Statistics Has Its Moment

Back when I was a student at RPI, I took numerous courses as part of the requirements for my degrees in Management Engineering.  Most of them offered a good foundation in aspects of business which proved very useful in the years to follow.  But only one of them had a massive and lasting effect on my worldview: Statistics.

Statistics?  Why Statistics?  Probably part of the reason was that it took me a while to get the hang of it.  My professor, Dr. George Manners, had a wonderful Georgian accent which was quite different than those of us from New England.  Then, he gave us a test about mid-semester and virtually everybody did poorly.  Then he did a surprising thing.  He got up in front of the class and said that obviously he hadn’t done a good job in teaching the material. So he would cover the material again and give a re-test. Wow! That made me take notice.  So I paid chose attention and discovered there was magic in the art of choosing a sample size, paying attention to aspects such as normalizing the data and running statistical tests.  I did pretty well on the re-test and I also struck up a friendship with the professor which extended beyond the point when I’d graduated.  Later, he taught me Marketing, another course which has had a long standing impact.

Getting back to statistics, I never looked at data the same way after taking this course and a successor course in the design of experiments.  I learned a valuable lesson that many politicians and other public figures have not learned, which is that a sample size of one, or even a few more data points than that, is basically statistically meaningless.  We also learned about the margin of error.  If a political poll is conducted and one candidate leads another by 3 percentage points, but the margin of error is six percentage points, it’s basically a statistical tie, not a conclusion one can bank on.  So when the press, or politicians tout a particular result, I pay close attention to the statistics behind the conclusion and decide whether the suggested results pass muster.  Frankly, this is a skill which can be valuable to anybody who wants to be able to follow any news with statistical information or other uses of data and make sense of it.

Now, we are all living in the Covid-19 era. And for many of us in the public, the people we can trust the most with their statements are the ones who understand data and are able to present conclusions based on the statistical data, rather than on gut feel.  This is closely related to looking at news stories or public statements, and determining whether the information is evidence based, using techniques such as the scientific method and peer-based reviews, or anecdotal, and therefore not to be trusted.  Intuition can be very powerful, but not nearly as useful unless it is also combined with a data driven outlook for these types of challenges.

I teach an Introduction to Business course at Northeastern University and we have the students conduct surveys as part of their business projects.  Using survey and statistical tools such as those offered by Qualtrics, they take surveys and test conclusions on ideas for their business models.  The surveys carry much more weight for me if the survey size is at least 30 and ideally much more, and if the respondents have a demographic profile which fits the proposed target market for their products or services.  This is hardly rigorous statistical work, but it is much more valid, and convincing for a reader, than just stating opinions and not having any research to back it up.

So statistics and big data are having a moment. It’s a good reminder that certain skills, such as statistics, investment planning and effective written and oral communications, can offer value that goes well beyond the classroom and better equips all of us to be effective and informed citizens and consumers.  That’s why I encouraged both of my sons to take college level statistics courses and add this particular skill to their life toolkit.  So the next time you hear a news story or listen to a public figure, think about whether the opinions stated are backed up by data. It’s a basic skill from which we can all benefit.

Reflections on Robot Proof

I recently finished reading the book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, written by Dr. Joseph Aoun, the President of Northeastern University.  My interest had been sparked by a panel on which Dr. Aoun participated concerning the future of work and how it will be affected by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

I’ve written previously about applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a post called “Contact Centers Get Smarter,” but Aoun’s book encouraged me to take a deeper dive into the topic. The intent of this post is to share my thoughts on what I’ve learned and consider some implications.  For context, I am a member of the part-time faculty at Northeastern after working many years within the high tech industry in disciplines which included Product Management, Information Technology, Engineering Management, Operations and Consulting.  I also have two children who been studying at universities in recent years, one in Liberal Arts and one in Engineering. So, I have a personal stake in the matters which Dr. Aoun discusses in his book.

Robot Proof  contends that as AI matures, it will have a dramatic effect on the careers of human workers. Many employment roles which have a variety of repetitive steps will begin to be either replaced or supplemented by algorithms. Thus, a key point in Robot Proof is that human workers should hone cognitive capacities where human skills and adaptability will offer an advantage. Examples of such cognitive capacities include critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility.  Another overarching theme is the importance of lifelong learning for people in the workforce at all levels.  As technologies change rapidly, workers will need to develop enhanced skills and new areas of domain expertise. Aoun also feels that the skills taught in leading liberal arts programs, such as communications, critical thinking and creativity, can also be valuable as part of one’s “robot proof” toolkit.

Robot Proof offers a lot of depth and thought on the matters of what kind of skills and literacies will be useful over the course of one’s career. For example, I’ve found that systems thinking and strong written communications skills have been very useful within my own career in enabling me to shift between different roles depending upon my needs and those of employers or clients.  Being able to make  connections across diverse disciplines and then apply them is an example of a skill that Aoun calls far transfer. Aoun also talks about the value of being  able to shift perspective and change one’s mindset to expand the range of potential solutions. So this book offers encouragement for people who have diverse interests and like to bring a generalist’s perspective into their work or creative endeavors.

Dr. Aoun also contends the university system in the United States needs to evolve from its current focus on teaching undergraduates and engaging in research, and take on the challenge of partnering with industry, government and other institutions to offer programs of lifelong learning. This would be a substantial transformation, but I believe these ideas should be in the mix in the ongoing discussion on how to make higher education both effective and more affordable.

To summarize, I think Dr. Aoun’s book offers a set of useful approaches for anybody who wonders about the future of work in an era where robots and other forms of artificial intelligence will play a greater role. The ideas here are highly relevant for current students and members of today’s workforce who want to stay competitive in their fields.  The book also poses ample challenges for the education and business communities. The value of building a “Robot Proof” toolkit of skills resonates for me as a teacher, parent and consultant. Welcome to the workplace of the near future.

What do you think?  Is your current set of skills and career path sufficiently robot proof?  To continue the conversation , please feel free to comment here or contact me on LinkedIn.

 

Shifting Gears — From Product Management to Teaching

The year 2018 was a time of career changes for me. My last corporate assignment, as a Product Line Manager for the Converged Communications Division of Dialogic ended in early January.  The division was divested to another company, Sangoma, and all of the roughly eight product lines I managed were part of the deal, but my time was up.

I’d had a productive three year run in my return to the company, so I decided this presented an opportunity for me to re-assess how I wanted to spend my time. I considered various possibilities, but one of the most attractive directions was to explore the potential to get involved in university teaching. Teaching or training has often been part of my work in product management and consulting, but I liked the idea of being on a college campus and bringing my business experience into the classroom. Several of my business colleagues had previously made the move from business into academia, so I began  reaching out to them as part of my networking process.

It turns out that having a master’s degree is one of the requirements to be considered for some adjunct teaching roles, so my Master of Engineering in Management Engineering from Rensselaer (RPI) covered that prerequisite. The Boston area has a rich selection of diverse universities and Northeastern University in particular has a strong business program. But it quickly became clear through my networking meetings that if I wanted to seriously pursue a teaching role, I needed to target a particular semester and make sure I’d be available to teach for several months as a time.  My early contacts were promising, so I decided to go for it.

I continued job hunting, but also looked hard for potential consulting assignments that would give me more time flexibility in the event a teaching assignment opened up. I was open to a lot of options and got a tentative offer from Northeastern to teach an Introduction to Business course around March. The details firmed up a couple of months later.

In parallel, I started doing some consulting, so I was busy with that work and had a teaching assignment which would start just after Labor Day. In preparation, I continued my networking, but now with a specific focus. I had several informal discussions with colleagues who had moved into academia and they were virtually all willing to share takeaways from their experiences in the classroom. This was all helpful and I felt good about the upcoming change.  One big change from my other teaching work was the extent to which the current teaching tools are online and highly integrated.  I took a course in Blackboard, which is the teaching platform used at Northeastern, but had to come up to speed very fast in its practical use for this particular class. My years of IT experience helped, but there were many fine details which weren’t always obvious.

Intro to Business at Northeastern is somewhat unusual in various respects. I became part of a faculty teaching team which teaches the class to several hundred incoming freshmen at the D’Amore McKim School of Business.  A standard syllabus had been prepared, but it was up to each individual teacher to deliver the material in an effective manner. We met as a team before the semester began and typically met every two weeks after that. Our class sizes were relatively small — my fall semester sections had fewer than 15 students.

Classes began on the Wednesday after Labor Day.  From this point forward, I taught the students three days a week in the classroom, but quickly found I needed to spend much more time outside of the classroom to prepare. As teachers, our goal was to provide students with a foundation in the basic elements of business — addressing topics such as entrepreneurship, marketing and accounting / finance — while simultaneously helping them form teams which would apply the concepts in a variety of assignments. The early workload was substantial, but the students quickly had chances to develop new skills in areas such as conducting research surveys and learning about finance using Bloomberg terminals. As teachers, a key challenge was to engage with the students on various aspects of business through readings of a textbook, numerous articles and other tools such as videos, and encourage the students to use critical thinking in applying the material. The teaching was less about lecture than alternative means; as a professor, I facilitated in-class discussions and encouraged the teams to work together to  reach conclusions.

Here are a few takeaways from my first semester on campus:

  1. Teaching a class for the first time is a lot of work. I’d seen this before in my earlier teaching experiences, but it was particularly true for this class. Most of the effort was outside the classroom and included preparation, review and grading of assignments and meeting with students. It felt like I learned a lot over the course of the semester and this will help me to be more efficient and effective in teaching future classes.
  2. I found this particular class drew upon a wide range of my business experiences and skills.  For example, the review of supply chain and operations tied well into my original degree studies in Management Engineering at RPI and experiences from the three years when I managed purchasing and materials management for Burroughs and Fujitsu.
  3. Managing the class relied heavily upon online technology, notably on the learning automation tool known as Blackboard. Blackboard is a bit quirky, so the integration between 3rd party software and Blackboard is brittle and held a few surprises. My many years of IT experience helped here.
  4. In business, the focus is on meeting customer needs. When teaching university classes, meeting the needs of students is the central focus. One key goal was to bring my business experiences to the classroom, but the nuances of teaching a broad set of concepts required a great deal of focus.  Since this class included several team-based projects, I spent a lot of time coaching the teams on how to successfully complete their assigned presentations and projects. The improvements the students made in areas such as making presentations and preparing business plans demonstrated how they were able to take the concepts of the class and apply them to entrepreneurial projects.
  5. My business focus has been heavily in the business-to-business (B2B) arena, but most of the examples used in this class were business-to-consumer (B2C), since the major projects were tied to the consumer retailing giant TJX (the owner of stores which include Marshalls, TJ Maxx and Homegoods).  I enjoyed applying my marketing background in this somewhat different business context.

In summary, the transition from conducting business to teaching business has proven to be a career change which has many challenging elements.  I enjoy the work, especially when the students progress in learning many new skills over the course of a semester.  I also liked the university environment; Northeastern treats part-time faculty and staff as professionals and I’ve enjoyed my interactions with other professors and the support staff team. So this career change has been a positive one for me and might also work for other business professionals who’d like to apply their career skills in a university environment.

Have you considered a career change which leverages your experiences in a different way?  If you’ve had similar experiences in re-imagining your career or are contemplating such a move, I’d love to hear from you on LinkedIn.