In recent years there has been a growing concern about this country's impending loss of technological superiority. I believe a large part of the blame can be placed on the technical management system that has evolved in this country.
The ability of our technological society to compete and prosper depends on the innovative men and women who create, design and build the products that give the American people the highest standard of living in the world. Yet, the very people who perform these important tasks do not get the recognition and pay that encourage them to continue to make the necessary contributions. The reason for this is that in most American institutions the road to the big money and prestige is management.
Lee Iacocca was hired to rescue Chrysler for a salary package that reportedly exceeds a million dollars a year. However, it does not take a million-dollar auto executive to figure out what the auto buyer wants: a fuel-efficient car at a reasonable cost. Trouble is, it does take someone special to come up with an automobile that meets those criteria. It requires talented engineers and designers.
In most technological hierarchies today, advancement means promotion to management. Money, power and whatever freedom exists are found in management. Companies hire highly trained men and women. Then, those who show the most ingenuity and technical potential are promoted to "technical management."
All too often, technical management stifles creativity. A highly innovative engineer is promoted to management. As a manager he will direct several innovative people, have input to many projects. In theory, this is an excellent system as long as the manager can continue to function as an engineer. But our manager is soon stymied by the pressures of his new position. Paper work generated by the technical managers above him requires more and more attention. There is less time to devote to the technical aspects of his job. Technical obsolescence sets in.
Instead of continuing to contribute, our manager becomes a hindrance. He no longer completely understands the technology. To justify his existence and maintain control, he joins the managers above him in manufacturing paper work. Our manager constrains the project in the straitjacket of his technical ignorance, burying the innovative staff in a blizzard of paper.
Because the managers above our manager are already once removed from technology, they are often technically obsolete. They justify their existence by the paper work they generate. The paper generated also justifies the need for more management personnel under them to "manage" the flow of paper.
In an effort to justify the existence of research and development and its own existence, management develops programs where the outcome can be predicted. (Congress has declared that government-sponsored research must be "relevant" and the researcher be "accountable.") This results in insignificant improvements of existing products--"new and improved" products, advances direct from the public relations office. Real technological advancement is doomed.
During troubled economic times, a shortsighted management is quick to cut a research program. All too often this results in a reduction in the number of researchers, but not in the number of managers. The ratio of management to research personnel increases, further stifling innovation.
The solutions to technical sterility are not simple. As a start, we must recognize that the creative process requires the freedom to try new and unconventional approaches to problems. This implies a high risk of failure. However, the learning experience that often accompanies scientific failure has more than once spawned invention or research that led to a Nobel Prize. "High accountability research" is the incubator of the technical bureaucracy that strangles progress.
It is interesting to speculate on the outcome of Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin had his research been carried out in a climate of "relevant" research. What would have been the reaction of his immediate supervisor had Fleming written the following in his monthly progress report? "Large quantities of the staphylococcus being grown for the experiment were destroyed by a curious mold that accidentally formed on the culture plate. I recommend that we begin an immediate investigation to determine the origin of the mold's antibacterial powers."
I believe that most of today's technical managers would have rejected Fleming's proposal: "We can't spend our time studying some moldy plates. Besides, the study is not covered in our technical objective or in our five-year plan."
In addition to research freedom, innovative scientists and engineers must have recognition and rewards for their technical accomplishments. They must not be placed in the position where their only reward is "promotion" to technical management. Once promoted, they will all too often sharpen their pencils and join the memo brigade, thus further strangling innovation.
The reward that will work is the same one management uses to reward itself: money. Although creative individuals are often motivated by other than monetary considerations, payment for a significant accomplishment constitutes a reward and recognition, both of which are important driving forces behind most human endeavors.
As this country struggles with its uncertain outlook for energy, it faces many difficult technical problems. Given the proper environment, scientists and engineers guided by an informed management can solve those problems.