Internal strategy

August 2007 » Columns
It is not difficult to find comparisons between engineering and more everyday consumer-oriented businesses. Some of the most common that I have seen distinguish between a firm being like a fast-food restaurant or a car mechanic versus being a collaborative member (or leader) of a multi-disciplinary project team. While perhaps simplistic, it is clear that there are extremes in any industry and that all firms must make the strategic choice to conduct business one way or another. This is a topic I addressed in the past, but I would like to explore a particular aspect of this decision and the implications for the firm’s future.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM
It is not difficult to find comparisons between engineering and more everyday consumer-oriented businesses. Some of the most common that I have seen distinguish between a firm being like a fast-food restaurant or a car mechanic versus being a collaborative member (or leader) of a multi-disciplinary project team. While perhaps simplistic, it is clear that there are extremes in any industry and that all firms must make the strategic choice to conduct business one way or another. This is a topic I addressed in the past, but I would like to explore a particular aspect of this decision and the implications for the firm’s future.

In strategizing the firm’s marketing efforts, services, clientele, and staffing, the principals must anticipate future economic trends, existing expertise, and new technologies that may create further opportunities. It is comparatively easy to evaluate expertise and tailor the firm’s services to ensure it is operating competently and ethically. It is also easy to decide on particular types of clients, even if it may be difficult to identify exactly how to market to them. But is there something missing in this externally focused approach, and is there a way to create a firm from the inside that attracts and retains the type of work it desires?

Consider the frame of reference within which engineers enter the workforce. For instance, do we retreat to the strictly technical answer derived from the college textbook rather than make the extra effort to find out how our solution fits into the client’s business model? Often, this may require additional training in real estate, financial management, contract management, or even landscaping or architecture—training that the recent graduate will not have. This broader background, however, will shift the role of the engineer from one providing a technically correct solution (a commodity) to one taking an active leadership role in guiding the project to meet its true underlying goals of client satisfaction, reputation, and firm profitability. Therefore, it is up to our mentors to set the tone and explain the difference between a technically correct solution and one that is "completely" correct from the client’s perspective.

A conflict arises when staff members are selected for a project team and there is little training time available to get them started. The individuals may move from project to project or manager to manager with only the immediate goals in mind. It may be a short-term technical problem to move water from place to place, balance site earthwork, or calculate any number of volumes, velocities, areas, or capacities to develop a complete design. But does the technical staff comprehend the decisions that may have occurred months before that established the parameters within which they are to find a solution? If working on another project, will the same parameters be valid, and if not, when is this discussed and clarified with the staff? If shortcuts and assumptions are used by the manager to define the problem quickly, it is extremely important to express these to the staff to allow them to gain greater judgment and responsibility.

The lack of a "why" will cause confusion, frustration, and a general lack of efficiency in meeting diverse project goals. It means that once the desired clients have been brought in the door and the principals begin seeing their vision realized, it will be up to the project manager to ensure the technical staff can deliver effectively and consistently. Without exposure to the various project goals, whether financial, political, or technical, the best any individual can do is apply what they already know. The firm’s leaders should use these opportunities to illustrate the true environment within which our problems must be solved.

Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.

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