I was recently shown perfume in a fancy plastic bottle. There was some advertising blurb that went with it, which explained that the plastic was “a material more modern than glass”. Well, heck – anything is more modern than glass but, obviously, the ad was designed to explain why the company was not using glass. No doubt, the glass is better for the manufacturer, but the ad guys had to come up with something to convince consumers that the cheaper plastic was good for them.
Basically, it is all about how you look at it and how cynical you are at looking at the hidden meaning or, alternatively, what they do not want you to see or realise.
The experience gained in looking at many such issues is a type of education. One often sees a job description that enquires: “What education have you got and what experience?” Well, experience is also education, but gained in a different way.
In today’s world of many training courses, there is a category that uses direct experience. This is called ‘action learning’, a new buzzword. This approach is good, but I have been running such a course for over ten years now. It is called the Technology Leadership Programme (TLP). I manage it and my staff run it, but it has about 100 speakers and lecturers from a variety of disciplines, including law, industrial relations, economics, business and more.
Our target group comprises young university and university of technology graduates, and the objective is to turn them into different people by making them streetwise. This is done by having a course where mornings are devoted to classroom- based activities, while afternoons are spent visiting factories and other operations. At this point, a big ‘thank you’ goes to all the company CEOs, factory managers and others who have cooperated so well over the years. Generally, these many business and industrial fellows all report just how much they enjoy interacting with the TLP group.
TLP started when a former CEO of State-owned utility Eskom asked for an experimental course aimed at engineers and technicians. The idea was to expose young people aged 25 to 35 to the real world. This meant law, accountancy, finance and other issues related to successfully implementing and operating large or complex technology systems.
After a couple of years, companies started asking if they could send nontechnical people on the course because they wanted their human resources and financial people, and so on, to see what happened at the ‘sharp end’ of operations. So, all types of graduates are now accepted.
TLP is not based on swotting for written exams, but has a significant component of undertaking real-life tasks emanating from real issues at industrial sites. Often, the students get quite a fright at the beginning, when they arrive at some operational plant and are confronted with a problem that no one there can solve and are then told: “Solve it!”
I must say, though, that I am constantly proud of the TLP guys and gals – at how they tackle these issues and the way they develop some sense out of what is frequently a real puzzle. But that, of course, is real life; that is life giving you its education straight up, with no filtering. That is reality.
All too often, training courses are provided in an idealised state, which oversimplifies issues. In first-year physics, one is given mechanics problems involving ‘massless’ ropes and ‘frictionless’ pulleys. Great for a beginner but, with mass and friction added in, such a problem becomes complicated.
A common fault in newspapers is to keep talking of education as if it is only about learning things in classrooms and out of books. It is not. Real education also includes a component of how to survive the real world. What is the point of learning Newton’s Laws of Motion if you do not know when to use them? What is the point of using them if you have no inkling of the legal or financial consequences of a mistake? The real world often bites, a ‘second-order differential equation’. That is one heck of a lot more complicated version than the simple version.
Generally speaking, real-life engineering problems are compounded by trade union actions or opinions, contracts with deadline clauses, company politics and much more, which all makes reality rather different to purist textbook engineering.
I must say that I am rather proud of our TLP graduates. Many of them have gone on to achieve great things and are still on the way up. Many also say how the TLP experience changed their outlook on life, which is the intention.
More and more, we have to train our smart young people to be realists in the world. More and more of our younger people are being thrust into positions of responsibility at a much younger age than many of their foreign counterparts. As an optimist, I say that the situation will get worse. By this I mean that even more complex technology-related management is going to be thrust onto an even wider group even much faster than before. Good! As a nation, we should make great progress, but only if we use streetwise people to run the show.
Dr Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of Nuclear Africa (Pty) Ltd as well as chairperson of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. He sits on the board of advisers of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, based in Washington DC. He is also a board member of GoNuclear Inc and EFN: USA, both based in Colorado, US – email@example.com