Consider this comment from Nick Greiner, Chairman of Infrastructure NSW and former Premier of NSW, to a business lunch in September 2011: “You’ve got to make sure that economics and strategic planning considerations are part of [transport and infrastructure]. It isn’t about engineers wanting to build stuff.”
I’ve never known NSW Treasury to have a soft spot for the fantasies of engineers, but it’s the sort of comment you might hear in any of your workplace meetings, and in any number of contexts—just like when marketing and R&D have an old-fashioned wrestle. The important question for a professional engineer, though, is: how do you respond?
Some responses are more effective than others of course, but fundamentally, when engineers remain quiet about their expertise, their contributions and their inspirations, engineering suffers. Engineering that is not persuasively argued often doesn’t happen as intended or perhaps happen at all, and that’s why communication matters so much. Technical brilliance alone is, in my view, suboptimal engineering.
In the coming newsletters, my aim is to impress on you the value that good communication can bring to all technical professions, and to engineering in particular. I’ll also share some techniques and experiences in various aspects of communication, from public speaking to the art of design.
The first step in improving your communication is a personal one. At heart, many technical professionals find it difficult to accept that technical work can be the subject of debate. However, it’s vital to appreciate that very few engineering problems have only one ‘correct’ solution. Whenever there are multiple viewpoints to a problem or competing designs, it’s often the strength of communication that decides between the options. In understanding this, you will naturally be motivated to speak engagingly, write strategically and build relationships in a positive and timely manner.
Engineers Australia likewise recognises the importance of communication. The profession’s draft Stage 2 Competency Standards (currently under review) include workplace communication and community engagement as key elements of a professional engineer’s competence, and rightly so.
Returning to Greiner, he’s right in a sense: economics and strategic planning are obviously important. But I know plenty of engineers who have a great capacity for cost-effective strategy. What I also know is that engineers and economists don’t communicate with each other very well, to the detriment of both professions and, I imagine, to the detriment of Infrastructure NSW (see some classic finger-pointing in Economists vs Engineers at expressiveeng.com.au/debating).
The next time your innovation isn’t carried by management, or when, yet again, someone fails to remember what you do, pause and think about the effectiveness of your communication, and how it limits the success of your engineering. Communication isn’t usually the focus of the engineer, but I’ll do my best to change that for some of you.