The edtech craze

Harvard Business Review July/August 2017 issue

BR1704_500 Here are a couple of articles I particularly liked in the latest HBR issue. Why CMOs never last discusses how to match the right person to the CMO job and how CEOs, executive recruiters can all help maximize CMI success through a 4-step approach:

(1) define the role (is the focus on strategy? commercialization? both? to which degree does consumer insight need to drive firm strategy? how difficult is it to achieve firm-level growth? what is the level of dynamic change in the workplace? what has been the historical role of the CMO within the firm? what is the structure of the firm?)

(2) match responsibilities to the job's scope (3) align metrics with expectations (4) find candidates with the right fit. At 4.1 years on average, CMOs have the shortest tenure of all C-level executives, just ahead of CIOs (4.3 years). The authors also discuss how to improve outcomes. Another HBR article discusses the potential of the partnership between CMOs and CIOs. 

Being the boss in Brussels, Boston and Beijing discusses cultural differences in leadership styles. I usually find most such articles vapid, but this one was excellent. The authors argue that managers often fail to distinguish between two dimensions of leadership culture: attitudes toward authority and attitudes toward decision-making. For instance, according to the authors, Americans tend to be egalitarian (empowerment rather than command-and-control) but practice top-down decision-making rather than building consensus. This leads to 4 cultures of leadership. Countries like France tend to be top-down and hierarchical, the United States and Canada are top-down and egalitarian, Sweden tends to be consensual and egalitarian, Germany tends to be consensual and hierarchical.

What's your best innovation bet? argues that by mapping a technology's past, you can predict what future customers will want. I'll admit I read the article while looking for parallels for career management for my recent graduates - can you predict what skills will be in demand by mapping the past of your company, or the industry you work in? Step 1 is to study how a technology has evolved along key dimensions. Step 2 is to locate your position (where you are on the utility curves for those dimensions). Step 3 is to determine your focus. 

Managing climate change: lessons from the U.S. Navy was a valuable case study in far-ranging thinking by describing a strategic mix of "no regrets" investments (which make sense even if climate change "doesn't alter the world as much or as quickly as scientists are forecasting" - like installing backup power generators) and "bets" investments (decisions that "provide little benefits if the seas don't rise and coastal storms don't get worse" - like relocating naval bases) to address the threats posed by climate change. 

Globalization in the age of Trump discusses current trends in globalization and protectionism. The author (Pankaj Ghemawat, a prominent expert on the topic) argues that the world is less globalized than most people realize and that, "even in the face of a trade war, international trade and investment would still be too large for strategists to ignore." I read this article while trying to find parallels with the world of higher education. With the advent of online education, people have promoted the idea that students from anywhere in the world can study online anywhere else in the world (the globalization side of it), but higher education at the college level isn't as globalized as people think, at least in the U.S., where students get charged in-state (rather than higher out-of-state) tuition rates if they go to a public university in their state, and where community college students remain very local (in their home county). But there is also been a trend in universities launching campuses abroad, which rather parallels the behavior of companies building plants in multiple countries. While such companies are looking for arbitrage opportunities in labor and other resources, universities might tap into different student pools. 

Finally, the Synthesis part is about liberal arts in the data age: why the hard sciences need the humanities. I'm all for the humanities, the study of history, Shakespeare, psychology and more, but what I think is missing from the books the segment discusses is the fact that the study of liberal arts is often wasted on the young. What I mean by that if that many 18-year-olds who have not had any life experience will not relate to the quiet desperation of Chekhov's Three Sisters or Flaubert's Madame Bovary, the burning ambition of Shakespeare's Macbeth, the determination of Cervantes' Don Quixote.

They can still write good essays about the books, but to fully understand them you need to read them a little later in life. But the educational system is set up as a narrowing of skills, especially at the graduate level, where most coursework focus on courses in the major, and the rest of the requirements come from related departments.

Then, people love to use Uber as an example, but we should also recognize the American culture of making money through entrepreneurship as fostering ruthless ambition, and making youngsters read the classics won't help anymore than making them hold hands and sing kumbaya. The type of youngsters who will relate to books as a source of meaningful growth is not the same type of youngsters who is attracted to launching startups, and the type of authors who argues in favor of the humanities is the humanities professors that future startup launchers might not pay attention to. Knowing how to think is definitely important, as well as excellent written and oral communication skills, but one hopes that engineering students are taught those skills too. I think the most useful skill learned by humanities majors is not how to think - every self-respecting program claims to do that - but how to deconstruct people's arguments and point out their flaws. As in, they're good detectors of bs or lazy thinking. In times even more devoted to one-sided versions of events and embroideries of the truth, people who can see through others' lies are important indeed.  


While I agree with you that many classics are best appreciated later in life, I don't see that as a reason to defer (or eliminate) an education in the humanities. (As an aside, I suspect teenagers might appreciate "The Diary of Anne Frank" more than people my age.) You are right about the critical thinking (b.s. detection) aspects of a liberal arts education _done right_. That feeds into the idea of an enlightened voter, one who can see through the arguments of politicians on both sides of an issue. Since college students will be voters by the time they graduate, I'd feel better if they had their b.s. detectors tuned by then.
A study of history (and maybe poli-sci) is also particularly important. My current superannuated self can look at contemporary insanity and put it in the context of history I experienced (threat of nuclear war, with the unintentionally humorous duck-and-cover drills; race and anti-war riots; Watergate; ...). My 18 year old self relied more on having read about the second world war, the US Civil War, assorted plagues etc. to keep a sense of perspective.
Unfortunately, as in all disciplines, the "done right" part is not a given. I enjoyed most of my lit classes, but one stinker in particular could have been enough to turn me off to humanities had it been my first. Still, better the occasional time-waster than a gaggle of engineers with no humanities background, busily at work ... designing SkyNet.

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