Discriminating indiscriminately...

Friday, 22 February 2008

Geeks and schmoozers

Since I've relatively recently transitioned from an engineering-focused career into a product management role, I'm interested in the interface between purely technical skills -- such as those excelled in by "geeks" -- and communications skills -- yes, that's what schmoozers do.

This article in the FT ("CDO buffs who schmooze could resolve a financial mess") shows that the distinction between communicators and technicians is a tension that exists in other thought-based industries too. I've been working on my schmoozing skills a lot: if anything, a product manager has to do loads of schmoozing since nobody actually reports to them, and therefore to get any work done, coercion of engineers (or financial product designers) is not an option. Some other product managers I have worked with have not got the technical background but are great communicators, and have to work hard to understand the technical nature of a problem in order to understand how to make a decision.

Which is more effective, a geek who studies communication skills to transmit their message to a wider audience, or a schmoozer who somehow picks up enough understanding of a domain to not only gain the respect of the local geeks, but also can make better decisions than them?

In my experience I've seen more of the former than the latter. A schmoozer who knows how to use geeks is common enough, but I haven't seen many examples of a person with a predominantly communication-oriented mind manage to pick up an easy facility with abstract concepts and models. Good MBA courses are supposed to be able to take a marketing grad and churn out an investment banker, but I'm a little sceptical of this (although I would love to have my scepticism proven wrong!).

Of course, all this is a simplistic view of what Simon Baron-Cohen has been working on: the tendency for a brain to be systematising or empathising (EQ SQ theory). Whilst he noted that there are statistical tendencies for men to be more systematising and women to be more empathising (something James Watson has been slated for supporting, judge him for yourself), it seems to me that many men tend to be heavy empathisers ("I just never understood math") and plenty of women are strong systematisers (Hillary Clinton springs to mind).

Will there be a simple way to understand and identify why this is in the future? Presumably brain wiring is a phenotype and the underlying genetics can be determined one day; will optimum training techniques for those with a perceived deficit in one quotient be developed? I think so.

7 comments:

mattsm8 said...

Great intro, but where is the meat of the article? Would love to get more details!

Mark said...

Try the link in the main article again, it should work now -- had to remove a query parameter. If all else fails, sign up to FT.com for a free trial!

mattsm8 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mattsm8 said...

Similar idea: http://tinyurl.com/j7pk3

Mark said...

Nice article! I especially like this comment:

"...in the business world, marketers don't read up on financial accounting, accountants don't know about strategic analysis and the people in human resources often can't define basic economic concepts. That's a problem."

Does this mean that everyone needs to have a degree of systematising ability, in Baron-Cohen's model?

Walter said...

Yeah, but what does Baron-Cohen's cousin have to say?

Mark said...

Booyakasha, if memory serves.