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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Unexpected Turns, Unprecedented Opportunities

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Commencement Address
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 don'ts.

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 lexicon.

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 Knowledge-Creating Company.

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 standpoint.

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 processes.

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 do!



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