Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Zombie Zone

By Keith McDowell

Zap! You have just been zinged by the Zombie Drug and sent to The Zone. No, I’m not talking about the ephemeral “zone” attained by trained athletes during intense competition, or the “zoned out” condition of Zonker Harris and friends in the world of Doonesbury, or the zagging of steroid-enhanced superstars attempting to avoid the next tackler or the next drug test. I’m talking about the ultimate football experience: the north end zone at Bryan-Denny Stadium, home of Alabama football.

The Zone, as it’s called, is a spectacular facility and edifice to the Alabama football fans, replete with numerous amenities guaranteed to convince you that an end zone box seat really is the best way to watch a game. Personally, I prefer the President’s Box on the 50-yard line, but not everyone gets a chance at that view of the Iron Bowl.

But for me, The Zone will not be remembered for its contribution to the football gods, but for something entirely different: the art and practice of decision making.

The story begins on a nondescript day when I left a reception at The Zone and returned to meet with members of my staff in the Office of Research to discuss the usual droll topics of the day. When quizzed yet again by them as to why certain decisions by a fellow administrator had not been made and why I was negligent in not pushing hard for their resolution as was my usual style, I had a moment of inspiration and true innovation. I blurted out: “They’ve gone to the Zombie Zone!”

Amidst tittering laughter and a general rolling of the eyes, I was quizzed yet again as to what the heck was the Zombie Zone. Making it up as I went along, I replied, “you know, the place where decisions are neither alive nor dead.” Sensing that I wasn’t going to be responsive in a practical manner, the staff groaned in disbelief and accepted the adjournment of the meeting.

But adjournment didn’t mean the end of the story – not with my ever intrepid and creative staff. For countless hours over lunch and in furtive meetings, they toiled away to add flesh and bone to the Zombie Zone. And the final product was the graphic displayed at the beginning of the article.

Glowing red, orange, and yellow to reflect the flames of McDowell’s Inferno, the pathways to the Policy Pit and the Zombie Zone of Decision Hell were entered through the following trap doors:

  • Assertive inaction
  • Creative continuum
  • Analysis addiction
  • Pro-active pondering
  • Stalemated studying
  • Essential evaluation
  • Revved up revisions
  • Decision dungeon
  • Redundant revisions
  • Non-essential nuances
  • Passive persuasion

And, of course, all the pathways leading to the Zombie Zone pointed inward with none leading out. Given more time and innovative energy, I’m sure the Alabama Office of Research could have created the ultimate theory of decision-making. And here you thought football – namely, The Zone – had nothing to do with academics or innovation!

Over time, the Zombie Zone became a great source of amusement as research office staffers routinely whispered and secretly referred to “the zone,” often producing many strange and puzzled looks by those not in the know who wondered why The Zone had anything to do with the topic at hand.

Humor aside, the act of decision-making is all important to every facet of our lives, but especially to those facets that concern starting up or investing in a new company, or trying a new experiment, or becoming an entrepreneur, or making that intuitive leap to a new innovation. It’s so easy to arrive at “decision junction” only to pick one of the trap doors leading to the Zombie Zone or Policy Pit.

No matter how hard we try, there will never be the perfect process, enough time, or the complete set of facts and data required to always achieve the perfect decision. Failure to decide is also a choice and often the wrong one. And like the infamous “writer’s block,” it can lead to stagnation. For myself, I prefer making the decision to move from A to B and then adapting by mid-course corrections as new information emerges. Making the wrong decision is not something to be feared or a certain path to the other Hell. It’s a part of doing business.

Decision, decisions! Who needs them? We all do. And as the football addicts among us await the start of a new season in late August and the inevitable crowning of the Crimson Tide as the national champions, take a few minutes to step free of the Zombie Zone with its entrapments and re-enter the real world where business decisions must be made in a timely manner free of false encumbrances and useless agonizing. And when you’re done, take a deep breath and shout with the rest of us: Roll Tide!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Teachers Are Not The Enemy!

By Keith McDowell

Innovation! It’s the dominant pathway to more jobs, economic prosperity, and wealth generation for Americans, but it’s also a hard taskmaster requiring a steady pipeline of inquiring and prepared minds, ready and able to create the next wave of innovation at the frontier.

And it’s not a happening guaranteed to occur spontaneously and of its own accord at a level sufficient to optimally drive the growth of American industry. It takes a sustained societal investment. It takes a trained and educated workforce. It takes scientists, engineers, inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, risk takers, venture capitalists, English majors, writers, and a host of other inspired people. And at the core, it takes teachers!

Where would we all be in our lives without those dedicated teachers who worked tirelessly for long hours and rose to the challenge of shaping and molding us into a better person?

I will never forget the endless and terrifying drumming of the rules of grammar into me by my tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Highfill. Or the excitement and explosiveness of chemistry as taught by Rachel Roberts. Or the competent and efficient unveiling of physics by Mrs. Dockery. Or the incomparable Flossie Shaw’s algebra class. Or Betty Welch, Mrs. Holder, Louise Hunter, and the many other teachers too numerous to name who “made my day” as a teenager. I remember them all! They were my friends and my mentors.

So when did these paragons of society and the ultimate force behind innovation suddenly become the enemy? Who decided that we as a nation should redefine one of the fundamental strengths of America and turn the best of us into THEM? And why would anyone be so stupid?

Unfortunately, it’s the oldest and most often repeated mistake of humankind   It’s the game of power and control played by a few over the many under the guise of principled dogma and founded on the delusion that exploitation and plunder of the many can be sustained indefinitely. But as the Rev. Al Sharpton is fond of saying, “A lot of things were acceptable – until we stopped accepting it.”

So what does it mean for America when we turn the principle of a balanced budget, one that we all agree with, into a plan for austerity, low taxes, and little or no government in order to eliminate those who would disagree with us or vote against us in an election – whether members of a teacher’s union, those who believe in gay rights and gay marriage, those who believe in equal pay for equal work, or even those who believe in the rights of gun owners?

For the teaching profession, it means lower pay, fewer benefits, and doing more with less. It means using teachers until they have nothing else to give and then casting them aside at retirement. After all, why should tax payers front the bill for the retirement of public teachers goes the argument? It’s the same old self-centered and greedy storyline of “you’re on your own, buddy!” And who among us truly believes that the best and brightest will become teachers under these conditions?

But it’s not just the teachers themselves that will be impacted by the draconian austerity measures being served up to America these days. It’s the entire infrastructure of our modern education system that will be put at risk including the following potential outcomes:

  • Larger number of students per teacher.
  • No fine arts, music, or other extra-curricular activities – except football in Texas.
  • Fewer essential supplies and older, out-of-date, well-used textbooks.
  • Reduced maintenance and repair or upgrade of physical facilities.
  • Less usage of expensive high technology tools and information technology.
  • Lack of exposure to cutting edge knowledge.

And the list goes on. Is this the right formula for teaching the next generation of innovators?

Even worse, it’s not just the impact of budget austerity that should concern us, but also austerity in both the content and the manner in which teachers teach. On the curriculum side of the equation, the extremists and right-wing conservatives want a scripted and dogmatic curriculum that conforms to their rigid notions of truth, even if contrary to the facts. It’s a cookie cutter version of education guaranteed to produce obesity of the brain with fat and lazy minds, not the lean and agile minds with the necessary analytic skills required for innovation. Conservatism as a doctrine and practice is fine, if that’s what one comes to believe and accept, but it can’t be force-fed to our young unless we want stultification as the end result.

Lest you think counterfactual and anti-science based curricula are a thing of the past, let’s review a few recent events. In Texas, we have the State Board of Education continuing in its attempt to insert intelligent design into our textbooks as a scientific theory equal to the theory of evolution. How is that going to work for young Texans who want to pursue innovations in the fields of health and bio-technology where evolution reigns supreme and knowledge of the nanoscale and molecular biology are essential?

What about women’s health and, most especially, how we deal with sex education in our classrooms? Come to a Texas classroom and learn all about abstinence as the singular solution to practicing safe sex and the failure of condoms as a prophylactic. That’s right! Condoms don’t work in Texas. Thank goodness for Gail Collins who has uncovered some of the more bizarre and antiquated notions about sex being taught as truth in Texas.

And it’s not just in Texas! In my birth state of North Carolina, the Legislature is considering a bill to limit planning for the expected rise of the ocean levels due to global warming. Maybe, we should also outlaw gravity while we’re at it! It might help with our nation’s obesity problem. Folks, ignorance is the bane of innovation.

And how would you like being a well-educated teacher standing in front of a classroom of eager minds knowing full well that learning is as much a process of discovery and independent thinking as it is a process of knowledge accumulation. Good luck to you on that one and woe unto any teacher who challenges pupils to think and analyze. You’ll be on your own if modern conservatism has its way!

Making teachers the enemy is nothing more than a cynical ploy by a few who want to exploit fear and ignorance of the facts and use sloganeering – “union busting” being a prime example and “anti-abortion” another – to pursue their own selfish and personal goals. Don’t be fooled by any of this nonsense. Teachers are not the enemy! Instead, they should be nurtured and respected for they are the very heart and soul of our future as a nation of innovators.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Do We Have the Moxie?

By Keith McDowell

America in decline – it’s the message of our time broadcast daily by cable news pundits and re-enforced by a dysfunctional Congress, a polarized electorate, an unstable economy, and a barrage of negative campaign ads courtesy of Citizens United. And in the midst of the continuing sluggish rate of job growth and a recent drop in market indices, it was with some trepidation that I decided to turn off the television, prop up my feet, and singularly bore myself to death for a day or two by reading the ultimate soporific tome:  The Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States, compliments of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Economic Council, January 2012.

Commissioned by the COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 and reviewed by a brand new USDoC Innovation Advisory Board (IAC) of fifteen members, I can’t say that the lengthy report lightened my spirits, but it nonetheless serves as a well-written and reasonably quick read of our Nation’s status at the 10,000 to 30,000-foot level and the steps being taken to “startup America.” Sadly, I’m likely to be one of the few people ever to read the document.

The essential theme or premise of the report from my perspective – it’s up to you to check me out by also reading the report – is as follows: government must invest for the “public good” in the three pillars of innovation in order to cover under-investment by the private sector and to generate competitive strength as a nation through the resulting growth of private-sector  jobs – especially in manufacturing – while “ensuring that both established firms and entrepreneurs in the private sector have the best possible environment in which to innovate.”  The three pillars of innovation are research, education, and infrastructure.

Each pillar of innovation along with the state of manufacturing is dissected in a separate chapter based on a network concept of the innovation ecosystem as displayed in the following figure which is reproduced from the report.

While each chapter and the report as a whole provide an excellent review of underlying statistics and data – often painting a rather gloomy picture for the current trend lines, the issue of evaluation metrics once again arises with both proxy metrics, such as the number of patents and research publications, and economic accounting, such as the size of the labor force and number of jobs, serving as the primary measures.

Beginning with research and noting that innovation is driven by the R&D process, the report emphasizes that government investment over many decades was undertaken without commercial applications in mind and for the “public good” – especially for basic research since it usually has no direct profit incentive to drive investment by the private sector. My own personal “grade” for the research pillar is an A-minus headed for a B-plus as I’ve documented in other articles.

The education pillar deserves a grade of “B” from my perspective, not as bad as often claimed by media pundits, but headed down due to a failure of government support for education and a switch to state-assisted instead of state-supported, not to mention the anti-government stand of the Tea Party movement and its negative effects on education. The DoC report focuses specifically on the STEM issue as an exemplar of the bigger story in education. While an adequate survey of the situation, I personally continue to be unconvinced that the so-called shortfall of STEM workers is of the magnitude portrayed by many. I’m happy to be convinced otherwise, but hard data seems to point to a different conclusion as I’ve described elsewhere.

In terms of the infrastructure pillar, everyone agrees that America gets a grade of D-minus! Although the information technology sector which includes fiber, cable modems, satellites, cell phone towers, and the like is doing better than other sectors, we are nonetheless behind the curve on wireless, cloud computing, and access to open innovation – to name a few critical areas. And what about the need for a “smart grid” for the transmission of electricity and a movement toward clean energy systems? If anything, America’s grid systems are in significant decay with bridges, sewer, and water systems getting an “F” from me and others. As noted by the report, “our society has affirmed repeatedly that we would like all of our citizens to have access to certain technologies” meaning principally telephone, electricity, roadways, and now high-speed Internet, but that could be changing in the current political climate.

Without investment by both the government and the private sector in the three pillars of innovation, America is in trouble since “Innovation is the key driver of competitiveness, wage and job growth, and long term economic growth.” And that means we need a healthy manufacturing sector propelled by a new thrust in advanced manufacturing innovations including advanced technology products. The Obama Administration’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership is a good start in that direction.

But competitiveness defined as a “set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine level of productivity of a country” requires much from us. At the national level, we must balance protecting intellectual property and its transfer against the competing element of accelerating commercialization into the marketplace. The America Invents Act of 2011 is a step forward and new experiment for the nation in that regard. At the local and regional level, research universities must serve as the anchor for co-located industry, start-up companies, business incubators, entrepreneurs in residence, “proof-of-concept” centers with funding, innovation centers, and communities of innovation all connected and bound through public-private partnerships collaborating in a regional innovation cluster.

Nothing on the global scale required for America to compete happens overnight and it can take years to recognize a return on the investment, even if the return for government is in the form of the “public good.” But government must invest and the planning laid out by the Department of Commerce report is a very positive step. The question of the day for us is simple: do we have the moxie to get this done?