About a year back there was a very popular slide show going around about the consequences of change. One of the ‘facts’, it claimed, was that owing to the incredible rate of change in the industry, most of the content from a three year degree course on technology would be out of date by the time the course actually finished. Of course a lot would depend on how up to date the teaching and the course was in the first place, but it is fair to say that this is a key part of the academic challenge that universities face, and why they are so keen to perform real innovative research to keep up to date. However most universities have a real problem with what I can only call the ‘science of appliance’, and perversely that’s what we all want!
Tell me how to make a difference – now! That’s presumably at least part of the reason you are reading this blog, the same reason that I am always looking for sources for interesting blogs too. My definition of interesting means qualified opinions on practical topics, and/or examples of practical experience, both of which provide insights into the issues that I can recognise. However it also means that I search and think within defined and understood profiles in terms of technology, business or capability, and as I will explain in a minute this narrow but deep approach may not be the answer we need to get the ‘quantum shift’ we seek.

Increasingly it’s the ability to combine different and apparently unrelated topics that makes it happen, so finding out about the Singularity University on Wikipedia was an interesting moment. Here is the blurb and the URL: http://singularityu.org
The Singularity University is an academic institution in Silicon Valley whose stated aim is to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.”
Modelled on, and running contemporaneously with, the International Space University, Singularity U is not an accredited four-year university, but is instead intended to supplement traditional educational institutions. It offers an annual nine-week summer course intended for graduate and post-gradate students, one week programs for senior corporate managers, and three day versions for CEOs. The first nine-week program began in June 2009, with full tuition costing US$25,000 (although a majority of the participants were provided full or partial scholarships). The inaugural 2009 class was limited to 40 Fellows chosen from over 1,200 applicants. One hundred and twenty graduate and postgraduate students will be accepted for the graduate course beginning summer 2010.

Okay sounds fun, and conceptually makes sense, but practical issues? Last week we had an offer to bid for a water supply utility billing system upgrade, with the standard purchasing-managed approach of a comprehensive specification with a series of questions to answer. No problem, we are good and experienced at billing systems. Now comes the big ‘BUT’. If we look at electricity utilities then the current hot topic is ‘smart energy services’ and one part of this means putting the house holder in direct touch with real time meter readings, billing system, and any other services that the electricity provider can offer through the resulting ‘high touch’ customer experience. That makes quite a difference to the billing system, ranging from being assessed by something like an iPhone App, to adding a wide range of activities that will need to be billed for.
BUT Water Utility experts are just that, so most of the lessons learnt in the energy industry are not visible, and the upgrade is being called for against an internal IT user’s specification, and, and … Try raising these points with purchasing and it’s an out of spec irrelevance, so try finance and its out of their remit, try …. And so on. In short, cross functionality, even straight forward business process re-engineering of the process is outside of today’ narrow, tightly managed remit.
We increasingly realise that we have to read requirements in a more open way to decide what techniques can be used, what business experience can be added, etc, so the whole idea of encouraging ‘cross’ discipline understanding seems to look increasingly necessary as we look at how technology touches every part of business, and/or any other aspect of life. It is time to rethink the narrow and deep expertise model and consider T-shaped approaches where the depth is complimented by the width to understand how it might be used and how it fits with other capabilities and disciplines too.
Let’s see how this shapes up at the ambitious Singularity University!