Tim Procter shares his experience as a graduate engineer developing engineering judgement and his approach to communicating this knowledge to various stakeholders. This article was originally published at Engineering Education Australia.
As a graduate engineer (some years ago) moving from university to the workplace I was surprised to discover just how vast and varied engineering knowledge actually is. After completing an intensive degree and gaining what felt like a good understanding of engineering fundamentals, it came as something of a surprise to realise that becoming expert in just one engineering sub-sub-discipline could truly take a lifetime.
Science fiction legend, Arthur C. Clarke noted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. To the qualified but inexperienced engineer that I was, a senior engineer discussing advanced engineering knowledge appeared quite the same; the outputs were comprehensible, but not their derivation. Such knowledge was generally referred to as demonstrating ‘engineering judgement’.
Engineering judgement is used when making a decision. It involves an engineer weighing up, in their own mind, the pros and cons of the potential courses of action being considered. This process may be formal, intuitive or deliberate or, in most cases, an intricate combination of the three.
As a graduate I regarded this engineering judgement with a sense of awe, as I considered the years of experience my seniors wielded when pronouncing how the engineered world should be. Surely, I thought, one day in the (distant) future my engineering judgement will arrive. And then I too will have the knowledge!
Oddly enough, I found personal development tends not to work this way. My engineering judgement gradually developed with my experience as I dealt with problems of greater complexity. I discovered that I understood the decision required, the options available, and the best course of action, but the act of explaining the decision was often more difficult than simply knowing the answer.
This knowing/telling paradox gives a clue as to the source of my graduate self’s confusion and awe of my senior colleagues’ wisdom. While the best solution may have been found, a problem persists; sometimes this judgement must be explained to a non-technical layperson, including graduate engineers.
Explaining engineering judgement to non-technical persons happens in a range of contexts – financial, managerial, corporate, governmental, legal, and the wider community. It is especially important for these stakeholders to understand the decision-making processes when dealing with safety, the environment, project management, operations and a whole host of other engineering considerations. This means that engineering jargon and equations will often work against the goal of communication.
The most effective approach I have found to communicate engineering judgement is to explain the options considered, their gradual exclusion, and the specific reasons each excluded option was considered unsuitable. It requires a clear explanation of critical success factors and how each option supports or hinders each of these goals. This best reflects the engineering process, where much of the time the ‘best’ option is actually the ‘least worst’ option, given the constraints it must meet and the corresponding trade-offs in time, cost, quality, and efficiency.
I find this process is generally understood by non-technical persons and helps prompt structured and useful questions from listeners: Why was this option not appropriate? How were the specific benefits of this option considered? This provides a good enquiry framework for engineering graduates and others to both understand and develop their own engineering judgement.
It is critical for graduates to develop their engineering judgement and the ability to communicate it. It brings confidence to both the engineer and their stakeholders, as each better understands the others’ needs and decisions. It is, in many ways, the single most important skill I have developed in my career, and something that each day I practise, in both senses of the word.
My advice for graduates is to take any opportunity to do the same. Make your best decisions for the problems you face, and then discuss your judgements with your managers, mentors and teammates. And when more complex engineering problems arise you’ll be able to not only solve them but also explain them. And that’s something that every engineer should be able to do.
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