Missing the obvious

Sometimes a research result is so obvious that you miss it.  That’s why researchers collaborate: there is less chance of overlooking the obvious.

Bill Williams and I have written about engineering value creation: how most engineers create value even though they don’t necessarily invent anything new or do designs.

And we both managed to miss something obvious.  Engineers create value when they educate others.  In my book, The Making of an Expert Engineer, chapter 8, I wrote about the ways that engineers teach others (and also learn from others, often at the same time).  This teaching and learning activity is more extensive than many engineering students might expect.

Engineers are often said to build things, make cars, planes, phones and so on.  But they don’t.  Other people do, however, with the help and guidance of engineers.  So engineers spend the largest single chunk of their time on technical coordination (chapter 9), informally influencing and leading others.  Across all the engineers we have observed, they spend 25-30% of their time on that: gaining the willing and conscientious collaboration of others who contribute time, effort, knowledge and skills within an agreed time frame.

Why so much time?

In essence, engineers accumulate technical knowledge and understanding and use that to align the actions of all the other people who contribute their performances sufficiently closely with technical intentions that the investors who provide the money will walk away sufficiently satisfied, enough of the time, so they come back and do it all again for something new.  Repeat business in other words.

And that means that engineers spend much of their time explaining why things have to happen a certain way.  And explain this in different English or other dialects so that all the other actors, ranging from investors to contractors to suppliers to government regulators and local communities learn enough to collaborate effectively.

And that’s not all the teaching.

Much of the teaching performed by engineers cannot be attributed to a specific coordination effort.  One of the most obvious examples is teaching younger engineers, helping them learn in the workplace, passing on knowledge and technical insights.  Studies (e.g. Bailey & Barley 2010) have shown that younger engineers need up to an hour a day of one-on-one guidance and teaching in the workplace, and much of that is performed by more experienced engineers.

Now, one of the most interesting findings from our research with Australian firms comes from asking about charge codes for teaching younger engineers.  A simple question “When you are helping to develop the skills of younger engineers in your organization, is there a charge code that you enter for that in your time sheet?”  Almost (but not quite) invariably the answer is “No, I have to do it in my own time, in effect.  It’s just a responsibility that goes with the job, I guess.”

Australian engineering firms, maybe other firms as well, we don’t yet have enough data to be sure, overlook the value of training their own engineers as something that creates value.

Well, we are guilty too.

We overlooked the value created when engineers develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes of others.

We have therefore amended our recent posts and will also have to amend our publications which, fortunately, are still “in press”.


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