Unexpected Turns, Unprecedented Opportunities
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
College of Engineering
University of California-Santa Barbara
June 14, 1997
Chancellor Yang, Dean Narayanamurti, faculty, friends,
family members, distinguished guests, members of the
Class of 1997. Good afternoon and congratulations.
I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to join you
today, especially since I was selected by the students
for this honor.
I know it has taken serious effort to reach this day--many
sacrifices, lots of late nights cramming in extra
hours of work, not to mention all the low budget meals.
And, I'm not just speaking of the graduates when I
say this. I'm a parent and former faculty member myself,
and I know how much energy and love all of you have
jointly invested to celebrate this special moment.
As I was thinking about what to say today, I was reminded
of a story from my own days as a student some years
back. As part of my Naval training, I took a course
in celestial navigation. This was a critical skill
for finding one's way around the world in the days
before satellite Global Positioning Systems. After
completing the course, my classmates and I were eager
to show off our new knowledge to some friends who
were visiting us at twilight one evening.
As the sky darkened, we pointed to a variety of "wakening"
stars, saying: "that's Regulus, and there's Polaris,
the North Star." We were brimming with pride over
our new knowledge! One of our buddies then pointed
to a bright light on the horizon and asked what it
was. "That's Venus," we promptly replied. "Note the
steady light typical of planets," confidently displaying
our new-found expertise.
Their awe quickly turned to amusement, however, when
"Venus" slowly drew nearer, turned, and began to lower
its wheels for landing.
This brings me to the message I want to share with
you today. My remarks today are entitled, Unexpected
Turns, Unprecedented Opportunities. In recent
years, many of us have seen our most confident pronouncements
undone by unexpected turns of reality. The end of
the Cold War caught even the most astute experts by
surprise. Even the best of prognosticators didn't
see it coming. And, more recently, many in our society
have been thrown off-stride by the emergence of what
is often called the information age -- but which in
reality is about much more than just information.
We seem to find ourselves encountering more and more
unexpected twists and turns than ever before. The
unpredicted, the improbable, and the surprising have
become the rule instead of the exception. Today, I
intend to focus in particular on two sets of unexpected
turns in our economy and the opportunities they present.
The first of these unexpected turns is the profound
change in the way corporations structure their work
environments. The second set of changes is related
to the products and processes that generate wealth
in our economy, a change for which engineers have
some considerable responsibility. Both these changes
are important for all citizens to understand, but
especially so for engineers.
These two sets of unexpected turns have brought opportunities--unprecedented
opportunities that we must be careful not to miss
in both our professional and personal lives. What
makes these opportunities so unprecedented in my mind
is that they place a premium on doing things that
each of us values innately as human beings. These
things include strengthening our communities, cultivating
diversity, and taking notice of our own humanity.
These opportunities also pave the way for engineers
and other professionals to enjoy rewarding and rewarded
careers in the 21st Century. Put another way, these
opportunities make it possible for each of us to do
well and to do good at the same time.
Let's look first at change in that great institution
we call the corporation. While corporations vary widely
in culture, two distinct models for corporate structure
have been the way of doing business in the past. One
can be called autonomy-driven, the other control-driven.
Each model comes complete with its own set of unwritten
rules, taboos, tacit understandings, and do's and
The autonomy-driven model cultivates and rewards the
individual. Individual salespersons and account representatives
are expected to meet their quotas. Engineers are expected
to come up with so many new ideas in a given period.
It's a competitive culture that cherishes individual
initiative. Bell Labs in its heyday might well have
epitomized this corporate model.
Control-driven corporations, by contrast, put the
organization first. Everyone is expected to stick
to standard operating procedures, to follow the rules,
and to take direction from above. Continuity and incremental
improvement are the goals here. The old IBM corporation,
"big blue" as it was known, where everyone wore matching
blue suits, white shirts, and narrow ties, probably
fits this model to a T.
Today, a new model for the successful corporation
has emerged. It's epitomized by high-tech firms like
Sun Microsystems and Netscape. In a report entitled
Corporate Players: Designs for Working and Winning
Together, Robert Keidel dubbed this "the cooperation-driven"
corporation--and it is different in a number of ways
from what we've been used to in the past.
Take technology for example. In the autonomy-driven
corporation, technology is seen as a tool for making
individuals more productive. You are expected to produce
designs in less time, handle more accounts, and run
more tests per hour. Teamwork is situational.
In the control-driven corporation, technology often
is used either to constrain and control people or
to replace them all together. The higher-ups carefully
track individual activities or get rid of typists
by giving every executive a word processor. Teamwork
is scripted, and doing one's own thing is suspect.
A cooperation-driven corporation views technology
in an entirely different way. Its overarching purpose
is to enhance group performance, celebrate flexibility,
and create a tempo that is electric. Software has
become "groupware" (a la Lotus Notes), and Intra-nets
have become as ubiquitous as the Internet in the company
But, there is more to creating a cooperation-driven
work environment than just installing the right software.
The noted Japanese management expert, Ikujiro Nonaka,
who just became UC Berkeley's first ever "Professor
of Knowledge," writes of this in his book, The
Nonaka's findings speak directly to the changes in
corporate structures that we are witnessing today.
The Economist magazine summed it up
in this way: "the--thing that makes Mr. Nonaka stand
out is his insistence that companies need plenty of
slack to remain creative. Allow employees time to
pursue hare-brained schemes...and you may come up
with a market changing idea; force them to account
for every minute of the day, and you may be stuck
with routine products."
It is worth asking why this change has occurred. Did
CEO's get tired of blue suits? Did too many managers
look in the mirror and see the control-minded boss
from the comic strip "Dilbert"? Did people really
start listening to Bill Gates? Or, is this just the
latest management fad, following on TQM, MBO, TQO,
and the others that have come along recently?
Factors like these might well be partly responsible
for why this shift has occurred, but I believe the
real driver of this change can be summed up in two
words: creative transformation. Cooperation
is now a key to continually recreating a corporate
entity and remaining competitive in the global economy.
Not only is this true for corporations, it is true
for universities and other institutions as well.
This brings me to the second unexpected turn I want
to discuss--the changing nature of the products and
processes demanded by today's global marketplace.
People of my generation often speak of the past as
being a simpler time. We always say things weren't
nearly as complicated. We didn't have to choose between
paper and plastic, regular and decaf, or even between
latte and cappuccino.
It turns out that my contemporaries and I are not
imagining things. Our memories are correct. If you
put our economy under a microscope, the past really
was a simpler time--at least from a product and process
In a paper presented at this year's annual meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science, Don Kash and Bob Rycroft--two visionaries
in science and technology policy--found that the most
successful commercial technologies have changed in
one basic way over the past quarter century: they
have become more complex.
Kash and Rycroft looked at the 30 most valuable exports
in the global market. They found that in 1970, a quarter
century ago, nearly 60 percent of the world's top
exports were essentially simple products that could
be manufactured through simple processes. Today, that
same percentage--60 percent--of the world's top exports
are complex products that require complex manufacturing
Twenty-five years ago, typewriters were one of the
top products; now it's PCs. Our audio record players
that were based on Thomas Edison's phonograph have
been replaced by CD players that rely on computer
chips and Charles Townes' laser. A few decades back,
I worked my way through college creating India ink
drawings by hand for RCA Corporation. I made a name,
and not incidentally, a living, for myself by demonstrating
expertise with a simple set of instruments known as
French curves. I know better than to ask for a show
of hands to see how many of you think that's a valuable
skill to list on your resumes today. Mouse-clicking
a sketch on a PC screen not only gives you a sharper
image--you also don't get indelible India ink all
over your fingers.
Perhaps no one set of professionals is more directly
affected by this growth in complexity than engineers.
Kash and Rycroft write that "economic well-being in
the future will likely go to those who are successful
in innovating complex technologies." Put simply, the
future belongs to those who can make sense of the
complex, to those who can take an idea from conception
through to realizing a product, to those who can get
complex products "out the export door."
More than anything else, this has driven the shift
in corporate focus away from the individual and toward
the group, which in turn helps to explain the emergence
of the cooperation-driven corporation. Products and
processes have become so complex that no one individual
can bring all the needed skills to the table--regardless
of his or her GPA or how many upper division courses
he or she has taken.
In fact, success in the arena of complex technologies
most often occurs when different approaches and perspectives
are brought together. The final value-added is always
greater than the sum of the parts. This places a premium
on qualities we sometimes undervalue as a society:
qualities like diversity, trust, and community, and
it requires that we develop an ability to bring together
and reconcile differing perspectives and approaches.
Taking a tour of this glorious campus, you run into
countless examples of how my institution--the National
Science Foundation--is working with faculty here to
cultivate these integrative and cooperative approaches
to science and engineering.
One of the most promising examples is the digital
libraries project known as Alexandria.
Beginning with the great Egyptian facility at Alexandria,
libraries were founded for the purpose of bringing
people together to engage in learning and scholarship
and to make intellectual connections to learn and
create. This digital library of the same name aims
to continue this great tradition, but does so in a
way that overcomes obstacles posed by borders, oceans,
cultures, and data formats.
In this same way, another NSF-supported project here
at UCSB is cultivating a new era of cooperation in
science and engineering. NSF helps to fund the project
known as QUEST--the Center for Quantized
Electronic Structures. It's a world leader for research
on topics like quantum dots and atomic traps, but
the center is about much more than just great research.
One of the first things a visitor to QUEST's
World Wide Web pages encounters is the following statement:
QUEST represents "a grand experiment
in integration--integration of a multiplicity of disciplines
and expertise, and integration of education and research
into a true partnership."
Let me conclude on this note, because of all the unprecedented
opportunities emerging from the unexpected turns surrounding
us today, this emphasis on cooperation and integration
stands out above the rest. As engineers, as professionals,
as teachers, and as a society, we must now rely on
each other more than ever before. The fact that our
economy is now shaped and dominated by technological
underpinnings of inordinate complexity actually increases
the importance of our own humanity.
Diversity is a must--diversity in views, in approaches,
and in backgrounds. Without it, we will never see
beyond the limits of our individual perspectives and
achieve the breakthroughs that occur only through
the synthesis of widely different skills and perspectives.
A strong sense of community is also a prerequisite
for success. Today, true progress occurs only through
trust and an appreciation of mutual benefit.
And so, my one piece of advice to the Class of 1997
is to do more than just expect the unexpected. We
should all embrace it, cultivate it, and celebrate
it. It's been said that surprise is the greatest gift
which life can grant us. The opportunities it brings
are truly unprecedented; they bode well for our collective
future, and they are ours for the taking.
Once again, thank you, best of luck, and congratulations
to the Class of 1997! I feel good about what you will