Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Vision for the Nation Drawn from a Brilliant University Model

My suitcase is packed and I will soon be leaving for Washington DC where I will be speaking on an invited panel tomorrow morning at the Transportation Research Board meeting.

Tonight I will be watching President Obama's State of the Union speech in DC.

There is great anticipation surrounding his speech and newspapers and bloggers are writing about what they believe that the citizens need to hear -- clearly the country is starving for energizing, positive leadership that will coalesce the strengths and work ethic of its people and that will build upon collaboration and creativity. Competitiveness is being highlighted as well but with an entirely different slant.

David Brooks, in his OpEd piece, "A Talent Magnet," in today's New York Times, presents a brilliant analogy between government and a university and gives guidance to the leadership of our country. In his OpEd, he writes: In this century, economic competition between countries is less like the competition between armies or sports teams (with hermetically sealed units bashing or racing against each other). It’s more like the competition between elite universities, who vie for prestige in a networked search for knowledge. It’s less: “We will crush you with our efficiency and might.” It’s more: “We have the best talent and the best values, so if you want to make the most of your own capacities, you’ll come join us.”

The new sort of competition is all about charisma. It’s about gathering talent in one spot (in the information economy, geography matters more than ever because people are most creative when they collaborate face to face). This concentration of talent then attracts more talent, which creates more collaboration, which multiplies everybody’s skills, which attracts more talent and so on.

The nation with the most diverse creative hot spots will dominate the century.

He then argues that the President of our nation is like the President of a University (coincidentally, UMass just named its new President, Dr. Robert L. Caret) and although the President lives in the "big house" it is the professors, the researchers, the tutors, the coaches and the students that are the real guts of a university. They handle the substance of what gets done. The administrators play vital but secondary roles. They build the settings. They raise money. They recruit and do marketing. They help students who are stumbling.

The administrators couldn’t possibly understand or control the work in the physics or history departments. They just try to gather talent, set guidelines and create an atmosphere where brilliance can happen.

This is what outstanding administrators do, I might add, and we certainly need such talented individuals since incompetent, negative ones can seriously damage, impair, and even destroy an organization. Leaders are desperately needed who can create an environment in which talent is nurtured, supported, and in which laudatory efforts and successes are rewarded and recognized (sometimes a public compliment is worth more than a few dollars in one's paycheck and why is it difficult for some managers to do this?!).

So it is with government in an innovation economy. Entrepreneurs, corporate executives, line workers and store managers handle the substance of the economy. Government tries to nurture settings where brilliance can happen.

Yesterday, a female undergraduate student, who is an Operations Management major, came to my office to chat and we spoke for about an hour and a half. She and I concurred that the time just flew by (but she had to go to a class and I had to go teach a class). We spoke about her family, her courses, her major and dreams, and about the course that she took from me last semester. She told me how she is looking at the world in a different way because of my course (Transportation & Logistics). This was such a compliment and I couldn't be prouder of my students -- from the projects that they do to the jobs that they aspire to obtain to the positive role models that they are for the younger students.

The United States, like our universities, will succeed through administration in which collaboration in a supportive environment takes place so that everyone can be appreciated, can thrive, and can achieve one's potential. The output will then exceed the sum of its parts through knowledge creation. (Interestingly, last year, one of my former doctoral students, who is now a Professor, Dr. Patrick Qiang, and I presented a paper on knowledge collaboration networks across disciplines at the SBP 2010 conference, which was published in its Proceedings volume!)