College and University Students Have Opportunity to Expand Expertise

02/06/2014 12:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014
  • Eugene Fram Professor Emeritus, Saunders College of Business, Rochester Institute of Technology

In 1960, Harvard professor Theodore Levitt challenged industry with these words: "Sustained growth depends on how broadly you define your business..." He famously pointed out that railroads, at his time, declined because they thought they were in the railroad business but were really in the transportation business. Other forms of transportation grew at the expense of railroads. More recently, Eastman Kodak went into bankruptcy because it took the firm too long to realize it was in the imaging business, not the film business.

For educators, I want to suggest that sustained student growth in and beyond college can depend on the level to which students can be educated to refine their thinking. In education terminology, how well can students move upward on Bloom's critical thinking scale to take them well beyond memorization and simple understandings?

I also suggest that every college and university graduates two types of students that I refer to as technicians and technologists. Any field of endeavor, such as business, humanities, science, engineering art or medicine, will have both types and will be needed by society.

Technician: These are persons who have acquired basic skills in their specialized fields. Examples: An accountant who knows all the latest programs for maintaining records and generating financial statements but does not really attempt to understand how his/her efforts impact marketing or human relations. A marketing person who knows a great deal about outbound and inbound call centers but doesn't want to enhance his knowledge about consumer behavior or marketing channels.

Technicians do well in entry-level positions, can advance modestly on a professional ladder and can live fulfilling personal lives. However, I have met any number of these people who have become very frustrated professionally as they view peers advancing more rapidly and can't understand the broadened perspectives that the peers have acquired. Technicians often attribute peer advancement to superior political acumen.

Technologist: Persons with broader outlooks who see how techniques fit in to larger systems or cultures. The accountant understands how his field knowledge can lead to his becoming involved with financial planning. They learn how to look behind the figures to ask "what if" questions. Like the technologist, they can also live fulfilling personal lives. But they are more likely to have more opportunities to maximize their professional lives.

Observations for Faculty and Administrators

• Even if an institution is liberal arts focused, try to determine which programs and/or courses are being taught from a technician construct compared with a broader technological construct. The resulting information may help administrators to better understand the public's brand perception of the institution.

• Try to foster a strategic balance between the two types of graduates. Again both are needed in our society. Because there are more technician-oriented courses in community colleges, the proportion will be much higher than in comprehensive universities.

However, I estimate some comprehensive institutions may be surprised at the high proportion of technician-focused programs or courses. Developing technological frameworks in the classroom require critical thinking. This in turn presents significant teaching challenges.

• Make certain students understand the difference between the two, and the career limitations of defining one's professional field too narrowly, a la Levitt. This should lead to the desirability of always having a career professional "Plan B" in place because frequent field changes (librarians, sales, manufacturing) are taking place in the 21st century.

• Recognize that all students should have the opportunity to learn how to broaden and refine their critical thinking processes. Those who want to reasonably assure themselves more professional security need to think about moving from technician to technologist.