Friday, September 4, 2009

Science vs. Business

Hard science is the realm of facts and principles and axioms. It is the home of complex fields such as physics and chemistry and it houses constructs like Newton's Laws of motion, Planck's constant, and Avagadro's number.

Soft science describes fields such as psychiatry and sociology where the "facts" are a shade more ambiguous than "hard scientists" will accept as absolute. In these fields, there are still a lot of theories that are somewhere along the path between hypothesis and proven fact.

There are also vast pools of human activity in fields that draw upon science but are not, in and of themselves, scientific. I make a living in one of those fields; we call it business.

I know there is an academic field known as the Science of Management where one can study topics such as marketing theory and strategic resource management. You can make a case but let's just agree that business lies far away from physics on the continuum of science.

There is a general perception that participating in the field of "hard science" requires deep intellect while participation at the other end of the spectrum requires mere common sense. I notice this when working with scientists who, despite no business experience or track record of success, believe that their opinions about commercial strategy are sound.

I think this is due to the lack of barriers. The average man on the street cannot insert himself into a debate about Bernoulli's principle because he lacks a basic understanding of fluid dynamics and is not conversant in the jargon of the physicist. However, the average electrical engineer can easily voice an opinion about an advertising campaign or a price change because there are no barriers preventing the input. Accessibility to the topic gives rise to an impression that the subject matter is simple and easy to command.

I think hard science requires a strong intellect applied deeply and narrowly to a topic and I think businss requires an equally strong intellect applied broadly and comprehensively, although less deeply, over many fields. Importantly, it is due to the lack of hard facts and known quantities that the terrain of business is more difficult to navigate. When nothing is known and many parts are moving, experience and intuition must be combined with objective observation and analysis to discern a successful course of action.

Consider this, in the hard sciences, there is often an answer that is definitively right. For example, thirty-seven 1/2 inch bolts may be required to support 10.61 tons of traffic on a particular bridge. Such a conclusion could be calculated and confirmed using known facts and proven properties.

In business, there is no absolute right and wrong; there is only relative better and worse. A good strategy is good but not as good as a better strategy. Even with hindsight, we can know only if decisions led to goal achievement but we never know if the goals were set properly. Business is a murkier world which is, in many ways, more difficult to survive than science.

We all find our niche and you may not have what it takes to earn a living in science. But if the scientist next door thinks he could sell shoes as well as you, he is probably fooling himself as well.


  1. this reminds me of a funny encounter i had working orientation for ohio university a few weeks back. I was hanging by the "change your major here" table when a dad walked up:

    Dad: (playfully) "Is this where I can change my son's major to something USEFUL?! Like, business?!"

    Me: "Well, he'd have to be the one to change it, but yes... he can do that here. What is his major now?" [at this point I was thinking the son was something relatively horizonless, like dance or some other art]

    Dad: "Engineering!"

    Me: (laughing) "Well, who do you think built this building?" (a new multi-million dollar student center)

    The conversation continued a little and was always light. The student did not end up switching.

    I thought it was a funny exchange because if there are two things the world will always need it is engineers and businessmen. I can see the conflict in a young students mind: "I can build it but can't sell it!" or "I can sell it but can't build it!"

  2. Anonymous9/07/2009

    Who do you think built this building??

    Hmmmmmm.........I think some Harley T-shirt wearing, tatooed, tobacco chewing, red-neck iron worker built it bitching about the Engineer who designed it the whole time.

  3. Most likely. Ohio University is in the heart of Appalachia. (cue banjo..... NOW!)