Sustain knowledge centers to build talent

02-03-2010

A recent visit to Saudi Arabia underscored again for me that the wise use of human talent is no less a priority around the world than it is in mid-Michigan.

The question that confronts us all is, how will we do it? How can we provide adequate educational opportunities to all citizens and develop the skills necessary to thrive in the global 21st-century knowledge economy?

I was in the Middle East January 24 to participate in the third annual session of the Global Competitiveness Forum (GCF) in Riyadh, which was built around the theme of sustainable competitiveness. Computer company CEO Michael Dell and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were among the speakers at the three-day event.

While in Saudi Arabia, I also was able to participate in a celebration of our newly established relationship with the AlMajdouie Group, a family-owned, multipurpose supply chain freight forwarding and logistics company located in Dammam. The visit supported work being done by Executive Development Programs group and the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management in the Broad College of Business.

The Broad School has developed a strategy to increase its global nondegree executive education activities, including various opportunities in the Middle East designed to enhance and leverage the physical presence of MSU Dubai. The Broad School began discussions with the AlMajdouie Group in June 2009, leading to the creation of the Middle East Logistics Institute. Known as MELI, it is a first-of-its-kind initiative to bring world-class supply chain and logistics knowledge and education to the region.

The Broad School will be primarily responsible for the design, development, and delivery of four levels of nondegree executive education programs targeted at young, entry-level Saudis; advancing supervisors; managers; and, finally, leaders. Our hosts were very gracious and provided a wonderful celebration of this important initiative for both of our organizations.

Appropriately, the GCF discussion panel on which I participated in Riyadh focused on building and sustaining talent. That’s a continuing issue for organizations of all sorts and, of course, a particular strength of research universities such as Michigan State.

You could have placed my multinational panel at similar conferences I’ve participated in around this country and the discussion would be little changed. The need to nurture human talent is a recurring theme, whether it’s the National Summit in Detroit, a Council on Competitiveness gathering in Washington, D.C., or this one in Saudi Arabia.

As always, I took the opportunity to talk about how developing human potential with broad access to world-class education—and its transformative effect on societies—is at the heart of Michigan State’s own mission. But while today it feels like a world-class higher educational system is taken for granted in this country, Saudi Arabia, for one, is investing heavily in developing its own. And Saudi Arabia and others are using our playbook.

My panel provided a forum for questions relating to gender disparities in that region, a touchstone that unleashed some of the tension generated by the meeting of Western and Middle Eastern values at the event. Although the genders often are separated even physically in those societies, I met many accomplished women from the region and was reminded that equality and glass ceilings remain common topics at gatherings of women in faculty and executive positions in our own country. We all still have a ways to go, and we need to be cautious when tempted to overlay our own cultural norms onto other societies.

Learning to define societal progress from a culturally informed standpoint as well as one focused on global competitiveness is an important aspect of our World Grant Ideal at Michigan State. From our long-running health and agriculture work in Africa to our decision to conduct rice research in China a generation ago, we strive to work with our partners where they live, on the terms they live with, and with respect for their aspirations to cocreate solutions and make a difference in people’s lives.

The success of most competitive organizations and businesses relies on their people’s talent and passion, and without a plan to sustain human capital development, those organizations will never survive. That was the starting point for our own discussion at the Global Competitiveness Forum.

And so it is, too, for societies and nations.

Knowledge societies require knowledge centers––places of continuous discovery and innovation that not only engage in knowledge discovery but in the transmission of that knowledge through education and application. Sustained advantage in this increasingly competitive and flat world, I’m convinced, only comes through sustained innovation and learning.

The research university is essential to sustainable development for any 21st-century society that seeks to compete effectively in a global environment. The continuous development of new ideas and applications and the continuous education and reeducation of society’s human capital also are prerequisites to success—whether you’re in the Middle East or our own Midwest.

We need to focus on constant learning because change is the only certainty, and moreover, the half-life of useful knowledge in almost all professions and jobs is dramatically shrinking. Learning must be a lifelong pursuit if you want to keep up or pull ahead. Our 21st-century knowledge center universities need to respond not only with continuous innovation but with opportunities for learning that span a lifetime. And we need to continue to create knowledge through scholarship and research—that’s a major value add and our own competitive edge.

I remain concerned about basic access to higher education in this country. We can’t look at it as merely a way for individuals to get ahead but also as a pillar of economic and, indeed, national security—a notion that harkens back to our land-grant heritage. The scale of investment required to compete in research and teaching in a knowledge society cannot be sustained by financing models that see education only as a private good.

It’s apparent that other countries are grasping this concept just as we seem to be forgetting it.

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