As a city of steel, iron, glass and natural resources, Pittsburgh has historic ties with the Industrial Age and the engineering innovations that helped to transform human life and the world.
Today, however, the city and its research efforts are gradually transitioning into a “Knowledge Age,” where the integration of diverse ideas and disciplines is necessary to improve society.
James R. Martin II, the new U.S. Steel Dean for the Swanson School of Engineering, plans to leverage new paradigms in organizational leadership to transform not only the curriculum, but the traditional hierarchies of academia and management.
“If you were making something back then, like an automobile, it was a linear process. Individuals were responsible for individual components, working toward assembling the whole,” said Martin of the Industrial Age. “Thus, the organizations themselves mimicked this process and evolved as linear hierarchies, and that structure still remains, even in organizations that don’t create the stereotypical ‘widget’ but now create ideas and knowledge.”
“That worked during the time where our threats were predictable and size and scale were synonymous, but the world has pivoted into an age where things are quite nonlinear and unpredictable, and the pace of change is accelerating,” Martin continued. “We now live in a global market economy, and the currency now is knowledge, not the products we make. Apple, for example, does not manufacture anything; their manufacturing is done overseas. They are a knowledge organization, where they continue to adapt.”
It’s been six months since Martin arrived at Pitt to begin his deanship, and the growing sense of interdisciplinary community that he hopes to further at the University has been noticeable.
The Swanson School has been taking steps in this humanities-driven direction since even before Martin was named dean. The school’s first-year programming has for several years collaborated with Pitt’s Writing Center, and undergraduate engineering students are required to take at least three humanities credits each semester.
“The strength of our programs, the community that we have and the quality of the people — including students, faculty and leadership — is just incredible,” Martin said. “As one of the oldest engineering departments in the country, Pittsburgh’s engineering heritage means Pitt was at the epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution. We played a critical role in seeding 19th and 20th century American innovation.”
Martin said by removing barriers between departments and other schools, Pitt could be “the best in the world in a number of things.”
Martin’s framework in action
There are three phases to Martin’s strategic approach: develop a framework of understanding to build a sense of community around a common transformative purpose, shape ideas based on that unified framework and make decisions on impactful initiatives.
“We know how to work well as individuals, but the opportunities for transformative impact, be it in the Swanson School, the University or the city, require lots of people from different backgrounds and sectors,” Martin said. “As an engineering school, we need to shift from silos to systems, and few places are suited as well as Pittsburgh for this kind of shift to knowledge ecosystems that spawn innovation.”
One example of this framework already in action at Pitt is the newly formed Organizational Innovation Lab, established under Martin, to build the school into an exponential knowledge organization that will learn and adapt to address societal needs. As Martin notes, traditional STEM occupations are changing rapidly, and disruption from technologies such as AI and robotics are already occurring.
The dean’s focus is to bring a stronger sense of “robot-proof” humanness back into engineering using the latest social science theories to provide new insights in organizational behavior patterns, mental models, adaptability and emergence of awareness and purpose.
“Humility really will be the new smart going forward,” he said.
“This work is guided by a powerful new social change approach, Complexity Leadership Theory, which is unprecedented for use at an academic institution,” he said. Martin’s group has already partnered with colleagues from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University on this ground-breaking research to accelerate the impact of this approach to engineering education.
The key for innovation and survival in a modern knowledge organization, Martin believes, is a focus on is on continuous learning, not efficiency. He said universities are not exempt from the disruptive forces that have re-shaped most segments of our society.
“Disruption is already occurring, but we have been slow to recognize these changes because exponential trends typically begin with small, almost imperceptible changes,” he said. “This means we must also examine our hierarchal operational and leadership structures and disciplinary silos which have not fundamentally changed for centuries.”
For students, this framework of knowledge and continuous growth is intended to increase their awareness and contextualize what can be done to improve society — which will ultimately help them discover and cultivate their individual sense of purpose.
“It builds in students a recognition that they need to have a lifelong platform of engagement and learning that reflects Pitt’s mission,” Martin said. “We as a University need to pivot to make sure that we understand that most of the education and growth is going to occur outside the four years they have here.
“The jobs that most of them will have have not been invented yet. Our mission is to help establish their trajectory as purpose-driven, adaptive problem solvers that will continue for a lifetime. In essence, we are enkindling the flames of universal lifetime learners and leaders.”