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Around the World in 24 Hours

Whether around-the-clock engineering becomes the next big thing or an unworkable headache, it holds important lessons for educators

By Ray Bert

Big Ben strikes 5, and a team of engineers in London Illustration by Robert L. Princesaves the latest files on a major design project and heads home to their flats. At about that time, a second team is pouring its first cups of coffee in rainy Seattle, eight time zones behind, and setting to work where the Brits left off. At the end of their eight-hour day, the Americans flip the proverbial baton over the Great Wall to a Beijing team, who will later complete the 24-hour cycle by giving way to the London team arriving for breakfast.

Sound more like a relay race than a sensible way to do business? Only time will tell.

Dubbed 24-hour global engineering, this boldest of schedule-shortening brainstorms, done properly, could produce staggering reductions in project lead times-potentially giving firms a huge advantage in the race to bring products to market and to finish contracts for impatient clients.

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Same Shifts, Different Day

In 1923, under pressure from the U.S. government, the U.S. Steel Corporation adopted an eight-hour workday for its employees-a landmark precedent that persists in the United States to this day. The switch to a shorter day drove many industries to adopt a shift system to get more work done during each 24-hour period.

More than seven decades later, technological firms face heavy pressure from increased consumer expectations and intense global competition. Because a key part of this pressure involves ever-shorter design cycle times and contract lengths, some firms are eyeing a leap to a new kind of shift system-one that has nothing to do with blue-collar workers on factory floors. Technology may soon make possible what high demand for technical talent has never allowed: engineers toiling literally around the clock, day after day, to get projects done in record time.

But engineers need not worry about gulping Starbucks triple lattes to survive graveyard duty or about when they're going to see their kids, because the fellow employees who will pick up a job where they leave off won't be in the next cube, they'll be on the next continent.

Few, if any, companies have the sprawling international presence and infrastructure to truly attempt to herd a project around the globe and around the clock, chasing the sun. At least not yet. But project Web sites-the technological linchpins for implementing such a system-are already beginning to revolutionize many of an engineer's daily activities. As companies increasingly use them to facilitate communication with clients and co-workers, execute engineering change orders and blueprint alterations, and update and manage project files-and as the technology behind the sites becomes more robust-project Web sites look more and more like an engine capable of driving a non-stop, global engineering workforce.

What would be the impact on engineering education if 24-hour global engineering became as de rigueur for engineering firms as total quality management or concurrent engineering have been in the past? What would educators need to do differently to prepare students for the new business reality? Surprisingly, the answer may be "not much."

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Communication, Cooperation, and Cultures

Though firms would have to radically change the way they handle day-to-day operations in such an environment, Illustration by Robert L. Princethe skills and attitudes that employees would need to adapt are already being cultivated at engineering schools across the country. The globalization of engineering practice and education has been the prime mover for changes in what an engineer is expected to be and to know, resulting in a barrage of demands on engineering schools.

The focus on nontechnical skills has also been fueled by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's Engineering Criteria 2000, the explosion of the Web, and industry demands for technically gifted engineers who are also strong communicators and good team players. Universities are emphasizing communications skills and Internet familiarity, a global sensibility, and interpersonal acumen as never before.

Expertise in these so-called soft skills, in addition to technical prowess, is worth gold to employers in general. It will be even more valuable in the future if companies begin to conduct a single project, at three times the speed, on three continents at once.

"If we work asynchronously, there will be no opportunity to ask what was meant by an ambiguous statement," explains Lyle Feisel, engineering dean at SUNY-Binghamton and ASEE's most immediate past president. "Engineers would have to be accurate and clear to a degree not now required." Feisel, who works extensively on international education issues, also notes that regularly working closely with teams oceans apart will put a premium on awareness of cultural differences.

Karl Smith, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, echoes the need for redoubled emphasis on teams and communications. Smith adds that 24-hour global engineering "is already occurring [in some measure] in such areas as software development," which could serve as case studies to refine many of the logistical aspects of a potentially tricky system.

But identifying the necessary skills and examining previous successes and failures is only part of the equation. Educators want to know how to teach students what they need to know, and Richard Felder, a chemical engineering professor at North Carolina State University and a founder of the National Effective Teaching Institute, has an answer. "The best way to teach interpersonal and communication skills is through structured cooperative learning," Felder says.

In this type of learning, small groups of students work together to solve specific problems or talk about concepts, ideally to enhance learning by engaging students in the process and with one another. Teamwork experience is especially valuable given the pervasiveness of project teams in industry today, and would be a critical pillar holding 24-hour global engineering together.

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Obstacles and Opportunities

For all that industry (and, ultimately, consumers and other customers of engineering firms) would gain from the 24-hour system, as with any technology advance it seems equally plausible that something could be lost.

Feisel sounds the cautionary note: "I have long suspected that the process of engineering is itself modified by the increasing level of asynchronicity," he says. If groups working on common problems are forever separated by thousands of miles, and interact only through somewhat depersonalized forms of communication, "What happens to the process of trade-off that takes place around the conference table, or of shared discovery in the lab?" he asks.

But Feisel is hardly all gloom and doom about this latest potential step in the continuing march of technology, which he sees as mirroring changes in educational theory. "Many [educators] maintain that most learning is asynchronous, anyway," he says. At a university, this means that most learning takes place not in lecture, but later, when the student is able to reflect, to interpret, to integrate, to synthesize, he says. Asynchronous learning in all its forms-project work, distance learning, Web-based instruction-"has enormous potential for us all," Feisel says.

Seen in this light, an asynchronous work environment makes a great deal of sense, and those same dynamics could evince themselves in a 24-hour engineering approach by allowing more time for the kind of back-of-the-envelope, out-of-nowhere solutions common in technical fields. The Beijing team could, for example, get London working on "critical path" portions of the project, ensuring that the job will remain on schedule while leaving their minds free to puzzle out a less significant, but troubling quandary that could otherwise derail the effort later on.

If such an asynchronous environment is truly a perfect way to tackle complex, unknown problems, then perhaps the question is not, "when will education catch up with an industry trend?" Perhaps the question should be, "How long before firms can put together systems that take full advantage of the 24-7 way that engineers' minds work?"

Whatever happens, however, it seems clear that engineering schools are moving in the right direction in preparing their graduates for the ever-changing world of industry. Around-the-clock engineering could be the norm in 20 years, it could have gone the way of the early 20th century sweatshop, or it may never have been a factor at all. For educators, the key is not teaching to a particular industry trend, but preparing students for whatever might be thrown at them.

And, Felder notes, "Regardless of [24-hour global engineering], we should be helping students learn to function as a team. Those skills are as applicable in a virtual environment as they are in person."

Ray Bert is associate editor of PRISM.



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