Saturday, June 19, 2010

Enigmatic Problems

The face of engineering is associated with complex problems. The last two months of media coverage and political debate on the gulf oil spill reinforces this idea. Our list of complex problems continues to grow with an increasing level of complexity. The language of engineering becomes marked with words such as uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, change, surprise, choice, subtlety, indeterminacy, and uniqueness.

Two other words become important - - ends and means. One can argue that the gulf spill disaster and host of other recent disasters have their foundation in these two words. Drilling in 5,000 of seawater is an example of a enigmatic problem - - as the definitions of "ends" (where to go) and "means" (how to get there) become more ambiguous and the number of variables increases, the difficulty of solving such problems intensifies dramatically.

Engineering needs to be very careful with enigmatic problems. For many such problems, the ends and the means are not only unclear, they are also interdependent. As efforts to solve them proceed, the ends evolve as means are generated. Likewise, as means unfold, new ends become possible which, in turn, may demand new means. Solving our global sustainability problems is not a simple problem - - we don't know where we have to go and we don't know how to get there. Sustainability is a enigmatic problem - - ambiguous and multi-variable "ends" with linked interdependence to the "means."

Chuck Yeager, of The Right Stuff fame, was recently quoted in the New York Times when ask about the Deepwater Horizon accident - - "He said it was important to remember the human element even when dealing with sophisticated systems." Problems with interdependent ends and means issues and technology/human element issues require engineering to engage in both qualitative and quantitative thinking. Historically engineering has had a difficult time bridging the divide between these two modes of thinking. We are trained quantitative thinkers - - numerical values, schedules, cash flows, profit - - we are skilled at the formulas of capitalism.

Qualitative thinking is very different. The tone is one of abstraction, perception, relationships, and, interactions. The subjective variables associated with capitalism. It is one thing to walk into a conference room for a meeting and count the number of people and calculate the gender percentages - - it is another to judge the mood, relationships, and intensity of the participants.

Organizations and academia need to get much better at training, instilling, and discussing directional knowledge - - ideals, motivations, identities, directions, themes, traditions, contexts, and missions. All of these attributes will help the engineer on the bank of a levee or the deck of a drilling platform with meaning, motivation, focus, and orientation. They provide the engineer with direction - - the compass providing him or her with a heading. How are my ideals and direction aligned with the ends and means? It is a tool to help one understand our world of enigmatic problems and the complex interaction between technology and the human element.

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