Long Live the Engineers…And Third Space Thinkers!!

Long live engineers!

I’ve spent the last three years drawing sharp distinctions between the mind-frame of engineers and those of communication experts. Now I’m praising them. What happened?

Well, I was invited to participate in two impressive sessions in Washington, D.C., the first at the headquarters of the National Academy of Engineers (NAE), the second at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). It was in the context of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, an engineering, education program conceived in 2009 at the engineering schools of Duke, USC and Olin College. In that annual summit, I discovered an intense group of prominent engineers that proselytize on behalf of “soft skills,” actively seeking ways to introduce them into their curricula and professional practice. In other words, they are very open to our idea of Third Space Thinking.

For the past four years, my Annenberg team and I have sought ways to sharply distinguish our communication-driven way of framing essential 21st century competencies, from those typically taught by business and engineering schools. We named this framing “Third Space Thinking (TST).” [www.uscthirdspace.com]. Our research, and other surveys (for example, by the world’s largest executive search firm Korn Ferry) found that indeed there are genuine attitudinal differences among these three groups. They look at the world differently, identifying risks and opportunities from different perspectives.

But on Friday, Oct. 7 I served on the GCSP panel that changed fundamentally the ways I consider the relationship between hard skills and soft skills (of which TST is an important sub-set). The other panelists, all terrifically smart and engaged, included Richard Miller, the president of the hyper-experimental Olin College of Engineering, Tom Katsouleas, the Provost of the University of Virginia (and himself an engineer who, along with USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos, co-founded the GCSP) and our panel chair Peter Kilpatrick, Dean of the Engineering School at Notre Dame.

In essence, they argued that, according to one, “We know engineering is essential to solving Grand Challenges, but now we know that’s not enough.”

The context for the panel was a successful campaign of these and other leading engineers to help address the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, first articulated in 2008. These Challenges include tough problems like making solar energy economical, or providing access to clean water. More than 120 engineering schools and several professional organizations have agreed to embrace the challenges as a common “scaffolding to motivate our students,” and to “do good in the world.”

As they grappled seriously with these complex challenges, they learned they needed to push the boundaries of their traditional professional training. Taken together, according to President Miller, this necessitates a new way of thinking, a new ‘mindset’. He spoke forcefully of “attitudes, behaviors and motivations.” As with Third Space Thinking, he too insisted on the importance of empathy, interdisciplinary thinking, and team work. And like TST, he insists success demands more than just adding a couple of liters of “empathy” or “cultural competence” into existing courses; it requires an entirely new way of thinking.

My take away: there is a cognate community of engineers that think 360 degrees, is empathetic toward other fields, is seeking to become more adaptable, is aware of the cultural issues involved along the way, and are intellectually curious about how other fields try to fix grand challenges and how they acquire the necessary soft skills to succeed in our exciting and risky new world. These of course are the Third Space attributes we uncovered in our research.

It’s always a relief to discover a community of like-minded professionals trying to do the same thing that one’s own community is trying to do – to be more reasoned and rigorous about the ways in which different competencies must be brought together to solve important problems, because the old ways are simply inadequate.

Of course, not every engineer is an enthusiastic member of this innovative community, any more than all communication scholars or practitioners embrace TST and the imperative for more rigor and relevance in our own field. The purveyors of hard skills must make significant changes in their mindsets and how they convey interactive skills, just as teachers of soft skills must insist their students acquire more hard skills. Hence, the need for both sides to continue pursuing more effective and strategic communication.

We need to keep this dialogue going. I’ve agreed to join one of the NAE working groups; my friend and colleague Yannis Yortsos, the Dean of the USC Viterbi School, who chaired the summit and invited me to Washington in the first place, has agreed we will work together to explore common experiences for our students and others who need better balances of hard skills and soft. And this is just the beginning.

So, long live the enlightened engineers!! And the forward-looking communicators! And it seems Third Space Thinking remains a good mindset to help guide us forward.