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In Conversation With K. Subramaniam

Nirmala Garimella

Thriving in the 21st Century Economy: Transformational Skills for Technical Professionals is written for early-career engineers, to bridge the gap between engineering education and the workforce through sound advice about career management.  The book is also a useful tool for technical professionals who have been transitioned out of jobs and could use guidance on ways to adapt to the changing employment landscape in the technology marketplace.

This new book examines the changing business models in corporations and their impact on the training and career development of workers.  To survive, technical professionals, particularly engineers in the early stages of careers, must adopt new skills and competencies to contribute value and solutions to employers and industries.  These new skill sets, according to the book, incorporate the ability to integrate knowledge from units across an organization. 

Written by two STEM experts, the book discusses the need for technical professionals to identify, create, validate, and implement new solutions to sustain and grow business organizations.  “New solutions become a constant search for core capabilities,” say the authors, K. Subbu Subramanian and U. Srinivasa Rangan.  “With these essential skills, an employee can have a greater impact on his or her company as well as the industry.”  

Lokvani spoke to one of the authors K Subbu Subramananian. 

How did you get the idea of writing this book?

Several years ago, I gave an invited lecture at a conference in Boston for young engineers starting their careers. An executive who heard my talk said, “Why don’t you write a book on your thoughts and ideas”?

I have witnessed the effect of Globalization all my working life, since I have worked in the manufacturing sector, for the past 35 years. I have seen several junior engineers and technicians with suitable training and mentoring do well in their careers, while many with higher degrees (Ph.Ds) lose their job since they are not flexible or trained to look at the big picture. I wanted to share what I had learned firsthand and what works.

It also hurts to see children from middle class families come out of college with their degree and don’t know what they should do next? They have a lot of loan. So they don’t want to go for graduate schools and commit to another 2 to 6 years. In the meantime everyone in leadership is saying “go to college, since a high school student with college degree makes more than $1Million in the life time”. So, where is the miss match? I wanted to document the reasons and possible steps all students can learn at any level of education.

 Why is it relevant in today’s world?  What ideas does it emphasize?

If you sit back and look at the big picture, away from all the noise and punditry, you can see a profound change and the same economic model evolving across the globe. You can see the engineer in India, China or Brazil doing the same job with the same skills and results like an engineer in USA, Germany, France or Japan. Then the employer says, “OK, I will pay the same salary for each of you.” But, you cannot live in any of these developed nations with the salary with which you can do very well in India or China. So, what should these engineers and other workers in countries like USA do? They cannot simply work harder to produce the output of 3 or 4 engineers in the emerging economy countries. It is not physically possible. Instead, they have to bring lot more value out of their job. How can they do it? That is possible with the Transformational Skills we describe in the book. This is not a matter only between developed and developing countries. It will continue to grow across the globe and within every country. Someone who wants to live and work in Mumbai has to bring out greater value than his peer working in a rural place in India and so on!

What is the salient concept of a the binary economy?

Binary implies only two options: 0 or 1; A or B; One or the other. There is nothing in between or partial like 0.1, 0.2, etc.

Binary Economy also means two forces at work: Low wage jobs that require minimum of knowledge and skills to carry out well defined tasks OR High reward opportunities where you constantly create a stream of New Solutions. Middle level skills for partial execution of a collection of tasks are no longer sufficient and will be less and less needed. This is the vanishing middle.

In summary Binary Economy implies: Learn to swim against the current to create a set of new solutions and implement them to get rewarded well or get swept away by the stream to the large pool of low wage workers with skills required to execute well defined tasks. IT and Global Finance are both enablers that foster both these modes of the Binary Economy.

One of the forces of the Binary Economy is the ability to standardize and de-skill any job and hence the task can be repeated very fast and at low cost. This kind of work can employ lots of people with relatively low skills and low wages. Look at the checkout counter in the supermarket. All you have to do is swipe the item with the bar code in it on the scanner. The task is so standardized that you have to do the same motion no matter what the item is. It can be milk carton, eggs, cereal, meat, tooth paste, paper towel,  …… it does not matter. Thousands of hourly wage workers work each day in the FedEx Memphis distribution center, where over a million packages arrive in 100+ planes by 10 PM, sorted and shipped out by day break as the planes take off. All these workers do the minimum of work – pick and place – while much of the sorting and routing is done by automated scanners, bar code readers and conveyor belts.

The other force at work is the ability to integrate knowledge from all sources across the globe and hence create a very high value added new solution. You may not be the smartest with all the knowledge and skills. That does not really matter. All you need to do is compile and organize and integrate all that. Yes, you need to have some basic skills that comes from some level of education. Beyond that it is all your drive and skills to identify, develop, deploy and exploit New Solutions in a seamless manner. These are the transformational Skills. Look around and see. Whoever is successful is not the smartest or the one with the highest academic degree. They are all transformative in some way or other.

How does the STIMS institute prepare students?

STIMS Institute has developed courses on Transformational Skills and System Approach for Knowledge Integration. We are implementing these courses in some colleges. We also teach/train mid-career professionals in companies. We offer one-one training/mentoring for students and professionals. We have written the book to promote the ideas on Binary Economy and the Transformational Skills for broader dissemination.

The back cover says that this is more a self-help book? Can you explain that?

In the book we raise questions such as: What is technology? What is a solution? What is your job? How unique is it? What can you do to create a stream of new solutions? How can you use what you have learned in the school and college to add more value in your job? etc. It is also important that just as the companies have strategy and long term plan, every professional needs to do the same for their own individual long term success. This book helps to address such professional development aspects.

 Finally where can readers find this book?

The book is available at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Thriving-Transformational-Technical-Professionals-Managers/dp/0791860167/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1375275381&sr=1-1&keywords=transformational+skills+subramanian+asme+press

At Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/thriving-in-the-21st-century-economy-k-subramanian/1115191210?ean=9780791860168

And also at the publisher, ASME Press: https://www.asme.org/products/books/thriving-21st-century-economy-transformational

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