SEMS says ... inculcate systems thinking early; transportation needs our help.
By the Society for Engineering and Management Systems Board Dean Creed encourages engineering managers to get involved with education so students from 10 to 14 years old learn system thinking and collaboration. Suzanna Long writes about transportation industry opportunities for engineering managers.
Improve the future
A key obstacle to continuous improvement arises when people lack a system or process mindset. Education, particularly of children from 10 to 14 years of age, should encourage a more holistic approach to analysis and decision making.
The functional mindset that can cause failure is developed early. Schools are our first "organizations." Typically, educators make little attempt to integrate learning objectives across courses or across grade levels. While adults struggle to coordinate the different functions at work, schoolchildren live through the same challenges. Many employees respect functional hierarchy at the expense of process performance or overall outcome, and students are expected to do the same.
Most teachers lecture about narrowly defined subject material to students who passively receive information. Students take notes, review and practice alone, then demonstrate "mastery" via repetition and recitation. But a lot of research shows that hands-on, project-based, collaborative learning works better for many. The latter approach makes students work in teams to investigate, learn, complete assignments and solve problems. Given how strikingly similar this is to what we expect from high-performing organizations, we must promote this approach as early as possible.
Applying systems dynamics to education would stretch the context of how learning occurs. Several U.S. middle schools are working to foster systems thinking in teachers and students, reportedly with good results. If not formal systems dynamics, teachers and their students should be encouraged to define the entire system of concern and explicitly consider causes, effects and feedback loops in the instructional approach.
You should be part of the solution. Get involved in a way that applies and transfers your systems knowledge and skills to a school or school system. Volunteer to serve in a role that exposes its administration, teachers and students to something at the core of your professional foundation--how to approach the definition and improvement of systems and processes.
Engineering manager volunteers must help teachers become more systems-oriented in the ways they instruct and interact with other teachers. And the volunteers should help children see things in terms of systems and processes through direct classroom or behind-the-scenes involvement.
--Dean Creed is a performance management consultant for Santee Cooper, an electric and water utility. He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in industrial engineering, has been a member of SEMS since 2004, served on the SEMS board from 2006-2008 and proudly chairs the school improvement council at his 13-year-old son's school.
Partnership strategies for transportation
The transportation network is one of the most critical components of the U.S. infrastructure. The demand for transportation professionals is rising as baby boomers reach retirement age and needs increase for enhanced skills to design, manage and operate emerging technologies and innovations.
However, the supply of effectively trained transportation professionals has not kept pace with the demand. Many factors have contributed to the problem, including the lack of skills mapping between job requirements and academic or vocational training, negative or insufficient awareness of transportation as a career, and changing demographics, economic and regulatory conditions faced by the transportation industry.
Transportation professionals run the gamut of career opportunities from senior management to transportation operator for all modes of service (highway, rail, air, waterway and pipeline), but the industry faces serious challenges in identifying and retaining qualified applicants despite the wide variety of opportunities. In a recent research study funded by the Federal Highway Administration as part of its transportation education development pilot program, my team conducted a survey of all state departments of transportation to perform a gap analysis on expectations versus actual performance of new transportation engineers. The results point the way for the field of engineering management to contribute to this vital engineering area.
Although most equate civil engineering with transportation, engineers with degrees in engineering management are uniquely qualified. Transportation agencies report that basic engineering knowledge of new hires meets expectations, but new hires fail to grasp the basics of effective communication, teamwork, project management, awareness of financial processes and the like.
In addition, few agencies have active succession planning efforts to capture knowledge as managers and engineers retire. Retention efforts frequently are hampered by insufficient mentoring or training programs. Sound like the foundational tenets of engineering management? You bet!
Raising awareness is essential to showcase the talents of engineering-management-trained engineers. Educators should seek opportunities to partner with civil engineers in providing problem-based or experiential learning opportunities in class. If you're in industry, talk with your transportation partners to showcase the value of engineering management. To borrow a classic movie line, "This looks like the start of a beautiful friendship!"
--Suzanna Long is an assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology. She holds a Ph.D. in engineering management from the University of Missouri-Rolla.