Matt's Articles

Bridge the Gap

One of the things that I hope to do as I develop my consulting company is to bridge the gap between academia and industry. It is something I did at my previous employers and the engagements returned positive results. When I graduated from Northern Illinois University and went to work for Motorola I decided to give students an opportunity to solve real world problems and apply their newly forming knowledge to the business environment. I sponsored a senior design project (a.k.a. capstone project) nearly every year while I worked at Motorola. Most of them returned multiple times the initial small investment. Over the years I watched the senior design projects mature and more universities invest in this type of outreach.

This is an important bridge. As an undergraduate I often felt that I was learning disparate methods for solving problems. I did not fully grasp the context of their application. It was the Lean Six Sigma approach paired with real world business experience that allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for all the theory my professors taught me in my undergraduate courses. Early in my career it was clear to me that students needed this practical experience and real world examples to give purpose to what they learn. When I teach lean I often speak about the importance of developing clear purpose and that this motivates people. People need purpose to be motivated. Students need to see firsthand the problems they are being taught to solve, so they can understand why it important to solve them.

Recruiters already know this. A 2014 study conducted by economics professors John Nunley and Adam Pugh at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Nicholas Romero of the University of Pennsylvania and Richard Seals of Auburn University in Alabama found that summer internships were the most significant factor in attaining a job. The study was comprehensive covering 2000 online jobs. It has since caused universities to put greater emphasis on internship programs. It highlights the importance experience plays in developing new skills. Though it is important to point out that basic summer internship experience is enough or even the best format. The trades of course understand this well. Apprentice trades people have a mix of classroom learning and on the job application. Masters are used to oversee and mentor new apprentice and journeyman. This is a time tested method for mastering new skills. Borrowing from this structure, students need specific objectives when they engage with industry. At NIU to achieve this we use a consulting model. The students have tight timelines, specific objective, and deliverables to achieve. If they fail the companies will not continue to collaborate with NIU. These are real incentives that drive real purpose and result in mastery of engineering skills.

As companies look for new ways to compete and differentiate themselves they need access to fresh ideas and fresh ways of thinking. Technology companies already form partnerships with universities and collaborate on research that they hope to be disruptive. I suggest this same partnership should occur deeper in the organization. There are many other problems that companies know that they have, but can’t find the resources to resolve. I saw the benefits of this approach during my time and Motorola and I hope to expose more companies to the value of this approach as I grow my consulting practice