SETsquared Blog

The failed marriage of the Engineer and the Businessman

I was asked to give a seminar to the University of Southampton's Research Engineers the other day. My chosen title was "Why you really need to care about business", and my main message was that;

To truly affect change, research needs to be commercially appealing.

The debate that ensued was fiercely fought for an hour, and continued in the corridors afterwards. It polarised people so effectively that I thought it would be worth further comment.

I'm an aerospace engineer, truth be told not a particularly good one, but I've spent five years studying it at university so I've a fairly good grasp on what it's all about. More importantly I know how engineers think. So what's the biggie? Well let's address a few stereotypes, the average engineer believes they are above average when it comes to intellect. As a group, we have a reasonably low opinion of business students. This is probably because engineers like to deal with facts, figures, numbers and data and we believe that business students like to deal with softer things like people, unicorns and romantic comedies. Unfortunately this artificial superiority that we wrap ourselves in is somewhat stifling.

In general, and I may be casting another inaccurate stereotype here, but in general the majority of engineering doctorate students are doing the work they do because they believe they can make a difference. They believe they can add to human knowledge and do their part to change the world, and let's be fair, they can. There are some fantastic young minds in academia solving many of todays pressing problems.

But there's a problem. In order for our ideas to become globally adopted we must motivate others to use them. It's not enough to just create something brilliant and hope that the ignorant business folk will recognise your genius and adopt your idea overnight. We must speak to them in a language they understand, and that my engineer friend, is not Python, the third law of thermodynamics or MATLAB. More often than not, the common language is commercial viability. In other words, how does your new technology make them rich? There are a few historical examples that contradict this. Two big ones are the second world war and the space race, both events were the catalyst for huge leaps forward in technology.

There is good reason for this. Dale Carnegie, a philosopher and psychologist from the early 1900's spoke of seven human motivations:

1. Health and the preservation of life
2. Food
3. Sleep
4. Money and the things money can buy
5. Sexual gratification
6. The wellbeing of our children
7. A feeling of importance

Now this list can be simplified, numbers 2,3,5 and 6 are derivatives of number 1 and 4 is a derivative of number 7. Thus the space race was essentially a battle of ego's or a feeling of importance and WWII was a combination of 1 and 7.

So in the absence of global warfare, either in parliament or on the battlefield, the easiest motivation to appeal to is money and the things money can buy. If you create a new technology, the fastest way to see it globally adopted, is for it to make someone else's wallet fat. You might not be motivated by money yourself but sadly we're part of a society that is. You might think that you’re different and you don’t need to make your research commercially appealing. You can just invent and sit back bathing in your genius. Unfortunately, we’re part of a system. A system that works on making money. Just look at renewable technologies. They’ve been around for ages, they were just bought up by oil companies, shelved and then slowly released when it became commercially profitable.

Why does it matter that we motivate people?  For example if you’re researching the mating behavior of honey bees or perhaps a more relevant example, detailed analysis of noise production on aircraft landing gear. Who really cares? And why does it matter if people care or not?

How are we ever going to truly affect global change without appealing to the motivations of others Ok, so you’re developing a new drug for cancer, why? Because you want to make the world a better place? Maybe, but when we say that we are immediately appealing to other people’s motivations. Unfortunately most of the research we do as engineers is gobbledygook to the rest of the world and we get too absorbed in the complexities to be able to make a difference.
So play the game, speak the common language and make people rich. Then you really can sit back and bathe in your own genius, knowing that you changed the world for the better and you changed it by being clever.... by understanding business.