In another post a Slashdot, El Cubano asks the following question:

“ITworld is carrying a story (sorry, no printable version) saying that John Seely Brown (former chief scientist at Xerox and director of PARC, currently teaching at the University of Southern California) is encouraging engineering schools to change the way they educate. The article, quotes Mr. Brown saying the following: ‘Training someone for a career makes no sense. At best, you can train someone for a career trajectory…’. What do you think? Should engineering schools be producing tradesmen (like an apprenticeship program) or should they be producing ‘thinkers’ (people who can cope with a wide variety of problem inside and outside their area of expertise)?”

Having an engineering degree this reminds me of the multitude of choices presented upon graduation. On one hand I could have chosen a career with a defense contractor where I would apprentice with an older engineer to design and build a particular type of power supply for the remainder of my days, on the other, I could join a medical supplies organization where I would be responsible for various aspects in a manufacturing system and potentially groomed for a management position.

– Limitations of a Single Function –

This issue is not something that is limited to engineering alone. The presence of cross-functional teams in organizations is not a new concept. If a project requires multiple disciplines, a team is assembled ideally
comprised of experts in each category needed to achieve success. This has traditionally led many to be fearful that if multi-skilling is implemented it will dilute their professional identity.

Going forward engineers, managers, teachers, etc. are consistently going to be asked to do more with less. Whereas there are always going to be limits, which should be applied, a general knowledge of a multitude of disciplines will be necessary.

There have been calls for the reassessment of education in the US, part of which prompted the flawed “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Other countries are facing the same dilemma with due to the prevalence of American outsourcing. An article from The Economist (October 5th, 2006) mentions the early 2006 decline in IT outsourcing. Adrian Savage at SlowLeadership.com comments on this potential outsourcing bubble burst.

Now, it appears, outsourcing may be a victim of its own success. The school systems cannot keep up. More and more talented people are moving overseas in search of better incomes. As new corporations try to move in—too late—there are problems in finding enough skilled people for their work.

– Something about Everything –

Learn everything about one thing and something about everything else. This follows on from Dr. Edward Wilson’s concept of Consilience, the unity of knowledge. Where Dr. Wilson calls for a more fundamental approach to merging the sciences together for a greater understanding of our world, this principle may be applied to business as well.

To answer the original question, yes, there does need to be a fundamental shift toward skills training, but not so much that it dilutes the acquisition of expertise in a single field of study. An article from Small Business Trends highlights the growing emphasis on entrepreneurial education and training.

Entrepreneurial education is growing, especially at the university level, with over 1,600 higher education institutions offering such entrepreneurship education in some fashion. More people starting businesses will have training in the skills necessary to be successful as an entrepreneur. And it’s a good thing, because with the increasingly complex marketplace, they are going to need them.

This is, as with many endeavors, must be a two-way street. There are only so many hours that can be spent sitting in a lecture hall and the amount of information necessary to master one subject is ever increasing. Students must make the personal commitment to continue learning new skills in order to compete and that is a mindset that must be instilled prior to college.

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