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Category: Business & Communities

Learning to recruit better (3/3)

The project cycle in recruitment is amazingly long.  A job opens up, documents are drawn up and approved, advertisements go out.  We rarely have a chance to change the process while it is in mid-flow; and in any case, that may be illegal.

But what can we learn by thinking like a marketer?  Are we just learning to tweak our advertisements?  Are we learning more about our people, i.e., our market?

The key ideas in this phase revolve around a concept that is really difficult to grasp.  Markets are organic and we need to think about them as it they are ‘alive’ and ‘talking back to us’.  We not only learn about them but we grow through our conversations with them as they do in turn.  But they are influenced not only by us but by other people too.  Herein lies the catch and three goals.

  1. We listen to what the market is saying back. Do we get phone calls asking for more information?  And what are applicants interested in?
  2. What did applicants already know about us and who around them prompted them to call? Are we learning more about the market and personas?
  3. Do we see “welcome” in this group and what is the market pulling us to do?

How can we think about this procedurally?

Anticipate the patterns of calls and questions.  At the start of a recruitment cycle, we should write down whom we expect to call and the questions we expect them to ask.  Is our sense of who will take an interest and when they enter and leave the application process getting updated?

Anticipate the community around the job.  At the start, write down whom we think is interested in this job.  Which mentors and patrons will notice the job and pass it on?  Who is actively watching the recruitment channels and who was alerted by a colleague?  What are we learning about the community around the job?  If you asked callers a question such as do you have colleagues who are applying, what would they say?  Above all, ask if they knew the job was coming up before you advertised it?  Is the job part of wider community or are you trying to forge a relationship with the community?

Anticipate your role in this living thing called the market.  As you listen to the question people ask, then you develop a sense of whether you are part of their world or whether they are applying because you offered a job. We often look for this information, arrogantly, in selection.  But what you are trying to establish in recruitment is whether your recruitment is talking to an established need or if you are having to stimulate that need.  Are we already part of a community?  Did applicants know this job was coming up and did they know because someone told them but because “of course” the job was coming up because there is an internal logic to their community of which we are a part?  Importantly, it also follows that this community, being ‘alive’ is always changing.  We should be getting a sense of this ‘living creature’ and understanding that our relationship with it will change.   Recruitment is not just doing some set piece tasks; it is an expression of this relationship and the next time we recruit, we be going through the entire process again because the market has changed, as have we.

Will a marketing mindset be helpful to you?

Recruiters exist to bridge an organisation with the outside world but most are simply on the periphery without a good sense of what the organisation does and so focused on their commissions that they don’t think very much at all about the community behind the labour supply.  But if you want to write better advertisements and achieve good placements more quickly, that paying some attention to the essential marketing character of recruiting might help you.


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How to manage the recruitment process (2/3)

In the academic world, it is the norm to give a contact number of the future line manager who is expected to take calls and talk around the job.  It is amazing how often, though, said contact person is away.   What should applicants read into that?

In the non-academic world, I remember inviting candidates around to look over the job themselves.  Technically, this is called a realistic preview, but it made an enormous impression that they were being taken seriously.  Indeed, I also worked for a university who invited shortlisted candidates in for a week. They were put up in a hotel. Anyone and everyone who wanted to interview them could in addition to the formal interviews.  And candidates were run around the town to see everything that interested them. Sometimes it was schools; sometimes it was the beach.  Their questions were answered.

Are there formal ways to think through our interaction with applicants?

Core value proposition.  What is the core value of the job and how does it relate to the applicants’ core problem that we defined earlier?   Immediately, we see that skipping steps in our homework will cause a problem!  We do need to understand our people as well as the job!

Hook.  Having identified the core value proposition, how can we express it in the simplest terms?

Time to Value.  How quickly will the applicant experience value? What is value to the applicant in the application process?  Now here is a tough one, though probably because we spend so little time thinking about this, we can quickly identify points that would annoy them!  Where is value for them in the recruitment process?  Perhaps helping them find the information they need to make an informed decision?

Stickiness. Who begins this process and who wanders off?  And most importantly, on a 2×2 who arrives whom we sincerely believe might benefit from an employment relationship with us?  And who are we losing?  But specifically, what is that we are doing that helps applicants sift themselves?

Will a marketing mindset help you?

If I am utterly honest, I see so few people manage their entire application process that I would be hesitant to call it.  And if the previous exercises to think through the job and advertisement had not been done, it would be difficult to think clearly about the process.

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How to write a good job advert (1/3)

Recently, some academics complained to the big academic job board,, that an advertisement for a lectureship contained exactly one sentence that was useful to the job applicants.   We know that our job advertisements are often bad.  But in truth, most of us have no idea how to fix them.

I think the trick, which I put here for you to consider, is to remember that selection is about prediction but recruitment is about securing supply.  It is marketing.  We want to catch people’s attention but we also want them to pre-select and arrive as marketers put it, pre-qualified.  There is no merit in attracting lot of applications when you only have one job.  It wastes your time and it makes a lot of enemies.  But how do we achieve the twin goals of being noticeable and being useful?

Some marketing terms

Were we to be marketing the latest £1bn FMCG product, we might think in terms of {Category, Personas, Problems, Motivations}.

Category.  In recruiting, we probably assume that Category is just “a job” but we will probably return here to answer the question – what category of product does the customer put you in?  In other words, what would be their alternative if they weren’t using your product?  Gather your competition and you will have some idea of the category, or set, in which you fall.  Sometimes you are surprised by what people would be doing if they weren’t working for you/

Persona.  Who is likely to be interested in this job?  Where have they come from?  Where are they going to?  Who are they taking with them?  Simply imagine candidates that you would very much like to apply and write down who they are – though keep this private because to do it well you must draw out of your imagination details that will be illegal if they remain part of the system. So, if you imagine yourself recruiting a young male, write it down. Then later you can challenge yourself to imagine recruiting a young woman, an older woman or an older male.  Your task here is not to finalise the system but to begin to walk in the shoes of your applicants and to learn too what assumptions you make about them.

Problems.  Now imagine the issues that your applicants have with your category – that is you and your competition (and your competition might be a gap year!).  What questions are candiates likely to ask, not just you, but other people privately?  What are they googling?  What issues have come up with previous incumbents?  I remember being asked by a very senior person where the printer was.  It really irked him that he had to waste time running around to find his stuff.  This was not central to his competence but it pointed me to factors that he was taking into consideration.

Motivations.  What is the motivation behind these problems?  Why are these problems important to the audience?  In the case of the printer, the person wanted to be efficient, didn’t want to do administration and wanted to be respected?  Maybe these are traits I don’t want and I can signal that in the advertisement.  Or maybe, these are traits that I do want and I can indicate the ‘state of the plant’ in the advertisement.  In recruitment, money and location is important.  And so too is not lying about these.  It is amazing how often recruiters do.

Will taking a marketing mindset help you?

I know a lot of recruiters who just can’t be bothered. They don’t really understand the jobs they are filling. And forgetting that they have two audiences, concentrate mainly on what hirer wants.  That is of course, their judgement.

My experience of using marketing in recruitment is that both we successfully fill jobs, and on the first pass.  Moreover, the number of applications plummets by an order of magnitude. We get better replies and we get fewer replies.   We satisfy both our audiences: the hirer and the applicants.

With this little bit of homework, which is quite enjoyable to do, particularly in a group, we write better job advertisements.


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Some people talk such guff about education

People talk such guff about education.

In brief, you want an organized map of the field, a reason to want to explore the map, money and time to put into the effort, and someone patient enough to guide you and respond to your reactions.

You also want to break your learning into reasonable chunks.   You need to work little and often to be able to concentrate and to think out how new information connects to what you already know and believe and your activity needs to be a judicious mix of time with your tutor, time working with others and time working alone.

Have I written any thing similar?


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Baffled by bankers’ bonuses? Read agency theory

I am writing this post, as is my wont, to record some notes from a paper I read:

Azevado, R.E and Akdere, M.  (2011). Examining Agency Theory in Training and Development: Understanding Self-Interest Behaviors in the Organization.  Human Resources Development Review, Volume No Not Known, 18 pages. If you want a copy, both authors are presently at the University of Minnesota.

I read the paper because agency theory is the theory behind the big bonuses that are provoking so much controversy.

The application of agency theory to Training is new and nothing to do with bonuses.  But I wanted to tidy up my own thinking about agency theory and if you do too, I’d recommend reading Azevado and Akdere’s paper.  They explain the basic precepts of that school of thinking very well.

I don’t like agency theory and I wanted to pinpoint exactly why I think it is misguided.  I’ve boiled my objections down to three essential points:  the distaste agency theorists have for self-interest, their belief in a zero-sum game, and their belief that the world is so static and unchanging that any one person knows best.


Adam Smith said:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.

Some people are sincerely concerned about self-interest, and like the far left, so are agency theorists.

Personally, I am delighted that the self-interest of the butcher, the baker and the brewer leads to a butcher, a bakery and a pub on the high street. I believe in caveat emptor (buyer beware) but I am not panicking that the butcher, the baker and the brewer might from time-to-time charge me 1p too much.

I also don’t panic that today the butcher tries to sell me something that he is trying to ‘move’.  Provided he has taken my self-interest into account and sold me something to fit my needs, we are ‘square’.

I get my needs met now. I get my needs met over the long term because his shop stays open.  And my business does better because he can buy from me!

(Funny that – the last female butcher that I met was my own grandmother.)

Generativity vs zero-sum gains

Agency theorists begin with an assumption that if I pursue my self-interest, then I am not pursuing yours.

Or at least, they believe that inherent in belonging to an organization is the need for the organization to ask me not to pursue my self-interest in some form or another.

It certainly is the case, for example in a soccer game, that I shouldn’t pass the ball to the opposition on purpose, or showing off to my mates in the crowd and not pay attention to the game.

But why should my self-interest be sacrificed as a matter of principle or practice?  If we need to sacrifice anything, let’s compromise and make sacrifices all round.  And wouldn’t it better to put our efforts into making a business environment which is rich enough for us all to pursue our self-interest?

To take a simple example, does it matter if I am miner, metallurgist, engineer, accountant or diamond cutter, provided that all of us work together to mine the diamonds safely and sell them profitably to people who want them?

I’ve found that where people stand on this point is fairly key to their choice of work and choice of organization.  Some people want quick returns. They really don’t believe an organization is more than the sum of its parts.  So be it. We’ll help them go where they need to go.

Those of us who don’t believe that life is zero sum game should stay away from organizations run in terms of agency theory. We will hate them.  And we need to put our money where our mouth is. We have to make our own organizations as good as we want them to be – and successful commercially.

‘Gap’ thinking vs positive management

Agency theory seems tremendously old school to me in the notion that there is a right way to do things and that someone somewhere knows what this right thing is.

Now there are definitely wrong ways to do things.  There have to be things we wouldn’t countenance no matter what.

Expertise is also real. And it takes time, a long time to learn.  Indeed, good organizations arrange themselves so that people can develop expertise and learn from each other.

But the idea that we know the whole answer and we can insist that people do things our way is very unrealistic.  If it was ever possible, it is not possible in today’s world where we rely on networks of experts.  We each bring our own perspective to a problem and we are richer for it.

Returning to agency theory, if no one knows what the best answer is until we have discussed, how do we evaluate whether our agents are pursuing our interests vigorously?

Worse, if we do not allow the room to work out what our interests are, haven’t we built into the organization the very thing that we fear most – that our agents withhold information that is valuable to us?

So in short, these are my three objections to agency theory.

I think self-interest is good, not bad.  We want people to think about their self-interest because we will have a healthier, sounder and more resilient organization (and economy).

I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game. I don’t see the world as a cake to be divided up.  At best I see the world as having no cake until we’ve baked it.  And there are cakes and cakes. Real wizards will make us a cake even when the ingredients for their favourite recipe are not available.

I don’t think we know upfront what our self-interest is.  Good organizations are forum where negotiations and bargaining lead to mutually prosperous ventures.

How does any of this help me understand bankers’ bonuses?  Well they are mystery, to be sure.    Agency theory is not standard organization and management theory but to turn away from thinking that captures attention with promises of large rewards, we need not only an alternative but an understanding of the thinking itself.  Do read Azevado and Akdere’s paper.  I found it helpful even though, or possibly because it was about the less emotive topic of Training.

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Coding in schools? Take the splinter from our eye perhaps?

As I wait for FTP to download a website from a server onto my laptop, I thought I would write a bit.

I was up late last night, probably unwisely, as I tried to fix odd errors on my online shop. One error led to another.  I left a message for my US suppliers went to bed and got up in the morning to the usual geek-like rude reply – read this link.

Well my response is

a)      Why wasn’t that pointed out to me earlier

b)      When I put that advice in plain words, your product does not work under the conditions you said it would work. You did warn us by saying “if you use  . . .”.  But the truth is that you should have said “We do not recommend using  . . . If you do use our product with this other product, here are the 5 things you must get right.”

Anyway, I deleted the 2nd product and guess what – their product now misses the 2nd product and has frozen my online shop.  Hence downloading a copy of what is left onto another compute for safekeeping before I fiddle any further.

So why is this important?

  1.  Don’t do your computing when you are tired and don’t try to read Geek-English when you are tired and stressed.  They do their computing and writing when they are tired and stressed and it shows.
  2. There is a big debate going on in UK about teaching coding in schools.  I scoff at this debate. It began with Eric Schmidt of Google, teasing the UK government about teaching word processing in schools (i.e., using Microsoft).  The geeks of UK have fallen for this line and now think we should teach the average teenager how to write the next package. Hmm. .  it will be as a bad as the one that I am using and why anyway should we trade in Microsoft for Google.  For all our frustrations with Office, it is much more stable than any Google product.
  3. But yes, we should all use computers a lot more. I bought some software because I thought my predilection for writing code from scratch was ill-served.  Get working ecommerce software and use it! Bad idea. Bad idea to rely on geeks. Much better to know every corner of your code yourself.

But of course we cannot know everything.  But yes.  Using other people’s code is like signing a document without reading it. We do it – often.  We shouldn’t.  We should streamline our lives to have two boxes:

 # Box 1 : Not very important to me

Things in this box are not important to me.  So I can afford to sign bits of paper or use other people’s code or eat food of unknown origin or sleep with someone who seems to sleep elsewhere too – you get my drift.

If it doesn’t matter, put it in this box.

# Box 2: Very important to me

In this box are the things I care about.  So I should tend to them carefully and learn about them deeply.

As I can’t do everything, I should be very selective about what goes in this box.

I have to be careful about leaving things out too which do impinge upon me or would enrich me enormously.  So what is important must go in and what goes in must be looked after.

What kids should learn at school

That’s what kids should learn at school. To do their work well.  Not to spend time on things they don’t care about.  And not to complain if things they ignored turned out to be important.

Of course, when they are small, they can’t understand this completely or understand enough about anything.  So we grow their world for them slowly, helping them to push back their horizons, bit by bit, as they can absorb more and attend to it with the same care as things already in their world.

To live in narrow world is not grown up. We might even argue that it is to be ‘not of sound mind’.  But to suggest we should code at school.  . . that’s as half-baked as the code I stupidly bought.

Teachers know a bit about helping kids to grow

Kids must go to school and expand slowly from the world they are in to a bigger world. Teachers have some idea of the average pace that kids can work at.   And they know quite a bit about managing an environment where kids can grow steadily in a safe environment.

How can we help schools?

If we think there is something in our world that teachers might like to see, then I think we should invite them in.

Hold bar camps for teachers to have a lovely relaxing weekend in their hols with good food and pizza and geeks with blazing eyes excited by their weekend challenge.

We can accept problems teachers identify with software and work on some improvements.

A splinter out of our own eye?

But it is not kids who need fixing. It is not schools who need fixing.

It is the geeky world of very bad software and very rude help desks. N’est-ce pas? And TG for Google Translate so I could check my spelling.

Getting with the program

Oh, btw, did you see National University of Singapore have built an iPhone app that translates Mandarin speech into spoken English.  . . might make me lazy about learning Mandarin.

Anyway, Stanford watch out.  Asia is hot on your vapour trail.

And where is UK . . . making key apps?  . . . making life better? . . . yes Eric Schmidt is right.  We are a nation of chatterers preferring to use a word processor than to build one.

We should build the companies and businesses that take on NUS and IIT – Kids will work that out fast enough and set that as their new horizon.  Something for kids to look forward to  . . . they don’t need to aspire to aping US entrepreneurs for 20 years ago or 40 years ago.

And if you don’t know what NUS or IIT stands for, of course Stanford’s former post-grad students can solve the puzzle for you.

So ends my self-entertainment – but my FTP download is still not done.  Is it stuck in a loop?  Dearie me. Do I have to understand it’s code too?  Well don’t be taken in by geeks.  The first thing I learned as a CS student is that code is arbitrary.  The problem is usually the comma you didn’t know was supposed to be there.  Now to search Google for ‘looping FTP’. Logic will not fix this. Nor common sense. Someone has seen it before – or not.


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10 questions to get ready for moving past the financial crisis

In my rough-and-ready barometer of where we are in dealing with the financial crisis, I note that #occupylsx has got people talking.  That’s great. Instead of mumbling into our beer, we are talking.  That’s a far cry from doing, of course.

Using the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, adjustment cycle, I reckon we are up to bargaining. We still believe we are going to make this go away.

When we do get around to adjusting and getting on with life, we are going to need to be well informed about what we can do and whom we can do it with.  If you intend to be around when we get round to sorting things out, these questions might help disentangle the issues.

What do you feel, and what do others feel about these issues?

#1 Are people in the UK angry?

#2 Are all people in the UK angry to the same degree?  And if not, who is more or less angry and what has led us to that opinion that our levels of anger differ?

#3 Is everyone who is angry, angry about the same things?  And with the same people?

#4 Who is angry with you and how do you feel that some people are angry with you?

#5 Who many people in the UK are of working age? How many people in the UK work in banks and the financial services?  How many people do you know who work in these industries?

#6 How much money does our government need each year to run the schools, the hospitals, the roads, the police, the fire service, the army, the navy, the airforce?

#7 How much money do the banks and financial services kick-in to the cost of running our government?

#8 What are the various things we could “do” to the banks?  Which three seem to be the most popular?

#9  When we “do” these things to the banks, what jobs will be created and which will be lost?  Who will be the winners and losers?

#10 When we “do” these things to the banks, what will be the amount they kick-in to the cost of running the government?  Will that be more or less and if it is less, how can we make up the shortfall?


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See the financial crisis as a chess game with 4 pieces

Since the Northern Rock crash, when was it, 2007? I’ve been using the Kubler Ross Grief Cycle to track where we are in dealing with the financial crisis.

Kubler Ross Grief Cycle and the Financial Crisis

  • Denial took a looooong time. We got Lehman’s  in 2008.  I think people have got it now.  We know we are trouble.
  • Anger started kicking in when? At first we were vaguely angry with Lehmans. Then we muttered when our own incomes were affected.  And possibly we took our anger on targets as various as local corner shop and politicians.
  • Bargaining is next . . . if I do this, then . . . then the problem is going to go away.  A well-educated experienced American knowledge entrepreneur over here in UK looking for backing put the mind-set well.  “Promises were made”.  “The middle-class were promised . . .”  That is what bargaining means. We think we can still make the problem go away and with very little effort at that.
  • Depression should follow in this rough order of psychological states.  We might have thought that Western countries have been depressed for a long time with most people “sleep walking” through life, nursing a hangover and waiting for early retirement.   So I am not looking forward to seeing what that looks like in a more severe form.  At the rate we are going, next year maybe?
  • Adjustment  . .  and eventually we get sick of being depressed so we get out of bed one morning and decide to get on with it.

Being positive in the face of the worst financial crisis

Being an impatient soul, I’ve kept an eye out for simple models that can help people Act, Do, & Get On With It.

On Al Jazeera today, there is a blog by Mohamed A. El-Erian is CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO, and author of When Markets Collide.

El-Erian finishes his article reassuring us that we

need not be paralysed by uncertainty and anxiety. Instead, we can use this simple framework to monitor developments, learn from them, and adapt. Yes, there will still be volatility, unusual strains, and historically odd outcomes. But, remember, a global paradigm shift implies a significant change in opportunities, and not just risks.

A framework for understanding how the financial crisis will unfold

So what is the framework?  El-Erian suggests that each country, or large community, will decide for itself what it will do about four things.  Each community will make a move. Then we will watch  how it goes (and what everyone else does).  And then we will make another move.

We don’t know the outcome of our collective actions in advance but we can think of this as a game of chess with four pieces each (instead of 6) and many many players (not just 2).

The four pieces at each community’s disposal


We have overspent and “borrowed from the future”.  Whatever we cannot pay to the future, the future must write-off as a bad debt.  That’s the stark situation that we are in.

In a large community, we are going to divide up the bad debt between us.  The question is who should pay more and who should pay less.

Countries squabble at home about the formula for dividing up the debt, and the formula is important, but this squabble goes under a separate heading below.

First, the country as a whole must deleverage.  If we don’t take responsibility for our overspending (sins of the fathers visited on the sons etc), then our creditors will take charge of our assets.  This is called getting a bailout from the IMF.  If you have ever seen this in play, you don’t want to go there. Believe me.

Economic growth

OK, we got into debt because we were partying and spending more than we earn.  How are we going to earn more?

Sometimes the problem is structural. It is hard for me to get off my proverbial backside because I am locked into a system.  So what is locking down the energy in a country?  That is the question we ask.

Sadly sometimes, lack of growth is not economic. It is psychological. A tweet went the rounds this morning:  nothing will happen while we hope to become members of the billionaire club.  When the easy life is the focus, we ain’t going to be growing.  If our goal is early retirement – enough said?

So let’s hear from the economists. And while they have their arguments, the rest of us can focus relentlessly on what can be done and work with people who want to work.  And I mean focus relentlessly.  It is so easy to get distracted.

Social justice

Now the biggie.  Social justice has declined in the west. And there we were selling democracy to whoever would buy. So the Occupy movement use as their catch phrase: we are the 99%.

The real issue is still economic.  In my naïve economic take, the issue is how do we accumulate capital and what do we use it for?

When a government makes good free schooling available for a child from year 5 to year 16, we are investing our savings in that child.  And we expect a return. When they are older, not only will they join in sophisticated businesses that already exist, they will invent new businesses and keep the show on the road when we are old and are slowing down.  Education is just capital accumulation one person at a time.

Much of the problem in the west is that money has gone into partying at all levels.   Money accumulates were it isn’t doing the work of capital – by which I mean taking from the present to invest in the future.  We’ve been doing it backwards.  Leaving money doing very little while we borrow from the future to pay for today’s party.

The talk  is presently of who gets what. That is still partying.  We must put our shared capital where it can make a difference.  Education and health are no brainers.  We also have to look at all our assumptions about where we invest and why.  Simply, if you underpay a parent,  you are stripping them of capital. So don’t talk in the next breath talk about investing in early childhood education. You are frankly talking nonsense. Why not create the problem in the first place?  Personally, I’d look at all the laws that help keep workers insufficiently paid.  The simple test is could you run a household on the same income.  Could you?  If not you are running down the capital base of the country.

But the problem seems to be large and the real key seems to be to start to move forward somewhere.  The #occupy movement is people beginning to unravel the mess.  As El-Erain says, watch them. And don’t feel powerless. Make your choices.  Where ever Occupy ends, it is part of this piece on the board: Social Justice.


The fourth piece that we have to play with is leadership.  We complain endlessly about our politicians. El-Erain doesn’t say much in his blog. Maybe he talks about them more in his book.

Personally, is suspect that our leaders are not the piece. It is our attitude to leaders that is the piece.  I believe our leaders reflect us. Maybe when people become more accustomed to being politically active, then we will get better leaders.  OK. You tell me.

So if you are impatient waiting for people to move through the grief cycle, try seeing the world as chequer board with 4 pieces and many many players.  Track the apparent confusion and perhaps we can see what is happening, what is going to happen and what we can help make happen.


What is it like to study at uni and work with a famous Professor?

There are all sorts of jobs in this world that I call invisible jobs. You can walk along the High Street and not see them.  And indeed, sometimes you can see some a  job but not see what people do in the job.  When I come across good interviews or descriptions of hidden work, I grab them.

A few days ago, I came across this interview of Jennifer Widom, the head of computer science at Stanford  . .  to use British parlance. In American, Professor Widom is chair of the computer science department at  Stanford.

This interview is valuable in many respects.

  • The Professor is candid, without being forthright, about her career and her work-life balance.
  • She speaks with evident respect and affection for everyone around her, including students.
  • She describes the tacit knowledge (the how-to) of being a successful professor.
  • She is clear about the difference between a career in a university and a career in industry.
  • She nonetheless understands the connection between the two and how value moves from universities into industry and the working life of a nation.

I have written recently about the essence of university life. If you are thinking of going to universty, you should read this article.  You will be going to learn from people like this, because they are like this.  Professor Widom’s description will help you understand what studying at a university is like and why you want active researchers as your teacher.

It’s an easy to read interview and valuable for people trying to write up what is a mostly invisible job.  Above all, we read the story of a Professor who is warm, generous and down to earth.


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Why be bothered with a university education?

The distinction between university education and other post-school education can be hard to grasp. Many emotional arguments are advanced. “We only need a handful of people who speak Latin” is one argument, for example, that came up in my Twitter stream.  Often, our argument expresses no more than the emotions we are experiencing as the world shifts about and what we do or have done seems more or less highly valued.

In an earlier post, I tried to list three features of university life which make university education worthwhile though hard to understand from the outside, and hard to get used to when you first arrive as a first year fresh from high school.

I am doing a uni course right now coming from the other direction.  I have a lot of hands-on experience in a field and I wanted to work backwards – so to speak – and formalize my knowledge.  I find the course fairly frustrating because I cannot always relate what I am hearing to a practical situation and some of  the practical exercises are simply better done with a combination of a crib sheet and some trial and error.

So I have to ask myself : why am I still there?  Why haven’t I transferred to a polytechnic type college which would be better organized (from the students’ point of view) , and where the lecturing would frankly be more coherent and the exercises better thought out?

So I’ve had to write down my thoughts (to get them out of my head) and they may be useful to you.

#1 Professors tell the story of abstractions and the failure of abstraction

The job of a professor is to look out on the world and to describe what is common across a whole set of similar situations.

When they do a good job, we can use their generalization like a formula.  I can convert Celcius to Farenheit, for example.

Or, in the case of my course, I can understand how to set up some tables and store them in a database in the most efficient way possible.

The difficulty comes when the generalization or abstraction

a)       Is already known in real life (there have been people making almanacs and look-up tables for generations)

b)       And it turns out the generalization solves some problems but not all (or creates a few side-effects).

The professors then go back to the ‘drawing board’ and try to solve the problem with their own abstraction that they just created with their solution!

This drives students crazy, particularly the more practically minded.  They don’t really want to know this long story of

  • Make this formula
  • Oh. Oooops!
  • Well make this formula.  It is better.
  • Oh. Ooops!

This is particularly annoying to students when they have the spoiler and know the current state of best practice (and are perhaps of slightly impatient temperament).

But. this is what professors know about it and after all, there is not much point in asking them about things they don’t know about!

So the question becomes – shall I keep asking them, or shall I ask someone else?

# 2 Professors prepare you to manage the interface of new knowledge and reality

Well, let’s fast forward a bit to 10 or 20 years’ time when knowledge has advanced.  Of course, you can just go on another course.  And you probably will  go on another course to find out the new way of doing things.

But let’s imagine you are pretty important now and it is your job to decide whether to spend money on this new knowledge, spend money and time on the courses, and to decide whether or not to changing work practice to use the new ideas.

Of course you can find out the new method in a course.  Of course, you can hire consultants to give you the best guess of whether your competitors will use the new knowledge and how much better than you they will be when they put it into play.

There is another question you must ask and answer even if you answer it partly by gut-feel.  You must anticipate what the professors have not answered.  What will be their Oh. Ooops!  Your judgement of the Oh. Ooops! tells you the hidden costs.  The company that judges those correctly is the company that wins.

Everyone will pick up the new knowledge.  That’s out there. Everyone and his dog will take the course and read the book.  What we will compete on is the sense of the side-effects. That thalidomide will be a disaster.  That going to war will increase attacks on us.  To take to well known examples.

The professors won’t be articulate about the side-effects of their new solution. Not because they are irresponsible but because their heads are fully taken up figuring it out.

It is the leaders in charge of the interface between new knowledge and the real world who must take a reasonable view of the risks.  Just as in the banks, it is the Directors who are responsible for using technology that had unexpected side-effects.

When you are the Director, you want a good sense of the unknown unknowns and you develop that sense by listening to Professors. They tell you story of how we found the general idea and then went Oh. Ooops!.  The story can be irritating because it is mainly the story of cleaning up their own mess and sometimes the whole story is nothing more than Oh. Oops!  that ends with “Let’s give this up and start on another story”.

But as future leaders students, practise listening to experts at the edge of knowledge, relating the solutions to real world problems, and getting a good sense of the Oh. Ooops! that is about to come next!

#3 Uni education can feel complicated and annoying

That’s uni education.  Don’t expect it to be a movie that charms you and tickles you ego.  It is irritating.

But rather be irritated there than create a medical disaster, a ship that sinks or a financial system that collapses when you were in charge and jumped into things naively.

See you in class!


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