Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Preparing a Government Leader for the Hard Realities of Business and Engineering

By Eric Smalley
 
Azamat Abdymomunov
Photo by
Kathy Tarantola Photography
With a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government under his belt, SDM Fellow Azamat Abdymomunov rose through the ranks of the Kazakh government to become an adviser to the prime minister in 2008. His accomplishments include creating a government-owned media holding company with multi-millions in assets, playing an instrumental role in developing the National Program for Science and Technology, and halving the price the people of Kazakhstan pay for Internet access.

So what's a guy like that doing going back to school? And having led the Center for System Research in the country's presidential administration, what's he doing at SDM?

The short answer is he's expanding his knowledge of engineering and preparing for the business world. "I thought that SDM could give me a background in understanding hard systems, engineering systems per se -- systems in aerospace, the energy sector -- systems that you can touch and feel and that have to operate according to physical rules in addition to social and political rules," said Abdymomunov, who entered the program in January 2010 and will graduate on June 3 with an MS in engineering and management.

Most of his experience in the Kazakh government involved soft systems: organizations, policies, and security systems. His focus was on education and related policies, including higher education, professional education, and human resources. "When you talk about any nation, I think the three most important components are quality of people, quality of infrastructure, and rule of law," he said. "And I've been dealing more with the quality of people."

A people's mobility, ability to deliver goods and services, and access to affordable energy are limited by infrastructure quality, no matter how educated and trained the population is, said Abdymomunov. And many infrastructures are in decline, he said. "We see this in numerous parts of the world, even in the US."

At the same time, the pace of information exchange has increased so much that people's expectations are often out of sync with their physical surroundings, said Abdymomunov. "We expect things that we order online to be delivered in two days without thinking that companies are using much of the infrastructure that was built 50 years ago." He explains that although rapid changes in societies may offer new, efficient, and fast technological improvements, such as new software for power management or highway traffic management, unless significant investments are made in the maintenance and modernization of physical infrastructure, such improvements can stretch the existing rigid critical infrastructure to its limits, with devastating consequences.

SDM is preparing Abdymomunov to transition from government to business. Ultimately he'd like to advise corporations. "The public today has some degree of awareness of environmental changes that are taking place around us. I believe that a similar approach could be used in increasing awareness about the sustainability of critical infrastructure. By critical infrastructure I mean infrastructure such as electrical power systems, railroads, public utilities, highways etc. that allows society to function safely and effectively for the benefit of its members," he explained.

Abdymomunov has gained some notoriety at SDM with a blog where he enumerates the principles of systems thinking as taught in his various classes. He's up to his 44th principle. "I was not the first to create a blog among SDM students," he said. "I just made a habit of collecting principles, which has grown into a blog that recorded my life at MIT. I blogged about different lectures and events on campus, while my principles journal has become a reference point for my fellow students. The next step, naturally, was to write about my research. Now my finished thesis is posted on my blog. In sum, recording principles was just an initial step."

Abdymomunov said his SDM education has given him a cogent understanding of systems. He sums up systems thinking with a metaphor that's appropriate for someone who grew up hiking in the mountains: "With systems thinking you are standing outside of a specific timeline and you are able to see a terrain of factors and events," he said.

"It is the behavior of different systems that forces us to think about what happened in the past and what may happen in the future," said Abdymomunov. By doing so, "we can fully understand what's happening right now."

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