Soapbox

July 16, 2012 12:05 am

Engineers have a role to play in teaching MBAs

Business schools have to help cultivate mindsets that foster novel concepts and breakthrough technologies

There is much that MBAs and engineers can learn from each other and it is time that business schools recognised this and did more to make it happen.

In the past 20 years a growing focus on short-term financial performance has led British manufacturers to concentrate on next-generation products based predominantly on customer feedback. And by and large, our universities have simultaneously set about educating engineers to specialise in precisely that form of incremental innovation.

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This cannot go on – not when we face big challenges that can be met only by embracing a culture of radical innovation. We need to move towards an ethos of creativity and transformation, and business schools can play a significant role in bringing about this vital shift.

Engineering lies at the heart of innovation, but radical innovation requires new knowledge and new skills – and these in turn demand new methods of education. The obvious solution is for people with entrepreneurial capabilities and people with technological expertise to work alongside each other for their own mutual benefit and ultimately for the benefit of society.

To this end, a key point – one the UK has historically failed to acknowledge – is that radical innovation cannot be taught from a book. We have to see it in action. We have to be immersed in it. We have to demonstrate the process to students and make clear the benefits it can bring to health, society and the economy.

That means moving away from long-established notions of working in silos and instead promoting meaningful synergies from the earliest opportunity. It means encouraging engineers to collaborate with business, science, social science and humanities students, to develop leading-edge inventions that can be taken to market. It means allowing students to present the ideas that result from these collaborations to equity investors, intellectual property development professionals and experts in technology transfer and research commercialisation.

Such initiatives need to enter the mainstream if Britain is to have any realistic chance of enjoying a lasting economic recovery and maintaining a notable presence on the global stage.

Beale cartoon

A recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering suggested “substantial” government investment in higher and further education was needed to propel the UK’s journey towards an innovation economy. It rightly called for closer engagement between industry and academia and for the broader adoption of the practice of students from diverse disciplines working together. Naturally, this will take money, commitment and co-operation.

Policy makers and businesses are beginning to appreciate that incremental innovation alone is woefully insufficient in an age in which new problems seem to occur as rapidly as old ones are solved.

The UK remains home to some excellent designers and engineers, but an incomplete understanding or application of the innovation process too often condemns their ideas to go no further than the drawing board or the computer screen and ensures creative flair is seldom turned into competitive advantage.

This is where business schools can make a crucial difference. Radical innovation is frequently viewed as some form of out-of-hours activity, when it should be an integral part of the curriculum. Business schools have to help cultivate mindsets and environments that foster novel concepts and breakthrough technologies, because it is these that will revitalise the economy and address the most pressing issues of the early 21st century and beyond.

The status quo is unlikely to bring a significant economic revival or to benefit wider society. As educators – and as a country – we have to be more ambitious, aim for genuine sustainability and think for the long term. If we fail to act, if we believe we can muddle through, we will remain stuck in a mire of quick-fix thinking and systemic myopia.

Simon Mosey is a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Nottingham University Business School.

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