I posed this question to my students this morning. It was not an easy question for them to answer, and most were hesitant in offering answers: “Innovate?” “Solve problems?” “Satisfy society needs?” “Provide water, sanitation, basic needs?” To some I posed another question: “okay, but what’s the good of solving problems without implementing solutions?” No answer.
It is perverse, perhaps, that these same students had no difficulty telling me why doctors do medicine. “Save lives” “Heal sick people” “Help people live longer and healthier”.
Nor did they have any difficulty telling me why lawyers are valuable: “They get you out of trouble” “Provide justice, human rights”.
Why is it that young engineers find this question so difficult? The answer is simple. We don’t teach them the answers.
That’s not so easy either. The answers are not so easy to find because, I would argue, they have been forgotten. The real value of engineering only became apparent to me when I spent time helping people in the back streets of South Asian megacities like Lahore, and only because good engineering is conspicuously absent. Electricity is usually only on half the time or less, and the water comes out of the pipes every other day or so for an hour or two. Even then it’s almost certainly unsafe to drink.
In the course of writing my book, I found some explanations. Now, with the book finished, I think I can explain it even more clearly than I did in the book itself.
PS (June 2016) I have been researching the philosophical foundations of these ideas and found there is much more to this that one might think. I have started a new series of posts which explore these ideas, step by step. Part of that is explaining what we mean by value creation, and proposing a coherent theory on how engineers create value. The full theory justification will be published in a forthcoming edited book on “The Engineering Business Nexus“. Write if you want a preview. Continue reading
In our research we encountered some frustration among engineers about decisions that affect their work. The frustration often came from a perception that the people making these decisions did not understand engineering issues, and hence made decisions that resulted in less than desirable engineering outcomes. Sometimes this frustration was directed at clients who seemed to make short sighted decisions that resulted in problems that required more money to fix in the longer term. At other times, engineers seemed to blame bad decisions on ‘politics’, or the influence of people with enough power to overturn what the engineers saw as a more logical choice.
In some extreme cases, engineers would say something like “This company is run by f——-g accountants!” (Expletive has been replaced by dashes.)
Many engineers know that part of their role is to prepare a business case for new investment, or proposals with the aim of persuading clients to commission them to take on a new project. Engineers often have to conduct detailed technical analysis for the documents that go to clients, and often are also responsible for forecasting commercial outcomes. Net present value calculations and commercial sensitivity analyses are often part of this work.
It can be disappointing for engineers to put in long hours only to see the results ignored and what seem to be sound proposals passed over for seemingly illogical reasons. Continue reading
How can engineers regain the high respect and status they once enjoyed?
In many countries, engineers have lost the respect with which they were once held. Evidence for this comes from our research interviews with senior company and government representatives who displayed only limited respect for the ability of engineers to deliver valuable outcomes.
Here is a selection of quotes:
“Our engineers delivered nothing: we gave them billions and we still don’t have what they promised.” (ex Prime Minister)
“Our engineers don’t understand the business imperative of this organisation. They simply don’t get it and it frustrates me immensely.” (Company CEO)
“I eliminate as many engineers from my organisation as I can: if I need engineering done I hire outside firms to do it.” (Company CEO)
This question is particularly relevant now in many countries where engineering activity is at a lower level than normal and may engineers are looking for work. This happens at times of low economic growth or recession: it could even be the “new normal” for a while.
It can be a very depressing experience to be looking for engineering work in these circumstances, particularly if you don’t understand how the job market works. However, as an engineer, even a novice engineer with little experience, you are one of the most employable people around. It is easier for you to find a job than for nearly everyone else. Continue reading
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.
Engineers 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. Continue reading
Like so many of the engineers we interviewed for our research, you may think that your job does not really challenge your technical abilities.
This could be because the technical work that you’re involved with seems to be very simple and does not demand the kind of abilities that you were able to demonstrate in your university studies. Another reason could be that the technical aspects are challenging but you have so many other things to do that you don’t get enough time to resolve them properly. All the other parts of your job seem to get in the way.
Well, you’re not alone. Even engineers in full-time research and development make similar remarks.
When you see the research evidence in the book, especially chapter 3, you will find that almost all engineers spend most of their time on collaboration activities, working with other people and communicating with them. That’s normal in engineering.
Engineers tend to think that this is “non-technical” or “administrative” work. Yet, in our research, when we asked engineers whether the non-technical aspects of their work could be delegated to clerical staff or handled by management, almost invariably they told us that this would not be feasible. Although it seems to be non-technical, this work still requires technical knowledge and understanding. Much of it involves monitoring the work of other people like following-up suppliers, contractors, and accounts staff involved in procurement, even following-up on other engineers to make sure that other work will be ready on time.