Why Hongkongers need multifaceted training for a complex world
A company with technological expertise may not thrive in the absence of leaders with business acumen and people able to communicate its value to potential customers
These days every government talks about innovation as a key driver of economic growth. Much attention has been paid to research and the funding it requires - an area where Hong Kong still has much catching up to do, given that our expenditure on R&D lags behind neighbours Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.
University education is also vital. While the expansion of tertiary education in the past decade should be welcomed, it is time to look into what students are and should be learning.
An approach that exposes students to multiple disciplines, experiences and types of knowledge is needed more than ever. It could determine the success of the rising number of start-ups, given that fewer than 5 per cent survive, according to unofficial statistics.
The Knowledge of Design Conference held last month by the Hong Kong Design Centre underlined the value of multidisciplinary training. Companies featured at the annual event capitalise on far more than technical knowledge.
In the case of one keynote speaker, Tim Stock, founder and managing director of research and strategy consultancy scenarioDNA in New York, his training as an anthropologist is key to both his business and his clients, which include global brands such as Nike, Ikea and Russian Standard Vodka.
Stock said the many cultural layers that exist require seeing things in new ways. That calls for bringing together a lot of disciplines. "Divergent ways of thinking are the only way out of the echo chamber, and on to innovation. Good design is about developing things that integrate seamlessly into people's lives," he said.
To Stock, who led a workshop in culture mapping for retail strategy, the key thing about design is not the object itself but how it is perceived and consumed. "That's what we need to design to," he said. "To reveal potential meaning, a person needs to understand the nuances of culture. Understanding culture in itself is a multidisciplinary pursuit."
There is a practical need for multifaceted training. A company with technological experts may not thrive in the absence of leaders with business acumen. Even blessed with marketing insight, the same company may not last long if it fails to communicate its value to potential customers.
Hong Kong rose to the challenge with the launch of the four-year undergraduate curriculum in 2012, in place of the previous three-year undergraduate education. Students are now exposed to a broad-based general education rather than focusing on a singular discipline.
They can choose from a wider menu of electives; for example, an engineering major can sign up for a translation course if he wishes. The summer holidays mean a host of learning opportunities, be it internship training, service tours or student exchanges to overseas destinations. University life is far more exciting and multifaceted.
To support the changes, Hong Kong institutions are lucky to have resources coming in not just from the government, but increasingly, from industry and philanthropy, although fundraising is not always easy.
It will also help to increase students' awareness of the diverse career options lying ahead. Again, an engineering graduate can consider being a teacher (which, of course, would require postgraduate teacher training), rather than following the traditional route of working on technical projects.
More flexible thinking by employers will provide the backing needed for a real shift towards multidisciplinary pursuits. Only when they become open enough to hire graduates of seemingly unrelated disciplines - say a music major for a management trainee job - will students be encouraged to choose majors they like, with less anxiety about what to do after graduation.