Engineers are troublesome 'expert loners', says prof
Media image, student foolishness blamed
US researchers say that graduate engineers tend to be egoistic loners who can't work properly in teams, much to the aggravation of their employers. Responsibility for this distressing state of affairs lies partly with the media, which portrays a misleading image of what it is to be an engineer, and partly with older students at college who lead youngsters astray.
The new insights come to us courtesy of research by Paul Leonardi, Breed Junior Chair at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
"Industrial advisory boards are always saying engineers come to the workplace with good technical skills but they don't work well on team projects," says assistant Prof Leonardi. "We wanted to know why. It's not a lack of skill — engineering students are smart people. So why aren't they working in teams?"
Leonardi and his colleagues spent several years interviewing engineering students and watching them work on projects. It seems that several counterproductive themes emerged.
First, when told to work on something as a group, typical engineering students would instead break the project up into separate jobs so as to avoid working collaboratively.
"There's a stereotype that engineers do things by themselves," Leonardi says. "So when students are asked to work in teams, they think, am I going to be disadvantaged? When I go to the workplace am I not going to be as valuable?"
The prof believes that this stereotype of solo engineering comes from "television programs and other media".
Another troubling tendency, according to Leonardi, was that student engineers didn't much care to follow instructions as to how to solve a problem. Given a detailed roadmap by professors, they tended to ignore it and instead get to a solution by their own means.
"They would figure out workarounds and try to reintroduce more difficulty into the task," Leonardi says. "It was a mark of distinction not to follow the task."
Finally, students would procrastinate about actually starting work, leaving a task until the last possible minute and deliberately completing it under severe time pressure. Leonardi says this was not laziness, but rather a form of boasting designed to show off one's competence among other students.
All these bad habits, according to the prof, were worsened by bad example from more senior students. Such naughtiness was generally defended by statements along the lines of "that's what engineers do".
"It's important for organizations to get involved with engineering education, providing internships and co-op opportunities," says Leonardi. "It allows students to see early on other images of engineering so they can see that there are images of engineers out there other than the expert loner."
The research paper, The Enactment-Externalization Dialectic: Rationalization and the Persistence of Counter-Productive Technology Design Practices in Student Engineering, can be read by subscribers here. ®
Cart, meet horse
What an arrogant prick! So the engineers broke tasks down and dished the work out among themselves - so bloody what? If I gave a team a big job and they did that, met the deadline and delivered to the required quality level, I'd reward them, not criticise them. That shows a damn sight more in the way of good organisation skills and initiative than a lot of people with "manager" in their job titles possess.
But what really annoys me (OK, maybe I'm having an off day today) is the implicit assumption that collaboration in teams is the only way to do things. I've been in IT for longer than I really want to remember, and the people that have had the skills, the ability and the can-do, go-for-it attitude have often been loners. I can recall several projects where these folks have pulled things back from the brink of disaster while the huggy-feely types did sod-all apart from demand status reports.
Managing people like that is not easy; you can't just organise group hugs and send them to sleep with PowerPoint presentations full of management speak and exhortations to all work together, boys and girls. You have to work at it, gain their respect and more importantly, accept that people with those sort of skills can't be moulded like sheep.
But that's probably too hard for most snot-nosed MBA graduates these days.
Those that can do...
There is no I in team but there is a me
I worked as part of a team once. They were all shite except one other guy. We worked away separately and every now and again liaised over some caveats. When we were done we briefed first the sales monkeys then the management scum. Then the sales monkeys demoed the system to the "team" and we rounded off a few rough edges before demoing it to the people with the money or customers as we called them.
I thought it was shit, then I went to a place with ISO9000 and that COPC fuckology and I realised the first place was in fact the good old days.
The moral of the story for you young un is this: Those management arseholes would rather you were weeks behind on the project as long as they have an armful of reports and e-mails. In management circles those things are like cigarettes in prison, they try to buy their way out of an assraping with them. They always prefer paperwork to productivity.