Filling the Skills Gap for Innovators – A Rant

There appears to be a growing perception in the innovation industry base, particularly but by no means exclusively in those in their first 10 years of experience, that commerce equates to bringing an invention to market and as such, is irrelevant to them as “someone else does that”. And, at a time when headlines are full of gloomy stats regarding employment rates for tertiary graduates, one wonders if that misperception is a big part of the problem. 

In many ways, this attitude is understandable. Not helpful or constructive perhaps, but understandable nonetheless.  Our higher education systems spend years training Australian innovators to deeper and frequently more specialized levels of sophistication in their technical skill sets. Indeed, there are numerous sources both domestically and internationally that say we do this will great consistency and success. Having applauded their graduation, however, we then expect them to embrace the world of commerce, a world with entirely different norms, languages and ways of thinking.  Ways of thinking, it should be noted, that many other also intelligent people have spent equally challenging years of training trying to master.

Most knowledge workers, when faced with a skills gap or deficiency will immediately look for a way to get more knowledge. And, whether it’s a function of a large majority of them being employed in that sector or just because they got a lot out of it last time, most of them automatically look to the education system generally and universities in particular as the proverbial font of all wisdom.

There has been an explosion in choice of post-graduate business courses in the last ten years as universities have sought to attract students to fee-paying courses.  Masters degrees, Executive Education programs and Graduate Diploma and Certificate courses attract thousands of mature age students every year seeking to advance or distinguish them in an increasingly competitive and changeable global market.  For science knowledge workers in particular, who have spent years training in a world of peer-review and logical proof, the range of choice can be both unfathomable and overwhelming in the absence of a clear or approved order of progression.

The most common “transition” qualification suggested for an innovator seeking to broaden their formal knowledge from their own discipline to include the world of business is a Masters of Business Administration (MBA).  Over the past decade, this degree has transformed from a degree of distinction to the staple of the postgraduate business industry.  An MBA is effectively a general management qualification featuring a taste of the core disciplines but in truth, it broadly focuses on leadership abilities.

Anecdotal research shows the typical MBA student is now in their late 20s and early 30s and often has a non-business degree backgrounds. Which is important, as an MBA is a significant investment of time and money.  According to research done by The Australian Financial Review (AFR) in 2012, the least expensive Australian MBA then charged tuition fees of approximately $16,000. Another 10 institutions charged less than $25,000, while the average cost in Australia was $36,000.

However, demand for places at the top-ranked Australian business schools results in significantly higher fees, both for tuition and prescribed extension activities.  The AFR research found several Australian business schools with fees in excess of $60,000 for an MBA and $80,000 for an executive MBA, close to the tuition fees charged by business schools in the US and Europe.  Two Australian schools offered courses in 2012 which, including compulsory residentials, required an investment of $110,000.

The major university alternative to the MBA pursued by the innovation, research and development sector are the range of qualifications in commercialization. Like the MBA programs, however, these programs represent a significant investment of time and money.  The most basic qualification, the Graduate Certificate, is a two-semester commitment part-time, with a cost of between $1400 and $4800 per unit.

Moreover, by their very nature, these courses require a level of specialization in focus – on commercialization. While, depending on the institute, that term can be expanded to include knowledge transfer and uptake activities, the focus is still on realizing outcomes from research as opposed to developing an understanding of and ability to work within the commercial world.  Indeed, without this understanding, the benefits of such a course to those wishing to develop their commercialization skills would arguably be hampered at best.

The problem with all of these programs is one of commitment.  In medical terms, it’s the equivalent of asking a five-year-old with a sore tummy if they want a gastroenterologist, a nephrologist or a surgeon.  When one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know, it’s hard to commit to such a long, expensive and challenging course of action, particularly when one already has a long, expensive and challenging career underway.

What’s really interesting, though, is that employers aren’t actually looking for more qualifications. A third of the respondents to Allen Consulting Group’s 2010 survey of Australian employers of researchers said newly employed PhDs and postdoctoral researchers had the necessary skills to be productive in their organisation only sometimes or less frequently.

The study went on to ask respondents to identify up to five skill areas where their existing researchers needed improvement i.e. skill deficits in current employees.  Business management, commercial acumen, commercialization and IP management were the consistently nominated responses. But when respondents were asked to rank these skills by priority i.e. to order their multiple choices, commercialization and IP management were nominated as second choices, with business management and commercial acumen ranked as a first choice in a significant number of responses.  And an MBA won’t teach you either of these, except at a high albeit strategic level. Which is great if you’re going to lead a division, firm or laboratory, but not if you’re just looking to work effectively in one today.

So what is a knowledge worker who wants to be proactive about a gap in their working skill set supposed to do? Well, I’m biased, given I have developed a modular program of short courses that adapt the immersion language model to teach the commercial world’s language and culture specifically to innovators. But, as our model is based on small group interaction and active learning, Your Commercial Foundations is not exactly a solution that matches the scale of the problem.

Here’s what I did when I faced a similar challenge as a baby commercial lawyer:

  • broaden your education yourself: explore the world outside your discipline but within your industry. What does that mean? Whatever your discipline, there will be someone using the knowledge you generate downstream from you. Even if you’re in fundamental research, there will be someone using that knowledge somewhere, directly or indirectly. How do they operate – are they mostly large companies, small firms, family enterprises, or government departments? How do they use the knowledge you create? What do they add to it, and how do they get that? What are the pressures they face?
  • engage across your industry: similar but different. Now you have some idea of what value chains you’re in (i.e. people who add or use your “output”/knowledge to create some value for themselves or another link in the chain), take your education from desktop to something a bit less virtual. There’s a reason we use the word engage for this sort of activity – it has its origins in words meaning ‘pledge oneself to do something’ or ‘involve oneself in an activity”.  It will give you direct data, if you like, on the experience and drivers of others – after all, acumen is just another word for insight.
  • consume media, and ask why: the former, to find out what issues are topical in the commercial arena at each scale: local, national and international. The latter, to understand the motivation or underlying issue that makes each issue topical. Together (and with Google and Wikipedia’s help to translate) you have a truly dynamic Introduction to Business course without paying first-year enrolment fees.
    A note of caution for all you Type A personalities and professional students. Remember, we’re not researching an assignment; no-one will be marking this. However, if you can understand why Alan Kohler on the ABC, or the front page of AFR.com, Business Review Weekly or the business section of your local paper choose to headline what they do, you’ll not only be streets ahead of expectations, but you’ll be building a foundation for your future success both personally and professionally.

There’s one last but vital tip, that is especially for innovators from knowledge disciplines: Accept the Validity of the Other. Granted you have spent years coming to grips with your discipline’s knowledge base and skills, and you’re rightly proud of both them and the giants on whose shoulders you stand. But just because the knowledge and skills of another discipline – and business is a discipline – is foreign to yours doesn’t make it (yes, or yours) less valid or valuable. I speak a little French which means I can fudge my way through an Italian menu as it shares origins, but Cyrillic and Arabic script just look really pretty to me.

There’s a lot of reasons YCF uses the analogy of the world of commerce being like a foreign country to visitors from your “country”, but for our purposes here, it’s also a warning: if you don’t want to go out of your comfort zone, don’t go travelling. If you want the food, the language, the customs, the values and the thought processes of the place you are visiting to be just like home, then don’t go too far from home. In other words, don’t be the stereotypical obnoxious tourist, when visiting the world of commerce: you know, wanting all the souvenirs but insisting on speaking in your own language (yes, even loudly) to be understood by the locals while you tell them everything that’s wrong with their homeland.

2 thoughts on “Filling the Skills Gap for Innovators – A Rant

  1. Pingback: 2014 Posts | Fiona McNee

  2. Pingback: How Many Reviews Does it Take to Change a System? | Fiona McNee

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