It happened again the other day at work. Members of my technical group were discussing the possible movement of people within our organization. We all agreed that we did not want any of our members moved out or any "outsiders" moved in.
After all, we said, we are all "experts" or "leaders in our field." With a few exceptions, "outsiders," while being nice, worthy people, are novices or can't meet our standards. (No one in the meeting could produce a copy of our stan- dards, but that is another story.)
Most of our members had fewer than five years of pr fessional experience, but somehow, we had turned new college graduates into "leaders in their field" injust a few years. if we could package and market our on-the-job training program, we could make a fortune.
Afterward, I reflected on the meeting. I have worked with several technical groups in the past 10 years and have attended (too) many similar meetings. I recalled that the other groups' members referred to some of my current group's "experts" and "leaders in their field" as novices who were not up to their standards.
It seems that each group believes its own people are the best. it is good to have confidence in your people and to promote high self-esteem. What I observed, however, went beyond that. I call the phenomenon technocentrism. I derived the word technocentrism, which means the belief that one's technical group is superior, from the word ethnocentrism, which means the belief that one's ethnic group is superior.
Technocentrism operates much like the law of Not Invented Here. That law lets us reinvent the wheel because it wasn't invented here. However, while it lets us discount things people invented in other places, technocentrism goes one step further. It lets us discount almost everything about almost everyone who doesn't work in our group. Therefore, we can dismiss their inventions, ideas, speeches, papers, clothes, and even software (Windows 95 versus the Macintosh OS versus OS/2).
Of course, technocentrism lets us selectively dismiss or accept anything related to people who dowt work with us. Sometimes people in other groups do and say things worthy of our attention. After all, random processes can produce freak events now and then. We thus must be aware of the rare exceptions to our usual monopoly on good ideas.
Given technocentrism, how do we explain that groups other than ours exist in a world of competition, budget cuts, and downsizing? We say that life is not fair. Some money and market share will go to other groups dispite their members' shortcomings. We just have to live with it.
The causes of technocentrism include misdirected praise by management, immaturity, and low self-esteem. We should praise the people we manage, but we should not tell them they are the best. That implies they are better than everyone else. This technocentric view will be accepted after a while by immature people. In addition, it will be quickly embraced by people with low self-esteem, who argue that if everyone here is an expert, and I am here, then I am an expert; therefore, my self-esteem depends on everyone here being an expert.
The consequences of technocentrism for a group are near-term gain and long-term pain or death. In the near term, technocentric group members are on top of the world, believing that they and their products are the best. In the long term, however, they suffer from inbreeding. Their pride prevents them from accepting outside ideas, so they stagnate and become ineffective.
Remedies for technocentrism include the proper use of praise by management, the proper use of pride by the group, and a healthy dose of humility for everyone. Management should praise group members as good engineers who always do their best and who always strive to do better. We should also recognize that their are plenty of good people in other groups with good ideas and products. We need to stand on their shoulders, not their toes. That attitude, not the attitude fostered by technocentrism, is the key to success.
By the way, I borrrowed the concept of technocentrism from the social sciences, so I should acknowledge the anthropologists and sociologists of the world. However, since they are not engineers, I probably won't. They are nice, worthy people, but they just couldn't make it in our group.
This appeared in The Open Channel column of IEEE's Computer, May 1996.