Why is engineering invisible?

Why is engineering invisible and so often taken for granted?  (Updated November 28, 2014)

In the preface of the book I explain some reasons why engineering practice has been invisible for so long. A combination of perceptual barriers has diverted attention from the complex socio-technical processes that dominate practice for engineers. These are mostly needed for collaboration and coordination and even in a small venture, they demand most of an engineer’s personal time and effort. According to the best data we can find from research, both our own and that of many others, this effort requires at least 60% of an engineer’s time, often more.

Scrapers-lrEngineers are also invisible in photos, like this one, winner of the 2011 Engineers Australia photo competition “Images of Engineering” by Mark Zvirblis Abi Group Contractors 2010 (with permission)

Part of the problem is complexity. Recruitment advertisements for engineers repeatedly emphasise communication proficiencies but, in reality, communication skills are only the bottom layers of many proficiencies needed for technical collaboration. In the book, I have set out a structured series of collaboration performances that engineers enact for their work, and why they are so often seem to be invisible and taken for granted.A consistent thread of technical interpretation appears in all of these collaboration performances. Technical ideas and their relative priorities are interpreted differently by the individuals contributing to their implementation. Much of an engineer’s work involves maintaining sufficient alignment of these interpretations to keep the ultimate result sufficiently close to the predictions that justified funding.

While many researchers have attempted to describe these socio-technical complexities, most of their work has appeared in social science publications, out of sight from most engineers and their educators, so they remain mostly invisible for engineers.

Another factor helping to reinforce the invisibility of practice has been the departure of practice experience and knowledge from engineering academies. I have never seen a job advertised in a university engineering school requiring extensive knowledge of practice. Ian Cameron, Carl Reidsema and Roger Hadgraft researched practice experience among Australian engineering academics and confirmed this observation with research data.

Here’s a useful comparison. In medical schools, all of the teaching after the halfway point is performed by people who practice medicine daily. Yet, in an engineering school, you would be lucky to be taught by anyone who has ever practiced engineering outside a research department.

One of the most visible manifestations of the invisibility of practice can be seen in engineering photo competitions. Engineers take the photographs with their cameras, selecting what the camera records. They select the photographs to enter the competitions. Engineers sit on the judging panel, choose the winners and edit the display when the winners are announced.

As an example for this article I have included two winning photos from the 2011 Engineers Australia competition, “Images of Engineering”, which appeared in the August issue of the monthly magazine Engineers Australia (with permission from the photographers). 18 photos appeared in the magazine. 11 did not show any people at all. In the remaining 7 that did, all the faces were obscured: some were turned away from the camera while others were hidden by objects in the photo, like the drivers’ faces in the winning photo above. None of the people in the photographs were engineers.

Engineers have made themselves completely invisible, even in their own photos.

IMG_3854e-lrKenin Eeles, Winslow Group. “Juxtaposition of nature and humans at work. Melbourne housing subdivision.”

Then I came across this engineering video competititon: engflick. The three winners were:

“Engineered by You” by David Hodges, Samuel Rees, Tom Merrett
“The Engineering Process” by Jake Coppinger
“A Better World with Engineers” by Madura Senadeera

If you have time to view these three short movies, all very creative, you will see that engineers are invisible!  In all three of them.

So, while engineered artefacts dominate our living environment, cars, roads, buildings, telecommunications, food, water, artefacts that could never emerge without the contributions of so many engineers, the work of engineers remains invisible. Few people connect these products of engineering with engineers, just as we engineers manage to hide practice as that “random madness” that we say is not “real engineering”.

So when we engineers complain that our work goes unrecognised, we have to acknowledge our own conscious and unconscious complicity. We have disappeared ourselves, we have donned Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.

Thanks to many decades of research by psychologists and social scientists, we now have the intellectual tools to expose and name at least part of the complexity of real engineering practice. The naming is crucial. Without names, even the most prominent features of practice remain invisible, unnoticed. Now that we have names like “technical coordination” and “collaboration performance” we can begin to appreciate this complexity and explain it.

That’s what I have attempted to do in this book.

I hope you will join me on a guided tour of engineering practice: you will need the book for the tour.

As an engineer, you can “book” a place on a tour any day you choose and start removing your cloak of invisibility.


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