This article was originally published in Art Kleiner and Mike Delurey, eds., The Megacommunity Way (strategy+business Books, 2007).
What’s the most important factor in production: capital, land, or labor?
A growing number of economists would say, “None of the above.” The most important factor is knowledge — and, in particular, technological knowledge. For proof, one need only look at any small, landlocked emerging economy that is poor in natural resources: an economy such as those in many African countries. In these countries, knowledge may be the only factor of production available. Indeed, engineering education is a critical key to building capacity for any country, rich or poor, in the knowledge economy. Economic studies have shown that as much as 85 percent of measured growth in U.S. income per capita over the past 100 years was due to technological change. Economic “miracles” in Ireland, Finland, and Singapore bear out the significance of technology and engineering education.
These insights underpin the Hewlett-Packard (HP) Company’s investment in engineering education. HP University Relations (UR) engages in many ways with the higher education community at more than 100 academic institutions around the globe. As a unit of HP Labs, UR catalyzes collaborative research programs. As an HP corporate function, UR broadens funding opportunities through public–private partnerships, participates in major sales efforts to build the HP business and brand, and helps human resources with recruitment. As a global function, UR catalyzes multi-stakeholder initiatives for economic development through innovation, diversity, and quality assurance in engineering and science education.
The HP University Relations team that I lead is now developing experience in regional economic development. HP’s first such initiative was in 1998, when a group of friends and colleagues began developing a vision for better preparing engineers to address the economic development needs of Latin America. In 2002, the group decided to gather like-minded thought leaders in Brazil. At that session, the idea of “Engineering for the Americas” was formally endorsed. This expanding core group from HP then established a partnership with the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) and the Organization of American States to focus on quality assurance for engineering education. World-class engineering education, developed with industry partnership, doesn’t just provide workers in the short term for the jobs that industry has. It also attracts further investment that in turn helps the region or country retain its graduates, rather than lose them to emigration.
In nine years, projects led by Lueny Morell, HP’s University Relations director for Latin America; Luis Scarvada from PUC Rio; the accreditation bodies from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.; and by Russ Jones, chair of the Capacity Building Committee of WFEO, grew to involve multiple stakeholders from industry, universities, and both governmental and nongovernmental agencies, including engineering education and accreditation agencies. Dan Marcek, on our team, currently manages this network, which includes the Organization of American States Ministers of Science and Technology; funding bodies such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank; and various organizations that support programs for the innovation of engineering education and the establishment of quality assurance mechanisms in the region.
In late 2006, we decided to invest in capacity building in Africa, leveraging what we’d learned in Latin America. But what had we really learned? All our knowledge was implicit and resided only in the Latin America team. I thus began attending their meetings and picking that team’s brains.
The Living Megacommunity
In fact, what Wayne Johnson, vice president of University Relations at HP; Lueny Morell; and the rest of the team had been doing in Latin America was building a “megacommunity”: a large, ongoing joint initiative among organizations that share a complex problem, the resolution of which defies unilateral solutions and depends instead on collaboration and a mutual goal. The megacommunity grows through informal networks of people with commitments that they act on together to make a difference. Organizational charters, structures, and hierarchies matter much less than people’s commitments. Personal relationships are the sinew, conversation the blood, and informal networks the bones of the communities out of which comprehensive, multiyear, sustainable work arises.