Why Britain should experiment with boardroom boffins

Scientists have all the right skills to be managers, yet few make it to the top. Roger Trapp reports
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The Independent Online
Technology is, by common consent, becoming an increasingly important issue for managers of all businesses. So it is curious that the scientist generally struggles to make it through the door of the boardroom.

Recent research published by the Johnson Graduate School of Management, at the prestigious Cornell University in New York state, makes it even harder to understand why there are not more scientists at the top of large companies. More than 90 per cent of the executives interviewed agreed that it was becoming increasingly important for senior managers to have a strong grounding in technology rather than the more usual "ability to ask the right questions", but those same managers say that fewer than 50 per cent of their colleagues are technologically literate.

Moreover, two-thirds of the executives interviewed for the report, The Science Gap in Management, felt that scientific training - thanks to its emphasis on quantitative and analytical skills, creativity and problem solving - is a good background for the next generation of managers, and that their companies target scientifically trained professionals for management positions.

But for all this positive feeling, there are still substantial barriers that only the most determined scientist will overcome. Senior executives talk of turning down scientists for management positions because of their lack of business experience and because they do not understand a market- driven culture. The research was carried out in US corporations, but the findings will - in National Science Week - have resonances in Britain, too.

Fortunately for Cornell, nearly 90 per cent surveyed said a scientifically trained person would be more likely to gain a management position if they had an MBA. So the university has devised a programme specifically for scientists and engineers.

The idea, explains Alan Merten, dean of the management school, is to draw on all the positive attributes identified by those who co-operated with the survey to enable those with technical training to complete an MBA in 12 months rather than the 16 months that is usual at US business schools and so help fill the "science gap".

The idea is that those who have at least post-graduate qualifications in science have enough analytical ability to master the fundamentals of business as taught in a three-month course over the summer preceding the start of the academic year. With this knowledge fresh in their heads, they will then join MBA students in their final year to complete the course.

The first, heavily over-subscribed, course started last autumn and the first students are due to graduate in May. This year, there are 300 applications for about 30 places.

Once they join the other MBA students, the scientists are mixed up with managers from more usual backgrounds with a view to giving them all a chance to contribute their own views. Mr Merten illustrates how this works with a tale of a class that was meant to focus on the marketing of a new drug. Just as the majority were about to embark on selling this new product, one student - a scientist - was keen to know about the drug, on the grounds that it was difficult to market something you did not know much about.

Such flying in the face of the other students' wishes and interests can cause personality problems. And it is just the sort of thing that prevents scientists from losing their "nerd" image. But it could be that the Cornell course will help to break down these difficulties as well as filling the science gap. Britain, where the educational system has tended to harden attitudes more, looks ripe for a little of this sort of approach.