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C.P. Snow Was Wrong

November 06, 2009

By Mark P. Mills

Forget the clash between humanities and science. The only cultures that really count are information, creation and organization.

Anniversaries are a time for reflection. This year marks the 50th anniversary of British scientist and novelist Charles Percy Snow’s seminal Two Cultures lecture-turned-book, turned paradigm.

Snow lamented the impediments to solving global problems created by what we would today call "culture wars." No, not between liberals and conservatives. Snow was distressed about what he called a communication breakdown between society’s two cultures he labeled "humanities" and "sciences."

Snow’s cultural formulation has since become a widely accepted paradigm. And paradigms matter. They are, to put it pedantically, how we see the forest rather than the trees. Humans like to create categories, paradigms and other frameworks within which we think, organize, forecast, argue and educate. A paradigm can powerfully influence actions, policies, our education system and how we train our future leaders.

It is hardly insightful to note that leadership is essential to get America out of this enervating recession, and more importantly to create sustained growth and prosperity that have long been the hallmark of the great American "experiment."

Republicans ask where they will find the next Reagan. Democrats seem to believe they’ve found their next Roosevelt.

Not to diminish the positive, or negative, impact of political leadership, but what the country needs over the long-run to ensure employment growth is that we foster more private sector leaders. And not just textbook examples like Thomas Watson, Andy Grove, Sam Walton or earlier, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison or Andrew Carnegie. We need more of the thousands of others less prominent but collectively vital leaders that forge the myriad small and mid-sized enterprises where most people are employed and from whence most growth emerges.

When you meet a skillful leader it is obvious--not because of a corner office, or list of accomplishments, or wealth or accolades. It is something intangible, visceral. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a nuclear power company or a theme park conglomerate. Or whether it’s a Buffett-scale business, or a start-up.

Leadership and the Paradigm of Three Cultures

After years of laboring under the paradigm of a two-culture society, and meeting hundreds of people who seem to defy the formulation, I offer with all due respect the proposition that C.P. Snow was wrong.

The idea of a sharp divide between an artistic weltanschauung and a scientific cultural point of view took firm hold with Snow’s two-culture paradigm. But in reality, there are three cultures extant, and I believe they are obvious.

The three cultures--where we can categorize most people’s skills, reflexes, work and thought processes--are: information, creation and organization

The information culture or discipline is fundamentally about knowledge--it is where we study and think about ourselves and natural systems. The Information bucket encompasses science, history, philosophy, economics, mathematics and so forth.

The culture of creation includes all the arts, literature, theatre and films (creating stories, entertainment, and alternative realities), and engineering (creating useful things, entertainment and alternative ways to do old things). I of course stipulate that most cooler-than-thou ’artistes’ might rebel at being lumped in with dweeby engineers. But both fundamentally create new things using tools and the natural materials around them. David Nye, professor of American History at the University of Southern Denmark, has written persuasively about engineering as the cousin to art, not science. (See his lucid 2007 Technology Matters: Questions to Live With.)

The third culture, Organization, is where we find the natural or compulsively expert if more amorphous skills and thinking that defines organizational management and leadership, whether in business or politics. Peter Drucker was not only the architect of management as a discipline (an idea, never mind graduate program, unheard of pre-Drucker), but wrote eloquently about the culture and psychology of managers. Quite aside from his promethean contributions to management education, his writings illuminated something far deeper in the human character.

Examples abound of successful individuals within the confines of each of those cultures, who at the same time exhibit limited skills or interests in the other disciplines. But some truly spectacularly achievements often occur when people are able to exercise the skills and reflexives across at least two of these boundaries--sometimes across all three. Most such people are not famous, nor celebrities, just quietly contributing a better future.

Which brings me to Dean Julio Ottino, Northwestern University’s dean of engineering (See "Renaissance Scientists"). Dean Ottino is a prima facie example of the correct paradigm, and the kind of leader America needs more of. Born in Argentina, the dean started his career as a successful artist, then Ph.D. engineer who did pioneering work in arcane chaos theory, and now is a demonstrably successful administrator running and expanding one of the nation’s major university’s sprawling engineering program. And for those not so familiar with a world-class major university’s operations, it is a business.

When you talk to the dean about new programs and initiative he has launched, you hear what can only be described as vintage Drucker. (For a delicious summary of Drucker and his management philosophies, read Jeffrey Krame’s 2008 Inside Drucker’s Brain.) Ottino enables people, unleashes them, guides them and lets them take ownership of new projects and programs, but they all start from his fertile brain. Dean Ottino is a paradigmatic example of someone who thrives in all Three Cultures. And, importantly, he is facilitating new, similar leaders in that paradigm.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we increasingly see at universities today a student population that not only fits a three-culture framework, but more importantly seems comfortable hopping over and between these cultures. Perhaps this transformation is the inevitable outcome of the information-centric environment they’ve grown up in, quite unlike anything else in history. Think of this as the hidden benefit of an iPod generation where the tools and networks of the digital age really are blurring old lines, enabling a cultural convergence.

Obviously, we’re not there yet, and not everyone will attain star qualities of leadership. Equally obvious, not everyone becomes a leader; can’t have all generals and no soldiers. But sitting here at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, one can be encouraged that we can foster the leadership to ensure a prosperous 21st century. Of course we’re much more likely to succeed working from the right paradigm.

Original Source:



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