spend more time talking than doing. Success requires social skills
as much as expertise.
It is astonishing that at the start of the 21st century we still
only have a tiny handful of systematically researched accounts of
engineering practice beyond a few glamorous aspects of design. What
do engineers and technologists really do in their work? How does
engineering really happen?
pattern emerging from our research is that engineering is as much
a social discipline as a technical one. Whether it is writing software
for a mobile phone or planning more efficient maintenance schedules,
engineering work has little intrinsic value until it has passed
through the hands of many other people. Yet this reality seems to
be almost invisible in our current engineering education curricula.
Since 2004, my colleagues and I have interviewed more than 120
engineers—mainly in Australia but also in other countries—and
followed those with field observations and rigorous qualitative
analysis. I noticed engineers doing lots of coordination in which
hard technical knowledge is inextricably bound up with “soft
skills” and understanding of human behavior. It is time-consuming,
and most don’t see it as engineering work. After countless
phone calls chasing up suppliers, contractors, colleagues and clients,
an engineer would often say something like, “Now I can get
down to some real engineering work at last!” Yet this coordination
is essential to get results. Here’s a sample response to what
a typical day or working week involves: “Wednesdays were our
meeting day on site…The rest would be just random madness,
Technical coordination is working with and influencing other people
so they willingly and conscientiously perform some necessary work
to an agreed schedule. It may simply be asking a colleague to search
for data, persuading a client to sign off on design specifications
or chasing up a contractor to supply some component samples. Technical
coordination usually starts by negotiating what has to be done and
when, mostly without any formal authority.
Most of the effort goes into following up, preferably face to face,
to see if the work is turning out as expected and spotting misunderstandings
early enough for corrections to be made. Time constraints will often
force compromises, and choosing where and how to compromise relies
on accurately predicting the social, technical and commercial consequences.
Choosing appropriate follow-up intervals is critical. At the end,
careful checking is needed to make sure no further work or rectification
The big surprise was that technical coordination seems to be the
most prominent aspect of engineering practice. Next came formal
engineering processes like project management, followed by tasks
such as inspection, testing, checking and review. Creative technical
work, design and calculations were fourth, followed by procurement,
business development and personal career development.
My colleagues and I are all “insiders” with extensive
engineering work experience. This makes it easier to comprehend
the language and the invisible currency of engineering: technical
knowledge and understanding. Much of that is tacit, unwritten, passed
on verbally and through practice from one generation of engineers
to another—that magic stuff called “experience.”
This research has been incredibly rewarding for my teaching. Gaining
detailed knowledge of engineering practice through systematic research
provides much greater credibility when explaining the relevance
of course material to students. My students use a reduced version
of our research interviews to help them learn about engineering
Technical coordination does not seem to come naturally to many
students, and poor team project performance may be associated with
this weakness. We have observed similar weaknesses in many areas
of engineering practice. Although project work provides a useful
setting for students to learn effective coordination skills, it
is not sufficient. Formal instruction and performance monitoring
is needed as well.
Soft skills are often taught separately from technical course work.
This research suggests that soft skills have to be combined with
technical expertise for effective coordination.
Professor James Trevelyan, discipline chair for mechatronics
at the University of Western Australia, teaches sustainability and
professional engineering skills. Adapted from July
2007 JEE article Technical
Coordination in Engineering Practice.