Why STEM Education Could Be Bad for Your Business

Early in 2006, US President George W. Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative. Formulated as a plan to provide US government financial support to specific academic initiatives, the plan called for significant increases in investment in fields related to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. President Obama announced over $240 Million in additional STEM funding during the White House Science fair; the whitehouse.gov website site claims that the President’s initiatives have garnered over $700 million in public-private partnerships along STEM lines.  Given the momentum and importance, these initiatives are not likely to die down soon.  But could the STEM emphasis actually hurt business?

The STEM concept has been emphasized globally, and rightly so. Ensuring global education in these 4 critical areas is essential.  These are certainly important to success. However, it also brings up another concern. The reality is that an individual’s success in education, business, organizations—you name it—requires more than STEM. Notice something missing here?
These “hard skills” are easily defined. We all know what “mathematics” entails, and can therefore develop curricula or programs around this. We can also evaluate these hard skills within an organization.  However, while an individual may possess the “hard skills,” he or she may be severely lacking in the soft skills.

Several years ago I coached a group of individuals brought together for a high-profile international research project. Four of these scientists, in particular, were geniuses, each possessing multiple doctorates in the field. They were at the top of their fields— “STEM on Steroids” poster children.

So why the coaching? Despite their natural and acquired levels of genius, these individuals simply could not work with others, nor could they articulate their brilliant ideas to others in any way that would make these concepts usable. Their team meetings were chaotic and they left of wake of employee bodies whenever they interacted with others. Geniuses, maybe, but socially inept and severely lacking in leadership.

A singular focus on STEM, at the expense of other equally important areas, often causes problems that permeate today’s organizations. But, the issue is not with STEM itself, per se, but the thinking behind it, at the exclusion of other important topics.

Let’s step out of STEM for a moment, and into the organization, where STEM-think is apparent. More often than not, managers hire people who mirror their own skills, abilities, and desires. In other words, “in my organization, it’s easy to identify the best employees. They’re ‘just like me!’”
In some of our most recent research, we’ve looked at top-down performance evaluations, and compare these to the way the boss rates that individual on other instruments, such as 360-degree feedback. Employees receiving the highest performance ratings tend to be those employees with similar strengths as his/her boss, when comparing 360-degree profiles. So, if the boss is good at understanding the financials, he or she is likely to look for the same financial acumen in a direct report.  Again, the best employees are just like me!

Back to STEM. The increased emphasis in STEM, while important (and even essential), emphasizes the “just like me” factor. The reality is, the best employees (or students, volunteers, etc.) are NOT necessarily those with similar skills as the boss. In fact, most times, this is actually detrimental. This thinking reiterates the flawed notion that, because some individuals feel the four STEM factors are most vital, we should ALL focus on these four factors—often de-emphasizing other critical components of educational or organizational success.

Which brings us back to the four geniuses.

These men, while possessing keen intellect, lacked other critical success components, such as leadership, interpersonal skills, organization, delegation, communication, negotiation skills and, unfortunately, integrity. Many of today’s organizational initiatives and measurements miss these soft skills, which are so vital. They, instead, focus all their energy on STEM-like initiatives. Because of this, organizations and individuals today are often strong in the job-specific, hard skills, yet weak in the soft skills that make the hard skills work.

STEM (or whatever this list of key job-specific competencies is in your organization) is the price of admission. However, focusing solely on STEM-like competencies at the expense of other soft skills could be disastrous.

So, my solution? How about something more like “LICE”—Leadership, Interpersonal Skills, Communication… and Everything else. OK, not a very attractive acronym, particularly when mentioning “lice” in a school system. It needs work. However, performance and success are not only factors of what gets done, but how things get done. Focusing solely on the job-specific or STEM-type competencies in an organization (or in education) misses many of the other critical factors in an individual’s success.

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