Q&A with the Faculty of Managing Technical Professionals and Organizations

Q&A with the Faculty of Managing Technical Professionals and Organizations

In this interview, Thomas Allen, who previously taught in the program and is the Howard W. Johnson Emeritus Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and Emeritus Professor Engineering Systems, and Ralph Katz, Senior Lecturer of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at MIT Sloan and Professor of Innovation Management at Northeastern University discuss key take-aways from the course they teach—Managing Technical Professionals and Organizationsas well as how to address the particular challenges faced by technical professionals.

Q: This course addresses how the challenges and goals faced by technical professionals differ from other employees in an organization. What are the most important differences? What are some of the strategies leaders and managers can learn to maximize this difference?

Thomas Allen (TA): Probably the most significant difference to be found in managing these two types of employees lies in the rate at which the knowledge on which they draw is changing. In the case of the technical professional this can be extremely rapid. This pace of change implies the creation of policies and structures which promote and enable constant access to new information. It also implies the recognition of the difficulties that can arise in transferring this information into and within the organization. This is how the technology gatekeeper developed. Certain employees have better access and ability to understand sources of significant technical information outside of the organization and they are able to bring this information in and communicate it to technical colleagues.

A second difference lies in the area of incentives. Technical professionals are often very highly educated and therefore more independent. Their performance is also affected very differently by the behaviors and abilities of their immediate supervisors. A major study has shown that while technical group members’ performance was little affected by their perception of the manager’s administrative abilities or human relations skills, it was strongly affected by their perception of the manager’s technical competence.

Ralph Katz (RK): A third difference is in the way in which project teams comprising mostly technical professionals can “age.” When teams of this sort stay together too long, they become too inwardly directed and cut themselves off from outside contact. Given the dynamics of their knowledge bases, this has serious consequences and can lead to a serious loss in performance.Q: What are the most important learnings for participants in Managing Technical Professionals and Organizations? What should they be able to do differently when they return to work?

TA: The most important point that we address is the significance of people. In even the most advanced high technology, it is the people and how they are led, motivated, organized and rewarded that determines success. So much of the technical work and information that professionals work with is full of risk and uncertainty. Those who attend will have a grasp of how to leverage the energy and creative tension between the generation and reduction of uncertainty.

We also discuss the importance of organizational structure, the ways it can affect performance, and the criteria upon which it should be chosen. Communication both across and within organizations is vital for creativity and innovation in technical environments and we will identify the key factors that influence these processes—including a quantification of the effect of physical location on communication and how facilities can be better designed or arranged to foster more useful interaction. The fact is that you don’t have to tear down and re-build to improve the effects of architecture on behavior and performance. Nevertheless, organizations need to develop strategies for managing and coordinating geographically distributed work.

RK: Ultimately, to carry out the requisite technical work, professionals have to assume many different roles and work together in different kinds of groups and teams. How do managers create the kind of environment and innovative culture that is highly motivating and stimulating for the professional?  What are the managerial options for encouraging creative individual contributors to work together and how can managers maintain the vitality of their technical workforce over time?

Q: Have you found significant differences between managing technical professionals in different industries? How are these differences addressed in the program?

RK: There are differences that should be recognized in managing across industries. For example, there are certainly differences between pharmaceuticals and software development. However, what is more important than the differences are the similarities and commonalities. One of the principal benefits from attending this course is the recognition of these similarities. Everyone enters believing that their industry is unique. It is a significant eye-opener to discover that everyone has the same basic problems and they have developed a wide number of possible strategies for dealing with these problems. This is where both the sharing of experience among attendees and the systematic knowledge provided by the lecturer can combine to provide real added value. 

The program also attracts a substantial attendance from a variety of types of government agencies, and it is interesting to examine the similarities and differences between the public and private sectors. In this course, we try to recognize both the differences and the similarities; these become important points of discussion between lecturer and participants. Size of organization makes a big difference and we take this into account in addressing a variety of issues.

TA: An area in which large organizations encounter major difficulties is in integrating new technical professionals into the organization. The course will bring out some simple strategies that will help to solve this problem. Conformity is the enemy of innovative thinking. People seldom believe that conformity could be a problem in managing technical professionals. However it is a problem, and this course will show how it operates and how to deal with it.

Groups and project teams age just as individuals do—usually faster. In the course we will deal with this issue, its causes, and remedies. The bottom line is that we are dealing with people. That is really where the action lies.