The Doing Disciplines

November 22, 2011 by Wally Bock

“They don’t know how to DO engineering.”

My friend was complaining about the recent engineering graduates that his company hires. From his perspective, engineering schools have moved from teaching practical engineering skills to more theoretical material. The result: the more seasoned engineers in his company find themselves teaching newcomers what he considers “basic” skills.

That was last week. Then, Sunday, I read an article in the New York Times with the title, “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering.” Here’s a key paragraph.

“Law schools have long emphasized the theoretical over the useful, with classes that are often overstuffed with antiquated distinctions, like the variety of property law in post-feudal England. Professors are rewarded for chin-stroking scholarship, like law review articles with titles like “A Future Foretold: Neo-Aristotelian Praise of Postmodern Legal Theory.” So, for decades, clients have essentially underwritten the training of new lawyers, paying as much as $300 an hour for the time of associates learning on the job.”

The problem isn’t limited to engineers and lawyers. I’ve seen too many MBA graduates that are well-versed in strategic theory and financial modeling, but who have no practical training in basic activities like talking to people about performance or decision making.

There are academic disciplines, thinking disciplines, where reading about it works fine. You can do everything in your head. But in the “doing disciplines,” like engineering, lawyering, or management, you can’t learn by reading about it. You have to do it, get some of it wrong, adjust, and try again.

In my business lifetime, the schools that prepare graduates for the doing disciplines have shifted more and more toward teaching theory. The result is that the bright new graduates showing up at your door increasingly don’t have a clue about how to do the job you want them to do.

You can do two things about the situation. You can bemoan the failures of the educational system. Or you can see this as an opportunity.

You can hire bright, enthusiastic people and provide them with some true basic training. Some of them will take what they’ve learned and go elsewhere, but the broader pool of talent you have to draw on and the reputation you can grow as a “great place to start a career” should make up for it.

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

Posted in Talent Management

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  • bill bradley

    Excellent observation and one worthy of greater discussions.

  • This does seem like a great opportunity. Collins talks about getting “the right people on the bus”, and selection on that basis is more likely if the temptation to hire those who can “hit the ground running” is removed.

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