Engineering Practice in a Global Configuration: Understanding the Technical and the Social

 

Introduction

 This volume aims to provide the reader with a broad, global cross-section of the empirical research being carried out into engineers at work. The chapters provide pointers to other relevant studies over recent decades – an important aspect, we believe, because this area has only recently begun to coalesce as a field of study and up to now relevant empirical research has tended to be published in a wide variety of academic disciplines.

 The book addresses the following groups of readers:

 • engineering educators,

 • researchers and students with an interest in engineering practice,

 • professional engineers, particularly those interested in research on engineering practice,

 • people who employ, recruit or work with engineers.

 The book is not designed to be read linearly, although it is useful to start with Chapters 1 and 2. A glossary of less common terms appears on page 281.

 

CONTRIBUTIONS IN THIS BOOK

 The opening chapter by Antonio Dias de Figueiredo opens a historical perspective on the ways that engineers and engineering have been portrayed through the eyes of philosophers, historians, writers and researchers over more than 2000 years. This paper sets the stage for the rest of this book, helping us see the research presented in each chapter in the light of historical accounts of engineering. It helps to highlight the present difficulties experienced by engineers when they try to explain to others what engineering is, how it is different from science, and what it is for. The paper explores four threads of these portrayals of engineering in detail: craft, science, society and design, and how these different aspects impinge on contemporary debates on engineering education. There are many references that enable the reader to explore these histories in more detail. The sparseness of our knowledge, at least in English-language media, is an open invitation for historians of technology to dig deeper and enlarge our knowledge.

 James Trevelyan has built on several research studies by himself and his students to argue the need for a theoretical framework for engineering practice. He demonstrates the need by pointing out the loss of practice knowledge in both academic and professional arenas. He proposes that the scientific basis for engineering, currently largely restricted to physics, chemistry, mathematics and related sciences, is in need of revision. He proposes

 

Engineering Practice in a Global Context: Understanding the Technical and the Social

the inclusion of human sciences and other disciplines that now offer informative explanatory insights into the many factors that shape the landscapes of practice; for example, factors that determine the relative ease of implementing different engineering solutions. The physical sciences cannot, by themselves, offer such informative views of the landscapes of practice. He points out some of the challenges that will be encountered along the way, not the least of which may be resistance from traditional academic interests.

 Taking a widely adopted perspective within science, technology and society studies, Matthieu Hubert, Frédéric Kaplan and Dominique Vinck have presented us with two chapters that focus on the evolution of particular technologies. Hubert and Vinck explain how much is heterogeneous in engineering work at various levels: whether it be when the international technology roadmap for semiconductors (ITRS) is defined (which exerts an overarching influence on the micro-world of nanotechnology at the heart of information technology) or inside R&D projects, for instance when engineers are developing a new sensing technology in an attempt to measure the 'naturalness' of materials. Kaplan, also working with Vinck, explores what is going on when engineers are confronted by new challenges; they explore another aspect of information technology, the development of 'digital humanities', in the shape of an electronic book that evolves in quite unexpected ways into a new research tool for traditional humanities scholars. They demonstrate the application of actor network theory (ANT) to construct the technical objects of their studies, the roadmap, the sensor and the digital humanities research tool, as networks of intersecting influences that span nations, disciplines, space and time. We see engineers playing their parts without necessarily understanding the wider context in which their limited personal influence plays a role.

 The evolution of these technological objects reflects these networks that take us beyond the traditional engineer's view of technical rationality. Engineers often express frustration at decisions made in organisations that, they think, are derailed by 'office politics', a term they use to describe any influence that they think is inconsistent with technical rationality. These accounts can help engineers understand and appreciate the complex social dynamics that shape the technical constraints impinging on their technical work – timescale, budget, resources, technology choices and instrumentation.

 In their chapter on design teams, Jim Borgford-Parnell, Katherine Deibel, and Cynthia Atman bring us an analysis of an engineering design meeting, part of a much larger international collaborative study on a common data set. Their diagrams and quantitative approaches will be no doubt come as a welcome relief for many engineering readers from the extended prose in other chapters like this one. They show how different engineers par-

 

Engineering Practice in a Global Context: understanding the Technical and the Social

ticipate in different ways in a design meeting, how the flow of conversation gradually moves from higher level, broader issues of requirements to close-in details of implementation. The value in this chapter lies in creating awareness among engineers of process in meetings and social interactions. Readers can understand ways in which they too can observe events at a higher level and see them in a new light. While the focus of their chapter is on design, there are close parallels with the other chapters that explore the working together theme.

 Robin Adams and Tiago Forin bring an education and learning science perspective to a similar situation, investigating the differences and similarities in the way that people experience cross-disciplinary practice in engineering contexts – what they've come to understand about cross-disciplinary work, how and why they approach this kind of work, and how they see themselves as cross-disciplinary professionals. They studied 22 participants including engineers, biologists, computer scientists, software engineers, electronics engineers, and veterinary scientists. They used phenomenography, an approach in which they sorted the different narratives of their participants into categories that reflect different ways of experiencing cross-disciplinary practice. Some experienced it simply as 'working together'. Others experienced intentional learning to accommodate the perspectives of the other disciplines. Some exercised strategic leadership as they saw opportunities for combining discipline perspectives. The last group found themselves challenging and transforming their own disciplinary practice, for example an engineer who abandoned the familiar conventional built-test-fail process in favour of a new form of analysis-led discovery process. This group reported encounters with deeply embedded social values in what they previously thought was value-free objective science, and transformed their practices into more participatory and socially constructed perspectives. Adams and Forin conclude with suggestions for those who engage in cross-disciplinary work as well as those who seek to enable successful cross-disciplinary projects.

 Working within an organisation science framework, Rachel Itabashi-Campbell and Julia Gluesing have explained how a detailed empirical study of engineering problem-solving in the automotive industry has led them, like others before them¹, to frame problem solving in a social context. They discovered that successful problem solving can be distinguished from unsuccessful attempts by differences in social interaction patterns. Success came from aligning the stakeholders' conceptions of the problem. Working from the narratives of their participants, engineers with extensive experience, Itabashi-Campbell and Gluesing propose the notion of 'ba', a shared experiential space that allows the stakeholders to learn from each other. In this space, participants are able to move outside the 'bounded rationality' that characterises their instinctive reaction to the problem situation, and move toward a shared understanding or 'cognitive synchronicity'.

 

Engineering practice in a Global Context: Understanding the Technical and the Social

 For engineers, a problem that can be solved without bringing other stakeholders on board is a rare event. Many engineers have lamented how they see perfectly viable, elegant technical solutions cast aside, often ascribing this to the limited vision of stakeholders such as accountants. This study provides suggestions that engineers could apply, helping them navigate the complex turbulence of competing stakeholder agendas in real organisations.

 Bill Williams and José Figueiredo have presented results from an extensive mixed methods study of engineers in Portugal, further strengthening evidence for the significance of technical coordination as a prominent aspect of engineering practice. They build on earlier work by James Trevelyan and his colleagues, and have extended Trevelyan's framework of engineering practice. Their chapter opens, appropriately, with John Law's notion of heterogeneous engineering that emerged from his study of Portuguese maritime technologies in the 15th century. They build on the idea of an actor network to develop a model of practice by individual engineers finding workable solutions in a variety of different settings. Through quantitative and qualitative analysis, they have drawn attention to the importance of the firm as a setting for practice, with a focus on issues such as reputation, competitive bidding for work, regulations, codes and standards, and client satisfaction. The network developed at the conclusion of the chapter helps to show how an appreciation for engineering can be built with a much richer understanding of the social landscape in which engineers practice.

 Andrew Chilvers and Sarah Bell have taken an empirical ethnographic approach in their chapter that tells the story of an engineering firm responding to the needs of their architect client, working on behalf of a local council. At the same time, they are attempting to enact the sustainability vision of their firm, a vision that conflicts with the exigencies of meeting the client's requirements within a constrained budget and time span for design. Their study reveals the detailed interplay between these different stakeholders, some separated by commercial interest, others by time and space. We see the complexities of building relationships with clients who have their unique character and personal agendas. In contrast to earlier chapters that, to the reader, are distant from the actual events providing the data, in this chapter we are taken right up close to the actual conversations, both those taking place centre stage, and those on the periphery of the social interactions. This chapter confronts us with the social and technical details that characterise the daily life of engineers.

 James Trevelyan's second chapter is an attempt to compare engineering practice in the first world with the challenges faced by engineers in the third world, on the backstreets of Asian mega-cities. We see engineers faced with the necessity of personally persuading householders to pay their water bills, sometimes with the necessity of parallel technical

 

Engineering Practice in a Global Context: Understanding the Technical and the Social 

intervention, deliberately blocking their sewerage connections to increase persuasive pressure. We see confusion on the manufacturing shop floor, where engineers try to train uneducated day labourers, only to find them replaced with more untrained labourers after just a few months. The pressure of immense disparities in social power and wealth dictates the actions of engineers, no matter how firmly they espouse technical and economic rationalities. By contrasting three different settings, a water supply utility, a metal manufacturing plant, and telecommunications engineering, we can begin to recover an appreciation of the social and economic significance of different engineering practices. South Asia presents us with an environment in which contemporary water engineering practice imposes a daily struggle for the minimal safe drinking water needed for survival, accounting for more than 10% of a society's economy. However, the unexpected success of telecommunications engineering stands as a beacon of hope, raising questions on the differences in engineering practices between different settings, and their influence on economic prosperity, health and welfare. The article concludes that engineering practice issues provide at least a part of the explanation for poverty that endures, despite improvements in economics, governance and education.

 Mathematics forms the foundation for university studies in engineering and most engineering science is formed on a scaffold constructed in the languages of mathematics. Eileen Goold, working with Frank Devitt, has described a study of the ways that practicing engineers apply the mathematics that framed their formal education. She explains how tacit understandings of mathematical ideas underpin thinking by engineers in the workplace. She has also managed to describe the diversity of ways in which mathematical thinking finds its way into engineering practice, ranging from simple applications of secondary school mathematics to complex computer modelling developed on a foundation of advanced mathematical analysis techniques. Presenting both quantitative and qualitative findings, she has provided us with a much clearer understanding about the ways that mathematical thinking supports engineering practice, such as enabling engineers to justify conclusions using mathematics, taking into account missing and uncertain information. While the study was performed in Ireland, the results seem to be widely generalizable, and invite further studies in different countries and engineering disciplines to strengthen and elaborate the findings.

 Donna Rooney and her colleagues have provided insight into workplace learning in civil and construction engineering through a 'practice' lens. They review theoretical contributions that help us conceive workplace learning as something richer than the conventional notion of attending formal courses. Rather than learning as being something that an individual achieves through, for example, studying books, Rooney explains how we can conceive of learning that results when engineers work together on a project with multidisciplinary

 

Engineering Practice in a Global Context: Understanding the Technical and the Social

stakeholders. In other words, they present a view of practice that is learning: learning occurs through the participation in engineering practice in a social context. Knowledge, often new knowledge, is constructed between participants and exists as a distributed network of different understandings. The chapter shows how recent changes in how we perceive practice and learning have influenced the development of these new perspectives on practice. A site walk by engineers provides a real life setting through which the chapter illustrates practice learning and knowledge construction. The authors suggest that these perspectives could open up new and richer ways to recognise and foster workplace learning by engineers, and help young engineers better manage their transition from formal education measured by individual grades to a 'learning practice'.

 Each of these papers provides different insights into engineering practice, some with a broad canvas that presents a high level perspective, some with close-up details that reveal practices of individual engineers. Each article emphasises different aspects of the social, technical, and behavioural aspects of practice, helping to expose some of the knowledge of practice that has remained hidden for too long. Each provides informative reading for future students studying engineering practice, and useful material for future writers who will build on this work to develop texts to provide accessible learning materials for young engineers.

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¹ Korte et al., "Early Engineering Work Experiences," 2008. Jonassen et al., "Everyday Problem Solving in Engineering," 2006.