Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Myth of Specialization

Engineering students showing T-shaped breath and depth that comes from a holistic approach to their profession during their undergraduate and professional development years - mastering core fundamentals as well as gaining an understanding of areas such as business, foreign culture, humanities, and social science - will be truly competitive in the 21st century. They will be able to acquire highly technical, highly specialized skill in postgraduate study, just as surgeons are trained after a solid grounding in more general medicine. World leaders such as IBM have already appreciated the value of T-shaped thinking with both management investments as well as their deployment of "services" markets that deliver technologies contextualized and customized to the social, economic, environmental, and business needs of individual clients.

More importantly, if we continue training and focusing the majority of engineering students and young professionals in narrowly prescribed technological formats, we will potentially create a resource not for global engineering leadership, but simply another global commodity, traded by markets at its lowest value and dependent upon the economic whims of any engineering employer. However, if we train our future professionals to be proficient in engineering thought, as T-shaped and holistic thinkers with fundamentals strongly in place as well as the skills to reason, learn, and innovate beyond traditional disciplines, we will have created a truly competitive and value-added engineer. This paradigm shift will require engineers pursuing highly specialized fields to gain additional skills in the first few years of practice, similar to the legal or medical professions. It will also allow engineering-trained individuals to bring their skill and acumen to professions ranging from law to finance and policy - all of which should, in fact, be infused with our professional expertise. The holistic engineer is, therefore, the most competitive employee of all

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