Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Engineering New Skill Sets

The Winter 2013 issue of Rotman Management has an article, 10 New Skills that Every Worker Needs, that has an important message for engineering.  Regardless of the industry you are in, one thing should be very clear - - engineers must become adaptable, lifelong learners.  We all live in a world and time of disruptive forces that have broad implications in the context of skill requirements and development.

This is a list of the "new" skills that people should have.  I think engineers are well positioned on about half of the skills.  The other half is an issue.
  1. Computational Thinking.  The world of Big Data will require a world of computational thinking individuals.  From programming skills to modeling insights, engineering in the future will include a greater focus on statistical analysis and quantitative reasoning skills.  Engineers should currently score an "A" on this skill set.  Engineering has a fundamental understanding that models are only as good as the data feeding them.  We get that reality and modeling reality are two different things. 
  2. Design Mindset.  Engineers are all about design.  They get the logic of design in the context of a product or a process.  Engineers must be able to capture the ideas embedded in design thinking.  Designers in the future will need to become adept at recognizing other opportunities for design thinking.  This will require engineering to fully embrace the social, cultural, political, and economic systems that interface with products and processes.  Engineers should score a "B+" on this skill set.
  3. Cognitive Load Management.  A working environment rich in information streams in multiple formats and from multiple devices will increasingly bring the issue of "cognitive overload" to the fore.  Engineering faces a future of funnels and filters - - a world with a larger information funnel opening in need of better and better filters.  Engineers are trained in the details - - we understand the trees and sometimes forget about the forests.  This could be a problem in the future.  Tools for dealing with the information onslaught will be critical.  Engineers should score a "B-" on this skill set.
  4. New Media Literacy.  Engineers are legendary for their poor communication skills.  The future looks to reinforce this problem.  The explosion in user-generated media - - including the videos, blogs, and podcasts that dominate our lives - - will be fully felt in the workplace in the next decade.  If you want the public to be willing to invest in our infrastructure deficit, the static-slide approach is not going to cut it.  As immersive and visually stimulation presentations of information become the norm, engineers will need to develop more sophisticated skills to use the "new media" tools to engage and persuade their audiences.  Engineers should score a "D" on this skill set.
  5. Transdisciplinarity.  A world of wicked problems, such as climate change, are too complex to be solved by one specialized discipline.  Climate change adaption is a multifaceted problem that will require transdisciplinary solutions.  The ideal engineer of the next decade will be "T-shaped", meaning that they will bring deep understanding of at least one field, but have the capacity to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines.  Engineers should score a "D" on this skill set.
  6. Sense Making.  Robotics and complex algorithms will become a much more dominate force in the world of decision making.  Engineers will face a future of a constant struggle to continuously swim up the value added stream.  Sense making will be a critical skill in this long swim - - a skill that helps engineers to create unique insights critical to decision making.  Routine engineering is at risk - - critical thinking will be more valuable in the decades ahead.  Engineers should score a "B+" on this skill set. 
  7. Social Intelligence.  Robots don't have social skills and probably never will.  In a world of increased sense making - - social and emotional IQ will be increasingly important.  Engineers are trained to understand the logic of products and processes.  We are not trained to get the logic (and the illogic) of the human experience.  In a world of collaboration and building relationships on trust, we had better start to get the vital skill of social intelligence.  Engineers should score a "F" on this skill set. 
  8. Novel and Adaptive Thinking.  Want to thrive in a world of constant change and disruptive technologies?  Engineers in the future need to be really good at situational adaptability.  The key skill will be the ability to respond to unique, unexpected circumstances in the moment.  Engineers should score a "B" on this skill set.
  9. Cross-Cultural Competency.  Like it or not, globalization has been a powerful force the last decade and it will continue to be a significant force into the future.  Diversity is seen as a key to innovation - - none of us is as smart as all of us.  Engineers in the future will have jobs and opportunities that demand linguistic skills, adaptability to changing circumstances, and an ability to sense and respond to new contexts.  Engineers should score a "B" on this skill set.
  10. Virtual Collaboration.  Connective technology makes it easier for engineers to work together, share ideas, and be productive, despite physical separation.  Easy on one hand, but more complex demands on another.  Virtual management and leadership still needs immediate feedback, clear objectives, and a staged series of challenges.  Microblogging and social networking sites are replacing the traditional water cooler as the places that provide a sense of camaraderie and enable employees to demonstrate a presence.  Engineers should score a "C" on this skill set.
Our current grade would average to a "C+" - - in a world of "D" infrastructure, the various engineering professions and educators also need to look into the mirror and think about the new skill sets that will be required of an engineer in a difficult and complex world of our future.


  1. Re: “Wicked Problems”

    Fritz Zwicky wrote in 1960 that many of the problems suitable to be tackled by mrophological analysisi require “. . .an integrated view which relates [technical knowledge] to political, psychological and ethical factors. . . All of these factors add up to a complex task which is beyond the power of ordinary scientific, technical and managerial experts”.
    e thought that you might like to know about this:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at Springer here:


    Tom Ritchey


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