A major theme that I keep touching on in my blogs is the importance of technical talent to any country or company that wants to be a leader in the 21st century. We are living in an increasingly complex, fast changing, open, integrated and global world, what we in IBM have been calling an On Demand World. In such a world, the ability to analyze and solve problems, even ones you never saw before is particularly important, as is the ability to quickly bring to market new products, services and integrated solutions of all kinds. Innovation is absolutely critical to compete in such a world, and as the National Innovation Initiative and similar studies have repeatedly pointed out, talent, especially technical talent, is essential to innovation.
As technology continues to permeate all aspects of business and society, the requirements on technical talent for the 21st century are changing accordingly. In the past scientists and engineers were primarily found doing research, and designing new products in the lab. But increasingly, many -- perhaps most -- of the exciting technology-based problems and opportunities are found in the marketplace, helping businesses, governments and other institutions to take advantage of the advances in technology to transform their processes, organizations and business models. And, as a result of the Internet and related standards-based capabilities like Grid Computing and Service Oriented Architectures, we can now integrate business processes, information and people within the whole business as well as with customers, suppliers and practically everyone else. As a result, the problems we are now able to address are significantly broader, more diverse and more complex, requiring a much higher degree of collaboration than ever before.
So, how do you prepare technical students, say in engineering schools, for these new kinds of requirements that must combine technical competence with business understanding and communications and people skills? There have been a number of studies to address this question, such as this one on restructuring engineering education by the National Science Foundation, which aims to make engineering more diverse, broad and forward looking. And, organizations like ABET, which accredits college and university educational programs in technical fields, have published their "Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs" which lists (on page 6) the competencies they expect all engineering graduates to achieve. In addition to "classic" competencies like "An ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data", they now include requirements like: "An ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams ", "An ability to communicate effectively ", and "A recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning."
This was all brought to life for me at a fascinating meeting I recently attended at the Olin College of Engineering, a small, new college, on the outskirts of Boston, which was established in 2002 and is graduating its first class in the Spring of 2006. The college received a major endowment from the F. W. Olin Foundation to pursue the kinds of new approaches to engineering education that the NSF and ABET are calling for. Its mission statement explicitly states: "Olin College prepares future leaders through an innovative engineering education that bridges science and technology, enterprise and society."
We heard a very impressive talk from Olin's President, Richard Miller, who told us that in order to address what they see as the future of engineering, the curriculum at Olin College emphasizes rigorous preparation in technology and design as its centerpiece, but also includes a strong emphasis on entrepreneurial thinking and on the liberal arts. President Miller's views on the future of engineering can be found in this very good speech.
If, as many of us are saying, technical talent is more important than ever for the 21st century, we have a huge challenge ahead of us in convincing young people, especially the growing number of women and under-represented minorities to choose technical careers. I think that a big part of the problem may have been of our own making. We have allowed technical education and technical careers to be viewed by many as isolated from people and from the real world. We've given the impression that only those content to sit in their cubicles in industry and government labs and in their ivory towers in universities pondering abstract thoughts need apply. This view, right or wrong, has turned off large numbers of young people who, although good at math, science and engineering, would much prefer a more "social" career that involves working with teams to address "real" problems.
As we have been discussing, the areas where technical talent is needed the most are precisely those that address these real-world business and societal problems to which we can now apply technology, working as teams with diverse skills, often with people from all over the world. We badly need somehow to get the word out that technical career requirements are much broader now, and we really need to accelerate educational programs like those of Olin College to better bridge science and technology with business skills and the liberal arts. This is a very important and difficult challenge that requires considerable effort from all of us.