Learning Engineering Practice Online

Many students and engineers have quickly become accustomed to learning online. When we started LifeBridge in Perth we found that some participants were either offshore or could not attend face to face activities.

Our original aim in LifeBridge is to help young professionals with face-to-face engagement.

Let me explain why face to face engagement is so important.

Online learning and most university courses are great for acquiring what we call explicit knowledge: stuff you can write down, or read from web pages or books. As an engineer you need lots of it: that’s why some of your most valuable resources are text books, web sites like “engineering tool box”, standards, equipment catalogues and application notes, and your own personal library of reference information.

However, most of what you need to know as an engineer cannot be written down. There are several other kinds of knowledge used by engineers: implicit, procedural, tacit, contextual. Learn more about these from my books “Learning Engineering Practice” (Chs 10-12) and “The Making of an Expert Engineer” (Chs 5, 7, 9). All this adds up to capabilities, the ability to know what to do in situations you have never encountered before.

At university, you acquired independence capabilities: the ability to think for yourself, learn what you need by yourself, and write solutions to problems where all the information you needed was either provided, or available from your library resources.

However, engineering practice requires capabilities to work inter-dependently, in close collaboration with other people.


As a graduate, you have vast gaps in your knowledge and you can’t learn it all tonight. Other people around you already have most of the knowledge and capabilities needed. One day you too might acquire their capabilities, but it would take far too long for the tasks you face that need to be completed today, tomorrow, or this month.

So, the most important part of learning to be an engineer is how to get all these people to help you… now!

Also, as an engineer, your ideas and insights are almost always implemented through the hands of other people. A highly capable maintenance engineer told me “no amount of engineering ingenuity, calculations, design, or inventiveness achieves anything … until technicians use their tools in a different way.” And much of that depends on talking with, chatting with, trying out ideas with, and listening to other people.

In other words, technical knowledge critical for engineering success is carried in the minds of the people right across an engineering enterprise. Learning how to collaborate with, and influence other people, is the critical capability that will bring you success as an engineer.

Unfortunately, you almost certainly lost much of your collaboration capabilities because of the way our education systems are structured everwhere.

You can rebuild them, however.

However, particularly for us engineers who feel comfortable working with objects, numbers, predictable systems, and equations, working with other people can seem so challenging.

Also, in the last 30 years or so, our culture has changed, almost imperceptibly, little by little. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by using the communication devices we now carry with us, night and day. Many of us, perhaps you too, feel more comfortable communicating at a distance, with text messages, emails, messenger apps, even voicemail messages, or short video recordings. We imagine that this has greatly extended our communication abilities. Well, yes it has. But reliance on these new forms of communication undermines our ability to collaborate and influence others. We trust people less, and others trust us less.

As you build your capabilities to work with other people face to face, you will probably be amazed how much of a difference it makes.

You can learn to do this.

If you’re interested and you’re not in Perth, send me an email. I will reply and see if we can work out a programme for you in your situation.

If you’re unable to attend a LifeBridge programme in person, you can still learn using your own resources.

If you are already employed you can learn in your workplace, working face to face with other people. Of course, if you are working on your own, for example, in a security job, as a guard, or driving a delivery van, opportunities to interact face to face with other people might be limited.

If you are unemployed, or have very few opportunities for face to face interactions with other people in your job, join a voluntary organisation, and offer to help organise events. There are thousands to choose from, ranging from political associations, to recreational clubs, community service organisations, parents organisations supporting schools, organising a sporting club, anywhere where you need to collaborate with other volunteers. Some will even provide skills training for you.

Next, work your way through my books, particularly “Learning Engineering Practice”. Also work your way through the book “People Skills” by Robert Bolton. In my opinion, this little book is by far the best I have seen on influencing skills, especially for engineers. Both require hard work on your part: they are not books you can read in a day and think you have learned it all.

Keep a diary. Write a short reflective set of notes every day on what you have learned and observed by interacting with other people. Write a longer reflective piece, a couple of paragraphs or more, at least once a week. Refer to your daily notes to do this. And from time to time, look back at what you wrote a month earlier, six months earlier. You may be surprised how quickly you develop your collaboration skills.

From time to time, I give talks which are recorded. If I have a moment I will add links to this page. I post on LinkedIn from time to time as well.

Once you start work as an engineer, work your way through Chapters 9 – 20 in “Learning Engineering Practice”, and get your supervisor to help you complete the Professional Engineering Capability Framework document. Download that with the appendices here.

Good luck. Write to me when you have the time, and let me know what I could do to improve these resources.