Monday, June 28, 2010

The Engineer as Ethnographer

The engineer as designer has three important tools. These three tools are especially important in a world that substantially favors reliability over validity, consistency over innovation. The engineer as designer and symbol of design thinking lives to advance knowledge - - it is a core drive, a source of pride and happiness. The design thinker seeks a balance to the issues of validity and reliability - - the designer understands that one without the other does not make a sustainably advantaged enterprise.

The first tool of the engineer as design thinker is observation. Observation that is deep, careful, and open-minded. They see the grays in a black and white world - - the new insights that will enable them to push knowledge forward. Their sense of sight and hearing is greater than most - - they must be able to see things that others don’t with an optimal combination of careful watching and listening. The engineer as anthropologist skilled in ethnography - - the ability to walk into a new society and culture and listen, see, and learn. Where learning is deep and user-centered with the goal to understand your customers, thinking carefully about the kind of data you want and how best to get it.

The second tool is imagination. One would assume this is a natural ingredient in the engineering recipe. Part of a natural ability versus something in the toolbox. In many engineers, imagination is underdeveloped. Engineers that favor deductive and inductive logic versus the world of imaginative abductive reasoning. These are engineers comfortable with the experience, through observation, of embracing data that is neither consistent with nor explained by the current models. When faced with that data, the abductive design thinkers must make an inference to an explanation. It is an inference and testing loop - - it is a guess that constitutes the best explanation one can devise given the data, which is insufficient to yield a statistically significant finding.

The third tool is configuration - - observation and imagination must be translated into an activity system that will produce the business outcome. There needs to be a meaningful payoff. The design thinkers and managers need to ask how insight and new solutions fit into the larger schemed of a business enterprise.

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