research, as understood in the university and in the popular press has always been a small part of total industrial R&D investment. And the part 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% of the total R&D effort. For example, in the late 80’s 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 resource 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. Big firms, in general, pay too much attention to their big competitors, and not enough to their small ones.

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 which impede full exploitation of the bountiful fruits of R&D. The other is to readjust the portfolio of research and development 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 by Norm Augustine, CEO of Lockheed Martin, called ‘Augustine’s Laws’, has several chapters on this destructive form of internal rivalry.

These are some of the weakness of industrial RD&E culture. What are some of the remedies?

There are no miracle cures for these diseases, but what might be called ‘internal travel’ or ‘internal cultural exploration’ is very good medicine for most of them. By ‘internal travel’ I mean experience working in different parts of the company.

It is usual that candidates for future executive management are expected to move around as part of their company education. But in my experience, it is very helpful for any organization if 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 simpple. 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 weakness of any large industrial firm.... as they are of any large, complex organization (including, I fear, many universities).

So, I very much commend to you young people who work in industry, that you seek out opportunities to enlarge your personal experience of the organization. There is every likelihood that you will find it challenging and enlightening; I think it probable you will find the experience to be fun as well. It will improve your effectiveness even if you have no interest in higher management.

Over the years of working with scientists and engineers, I never met any who were not very proud of contributions they had made to the company’s products. And the chief source of dissatisfaction among my engineer colleagues was the difficulty many of them felt in having 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 principle 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 I propose to turn my attention to the university cultures of science and engineering. The first thing to say about university culture is that, to first order, it is a wonderful, supportive, and effective context for research, scholarship, and teaching.

But a closer look at U.S. universities shows that they suffer 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.

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. There are many types of emeritus status which allow one to continue, although perhaps in less grand space and with more shared support. The key thing is that senior faculty have the moral responsibility to draw their remuneration from funds in the retirement pool, and free up endowment funds for young people.

Large complex organizations, including research universities, require effective management. But the academic culture is scornful of management; it 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.

Let me remind you that I am discussing these issues both because these 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 that “If I do the best work I can, that is the best, and only, contribution I need to make to my university”.

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 the ability to become a tenured professor. 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 can understand and support it. 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 that go with such positions. The best managers in any organization often have had 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.

As a former Director of Research, my principle complaint about over specialization 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 scientists and engineers, of course, but they also need engineers who are confident in their ability to master new areas and to strike out on their own across traditional boundaries. The university culture that they bring with them is usually a decided hindrance to them in any attempt to be intellectually and professionally adventurous.

The traditional disciplines are useful for teaching and for some aspects of research, but we should never loose 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 science and 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 urge this on you even though I understand that academics face much more severe institutional constrains on your sense of intellectual adventure than your industry counterparts. I wish you well in your individual careers. I hope you will think seriously about taking more risks, and be cautious when trying to fulfill the expectations of your peers.

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.


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