September 2, 2015

Uploading innovative engineers: 15 years remaining

Four years ago, I wrote an outrageous post about how "un-geek" are French engineers in average. Since 2011, many things have changed in France: code is expected to be (soon) taught in elementary schools, successful geek entrepreneurs are in the spotlight, geek-ish schools and co-working hacker spaces flourish, ... It will take time, but, hopefully, France in 2025 will be geek-friendly. Now, what about innovation?

Entrepreneurship has become a cause nationale in France, with a lot of initiatives and announcements. Analysts try to decipher the structural problems regarding innovation in France, in particular an excellent study (in french) about innovation "ecosystems" was released yesterday. Everything said in this article is 100% true... but it misses a point: how "un-innovative" are the French higher-educated people in average.

As a teacher in a high-education engineering school, I have headed an "Innovation & Entrepreneurship" course for 8 years (with some success stories here and there). Every student must follow this course. From my experience of teaching this innovation course to around 180 students every year, I can just recall that the average higher-educated students (usually coming from Classes PrĂ©paratoires) struggle to:
  • Deal with uncertainties. The most brilliant scientific students are those who excel at finding solutions to problems. But what about when there is no clearly identified problem? And what about when any solution to a problem has its pros and cons? Most of the students who would have not enrolled in an Entrepreneurship program if they had the choice are very uncomfortable with uncertainties. They are the right targets for innovation mindset re-formatting.
  • Convince. The French education system does not include any training in talking, debating, arguing, more generally communication skills. When every US kid should defend a point in a science fair, the same age French kids are taught how to raise the hand before talking, the quieter the better. Oral debates barely exist at french school. As a matter of fact, it is frequent that students give their very first "public" talk when they are 20 years old. Teaching the art of pitching is necessary for every student.
  • Accept being a failure and a rebel. This is especially true during brainstorming and creativity sessions where it is common that somebody, say Jo, suggests a high-risk or out-of-the-box idea but almost immediately the fear of being judged makes Jo himself overturn his own damned idea. I'd love to put Jo in more creativity training sessions so that he becomes self-confident enough.
The percentage of engineers who have these three core competencies (an innovation-friendly mindset) in 2015 is as low as the percentage of engineers who had a geek-friendly mindset in 2011. Solutions like super-hyped incubators or  state-owned VCs are right but they are similar to providing xDSL broadband connections to geeks in 2000s. It is cool for the happy fews, but it does not change the mindset of the others.

In my opinion, a successful innovation ecosystem is such that everybody in the society (especially every higher-educated worker) has an innovation-friendly mindset. Everybody means here people who do not aim to become entrepreneur and even those who are not directly related to innovation. No society can afford that a majority of higher-educated people have not developed in particular these three key competencies at school. The structural reasons behind this failure for average higher-educated workers are in my opinion more critical than an imperfect innovative ecosystem for a tiny fraction of innovators. Indeed, the lack of inclinations toward uncertainties, communication skills and rebel-attitude is a transmissible disease for any innovative ecosystem.

It is the mission of teachers in high-education institutions to fight the stigmata of twenty years of un-innovative mindset formatting. The special "Entrepreneurship" programs that are commonly offered in other higher-education institutions (or in online courses) do not contribute to this mission because these programs enroll volunteering students who have already overcome their innovation-related mindset limitations. These students are not the right target. To set up a profoundly innovation-friendly ecosystem in 2030, we have to train all higher-educated students now so that innovation will be pervasive in the society, especially at schools, in community groups and in the traditional companies. Hopefully, the ecosystem will then be friendly to entrepreneurs... 

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