Back to School

Columns From: 8/22/2012 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

Consider what you can do to learn something new, something different, something relevant—or even something irrelevant (you never know where good ideas will come from).

Given that it is September and vacations are behind us, it is a good time to buckle down and do some studying.

“Wait!” you might be thinking. “School is long behind me. No more teachers, no more books and all that. What do you mean, ‘study’?”

Well, it’s simply like this. Anyone who doesn’t think that constant upgrading of one’s know-how and knowledge is essential is someone who is likely to find her- or himself left way, way behind. The level of global competition is becoming incredibly amped up. While things were tough a few years ago—and they were tough—what we’re facing now is no less demanding, even though there is not necessarily as evident a crisis as was the case during the Great Recession. But just because you can’t necessarily see it in the headlines doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Look at it this way: People across the planet are interested in increasing their standards of living, and are working hard to do it. I’m not just talking about people who are willing to work in factories for wages that many in the developed world would consider too low to be reasonable, but those who are working in design studios, research facilities, engineering centers, and so on in China and India and the like, people who have a work ethic that is not colored by a certain sense of entitlement.

Last month you probably watched some of the Olympic Games and saw the women and men from countries around the world performing at levels that the rest of us can only marvel at. Realize that there are people who are working that hard in the auto industry, as well. No, not all of them are working at Olympic levels, but a considerable number of them are working with an uncharacteristic zeal because they understand what’s at stake for them personally and professionally. Think back to the aforementioned recession and to those who you know who lost their jobs. How many of them were people who were at the top of their games vs. how many of them were doing a good, but not necessarily great, job?

Want to compete? The choice is yours.

Consider your own buying habits nowadays. Chances are, one of the consequences of the economic downturn is that you’ve become more discerning in what you pay for than you might have been just a few years ago. You are looking for features and functions; you are looking for quality of execution. What’s more, you want all this at a price point that is about value. This may be when you buy a phone. When you buy a major appliance. When you buy a car.

What you take for granted today is something that was unthinkable a few years ago.

So here’s a question: If you agree that the new normal in terms of products is something entirely advanced compared to the acceptable of just a few years back, then how do you think that you’re going to be able to design, engineer or make these advanced products without learning things that you hadn’t known before?

One of the problems, of course, is that learning—and while this could mean taking an organized course, it could simply mean a course of independent learning—takes time, and all of us are probably more pressed for that precious commodity than we had been before (again, a consequence of the aforementioned economic downturn). Isn’t it a whole lot more appealing to kick back and relax when we have a chance to step back from our occupations? That question answers itself. But it brings me back to those Olympians. You know they didn’t get there by relaxing. And it brings us back to the global competitors within this industry: Do you think that any company—OEM or supplier—is going to be continually successful by doing the same thing that they’ve always done? Sure, they may be really good at doing it, but when the environment is one that has change as it’s constant, doing that same thing is woefully insufficient.

So it is September. Time for going back to school, if not literally, then at least figuratively. Or intellectually. Consider what you can do to learn something new, something different, something relevant—or even something irrelevant (you never know where good ideas will come from).