My title is unashamedly borrowed from Richard Plepler, CEO of the premium US cable network, HBO. He was quoted in an interview reported in the Financial Times on January 11th, 2015 [Lunch with the FT by Matthew Garrahan]. It was said in the context of discussing how a company can encourage creativity. I like it because it sums up my own approach to nurturing an environment in which high-quality innovative research can flourish. The role of the leader is to establish and maintain that environment in which everyone must feel able to express their opinions and then once the decision is made be prepared to unite in achieving the goal. This requires a level of transparency that many leaders find hard to implement and ability to listen to dissenting views that most leaders find difficult or impossible to tolerate. Good leaders create a culture in which people feel safe expressing their views. To quote Richard Plepler again “Someone once said to me, ‘You made the room safe to talk.’ And I said. ‘If you want to win, what other way is there to be?'”.
Engineering is a creative profession in which we need to worry more about culture and less about strategy. Of course, bringing about culture change is much harder than writing a new strategy!
Engineering turnover in the UK was £1.1 trillion (for the year ending March 2012) which was 24.5% of UK turnover. So clearly engineering is big and important to the economy of industrialised countries. But what it is? That’s a harder question to answer! In 2013 almost two-thirds of the public could cite the engineering development of the last 50 years that has had the greatest impact on them – that compares with slightly more than one-third in 2010 so more people are beginning to recognise engineering when they see it. Can you cite the engineering development that has had the greatest impact on you? If so, post a comment (use the ‘Leave a reply’ box at the bottom of the page).
What is Engineering? As well as being the title of this post it is also a website that attempts to answer the question. You will find the classical answers there and elsewhere, i.e. that engineering is about taking the resources able in nature and converting them into products (e.g. buildings, computers, medical devices and planes) and services (e.g. water, electricity and communications) for society. Engineers are problem-solvers who communicate and organise the implementation of solution which might be how to create a zero emission car or a carbon-neutral public building. The best engineers look for elegant solutions so I rather like the no.2 definition that you get when you Google the question, i.e. ‘the action of working artfully to bring something about’.
Yesterday, I listened to an interesting talk by Dr Liang-Gee Chen, President of the National Applied Research Laboratories of Taiwan at the UK-Taiwan Academic-Industry & Technology Transfer Collaboration Forum organised by the British Council. He presented some statistics from the Kaufmann Foundation [http://www.kauffman.org/research-and-policy/business-dynamics-statistics.aspx], which demonstrated that nearly all new jobs in the USA are generated by new companies. When you combine this with my conclusion in my posting on ‘Population crunch’, that we need a higher level of innovation in engineering, then we need to review the education programmes provided for our engineers to ensure that they include innovation and entrepreneurship. These need to be integrated in engineering education programmes [see Handscombe et al, 2009]. We seem to have lost the plot in the UK and retreated to teaching engineering science, design and management orientated towards the employers with the loudest voice, i.e. multi-nationals, who are not likely to be the source of innovation jobs that will pull us out of the global recession.
Handscombe, R.D., Rodriguez-Falcon, E., Patterson, E.A., 2009, ‘Embedding enterprise in engineering’, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, 37(4):263-274.