Academic programmes often produce specialists, each highly skilled in their own discipline but not necessarily well-prepared for a career in multidisciplinary companies. At Applied Sciences in Delft and Business Administration at the Rotterdam School of Management, however, they have been teaching their students for over a decade how to collaborate with people who think differently.
Alumni point the way
Fifteen years ago, the faculty of Applied Sciences asked their alumni in business to appraise its curriculum. As expected, its graduates were praised for their knowledge and engineering skills. ‘But our graduates were considered clueless regarding the other aspects and disciplines involved in developing products and innovation,’ says Kees Hagen, associate professor at the Department of Imaging Physics of TU Delft. ‘They told us it took them years to get our engineers up to speed in their companies.’ The then program director suggested to contact a good management school. It’s location? Rotterdam.
‘The Business Administration programme is multidisciplinary by its very nature,’ says Daan Stam, professor of Leadership and Innovation at the Rotterdam School of Management and, as of this year, Dean of Engagement and Partnerships. ‘Our students end up all over the place, where they will have to collaborate with computer scientists, engineers, medical professionals, historians, you name it.’ In 2009, the shared need to prepare their students in dealing with (burdensome) nonconformists led to the joint Technology Management course. In both Delft and Rotterdam, the course has been integrated in the compulsory bachelor curriculum. Hagen has been involved from the beginning and has been the responsible instructor in Delft since 2010, Stam in Rotterdam as of 2019.
‘Problems in business don’t respect the boundaries between disciplines,’ Stam says. ‘You cannot address these problems using only technical skills, or only management skills.’ Therefore, the prime learning objective of the Technology Management course is for the students to learn to cooperate. In small interdisciplinary teams they work on a case supplied by one of twelve participating high-tech companies. The main question to be answered is whether or not the company will benefit from replacing current technology, as used in a product or production process, with an emerging alternative technology. ‘These are not fictional problems but real-life cases,’ Hagen says. ‘The ASML case, for example, is about extreme ultraviolet lithography. For TATA Steel it is about capturing CO2.’
The initial task for the students from Delft is to write a technology report – understandable to the RSM-students – discussing the current technology and two alternatives. Likewise, the RSM-students write a report discussing all ins and outs of the company, such as its mission, value chain, production process and competitive position. Then, the team members meet for a number of joint assignments. ‘It’s a real culture clash,’ Hagen says with a smile. ‘We provide preliminary training to take some of the pressure off. And each team is supervised by two coaches – senior bachelor’s students or master’s students in Applied Physics or Business Administration – who have also received special training.’ The students are furthermore tasked with writing a contract describing how they would like to collaborate. As the joint assignments progress, they have to continually reflect on this collaboration.
A challenging problem
There are very few models related to the challenging problem of how to make managers and engineers collaborate effectively. No surprise than that it took the organisers several years to come up with the proper format for the Technology Management course, mainly involving large companies and consisting of three specific assignments. In Delft, it is a first-year course while in Rotterdam it is the second-year internationals who participate. Hagen: ‘We are very happy that it has been integrated into the compulsory curriculum, but we would prefer it to be shifted to a later year. The students would then be able to draw on an increased technical and business knowledge.’
A value to both companies and students
The participating companies are told not to expect the students to come up with full-fledged technological advice. But each year, both teachers and companies are pleasantly surprised by the quality of the final reports and of the final presentations the students give at the companies. ‘Students are very smart,’ Stam says. ‘They are quick in learning a lot from each other.’ At first, the students themselves may not appreciate the true value of the joint course. But at a later moment in their studies, they frequently sign up to be a coach. And once they have started their career at a company, they indicate this course to have been of special value to them. Hagen: ‘Students that graduated a long time ago often tell us that they regret not having had the opportunity to participate.’
A beautiful opportunity
For some time now, Stam and Haagen have been trying to involve more academic programmes. ‘LDE is a wonderful medium for bringing students together,’ Stam says. ‘And our dean of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus, Wim van den Doel, has been very supportive.’ Both Rotterdam and Delft would like to expand their collaboration. Currently, the program involves some 160 students in Applied Physics and more than 500 students in Business Administration. The teams would be more balanced if the number of technical students increased. Moreover, the Rotterdam School of Management also offers the course to students following their Dutch curriculum, for which a partner in Delft has not yet been found. Stam: ‘We think that our course meets an urgent need and that it will be of interest to many more faculties. What is the value of specialized knowledge if you are unable to put it into practice through cooperation?’ It does, of course, require the faculty’s curriculum to be reorganized. Hagen: ‘But having that slot, our concept can be implemented just as it is.’
Text: Merel Engelsman