The Fundamental Difference between Industry and Academia

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The Fundamental Difference between Industry and Academia

Postby Dustin Levy » Wed Nov 18, 2015 7:19 am

In industry, the risk of being late is perceived to be greater than the risk of being wrong. In academia, the risk of being wrong is perceived to be greater than the risk of being late.

Let’s consider an example from academia first. If a researcher publishes something that is later determined to be misrepresented, incorrect, or otherwise in error, they may be required to publish a retraction, which will have their name on it for all to see. This personal accountability causes most academic research groups to be extra careful about getting things right. Couple that accountability with the availability of low-cost student and postdoc labor, and academics become less constrained by schedules and budgets than their industry counterparts. Time is cheaper in academia than it is in industry.

One of the major functions of the American Corporation is to limit the personal liabilities of its shareholders. This allows corporate leaders to take risks that they might not otherwise take because investors in failed corporations may lose what they’ve invested, but their personal assets will be protected, excluding cases of gross negligence or unlawful behavior. Risk tolerance often trickles down to middle management as well since a pattern of risky decisions that turn out wrong might get you fired, but many employers will not disclose to others the behind your termination for fear of attracting a defamation lawsuit. Contrast this with the practice of publishing retractions in academic journals and you can see why those in industry will become more free-wheeling.

There’s good reason that the expansion of the American corporate model was followed by the expansion of three-letter government regulatory agencies such as the FDA, DOT, and EPA. Having a competitor get to market before you can be crippling in industry, and the drive to “get there first” can create risks to public health and safety if left unchecked.

What does this mean to academics transitioning into industry? Scientists and engineers should not give up the principles they’ve learned in academia, but they do need to understand and appreciate the factors that promote risk taking among business leaders. Their job is to:

1. Make business leaders aware of risks before they make decisions

2. Once a risky decision is made, use their technical knowledge to lessen the risk as much as possible

3. If risk becomes reality, refrain from saying “I told you so”. Rather, they should work to make sure similar outcomes are avoided in the future.

Finally, should you make your way into a business leadership role, realize that you too will become progressively more risk tolerant and the key to your success will be surrounding yourself with a technical team that excels in the 3 behaviors above.
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Re: The Fundamental Difference between Industry and Academia

Postby Dave Walker » Wed Nov 18, 2015 8:50 pm


Another thoughtful post! And very much on point, I think.

Though corporations are risk-averse, when they are convinced that a project is a good idea they can move resources to it with amazing speed. As you say, in this case it's worse to be late than to be wrong. In my experience being able to work quickly with large amounts of resources is something that takes getting used to when moving from academia to industry.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: The Fundamental Difference between Industry and Academia

Postby D.X. » Thu Nov 19, 2015 3:45 am

Good post -

Just to draw from a "Pharmaceutical" industry (again to be careful to lump all sectors under the bucket of industry) - the legal risks are just one element, linking to that are regulatory risks, Quality risks, overarching safety risks, (quite often we're not even thinkling legal in these situations we're thinking patients), and of course the finanicial risks. We do have our shareholders to satisfy. Some risks, may even carry an upside - because of a risk we've thought about something in a different way, that might present an opporunity. I've seen this quite a few times.

We have a high tolerance of delay and try to avoid being wrong as Dustin noted. We do have risks that Need to be managed in a matter of horus but that's another issue - same behaviors apply very rapid fire with many stakeholders activated and SOP'd checkpoints.

However, we incorpoate delay into our forecasts to just for identified risks, i.e. we build incoporate risk-assessment/monitoring into the plans as any good Program/Project Manager would do.

Regarding behaviors Dustin said - I'll add the following as I'm one of those leaders.

1. Do tell me the risks, but also tell me "what that means" exactly - and in lay-man Terms. Help me understand the technical issue at Hand if you have not spoken to me of it before.

2 Come to me with the risks, but please also propose a mitigation plan to include Solutions to manage that risk. Complete with a feasiblity assessment for each potential mitigating element. I and my Team Needs ot understand what our Options are to include if we do something or nothing - we Need to build that into our own plans/forecast/resource allocation etc. You may not have the complete plan but at least come ready to engage about those elements as we move Forward to getting a mitigation plan.

3. As part of mitigation plan, tell me what you Need. I.e. I Need time. I Need FTEs, I Need Budget, I Need activation from another function, etc.

4. We still make risky decisions - some we may move fast with, but be flexible. Help me and my Team know as much as possible. Remember we are looking at your technical risks (what ever they may be) from many many angles - from regulatory, to safety, to clinicial, to commerical, to finance, drug-supply, manufacture, to PR,etc. etc. it is why we sit in cross-functional Teams. So if you're on the technical side, be flexible and if we move Forward on a decision that maybe risky for your technical expertise and view, Keep us informed with updates.

5. Whereas on the technical side one may not be 100% exposed to the commerical side, that does not mean one can't think about risks commericially. Please think of the broader Business, ask questions if not clear, your question may actually Trigger us thinking a different way.

One behavior I am very intolerant to, especially with those who present risks, those who present them as barriers, ultimately pushing to a No G, without a thorough assessment from thier end. You know the type.

Dont' be that Person. If the risk is complete barrier, a No Go, tell me exactly why. And be ready to answer my next question "did you look at other Options?" or "can this be Managed".

Also on the pharma side, descisions are usally taking in a Cross-functional team; and usually endorsed by your line-supervisor or their functional head. So don't feel too exposed - just be transparent and state your case. There will be hardly any Need to say "i told you so" - as others will hold the accoutability. You are not alone.

So just my two Cents

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Re: The Fundamental Difference between Industry and Academia

Postby Dustin Levy » Tue Nov 24, 2015 8:20 am


Thank you again for adding more context to my comments. I know a previous manager who used to say "bring me solutions, not problems". I understand this view, but I caution others on jumping to solutions too quickly. It's better to bring risks and issues to a group, perhaps with some proposed solutions, but also work collaboratively to arrive at a logical path forward.

Also, we've all been affected by some risky or otherwise bad decisions from our managers and leaders that we haven't agreed with. When all else fails, I encourage people to "jump on board and enjoy the ride". Things may turn out badly, but you'll learn some new things in the process that will benefit you later in your career when you're in the decision making role.

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Re: The Fundamental Difference between Industry and Academia

Postby Dick Woodward » Tue Nov 24, 2015 3:04 pm

Excellent thread. I would second Dustin's comment to the "bring me solutions, not problems" attitude; your boss does not necessarily expect you to have THE solution. They do, however, want to understand that you have thought about potential solutions and come to them with suggestions as to how to proceed. What they do NOT want to hear is "Boss, what do we do?"

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