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Technological Change August 31, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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I previously wrote about SWOT analysis, the examination of a firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A unique aspect of such an examination is the insight that is gained regarding the firm’s perspective on various issues. Of these, one of the most challenging is the categorization of technological change.

Such a broad scope, it is difficult to restrict it to one of the four classifications, and indeed, it may fall into all four at once depending on the firm’s point of view. Even so, it is one of the primary driving forces of success in today’s business environment. Every engineering firm is faced with several decisions a year about whether to upgrade or change computers and equipment, invest in additional training, or choose between a new graduate or seasoned designer.

Technology is such a vexing issue precisely because it affects so many different parts of the business and can literally make or break a successful enterprise. In addition, the definition of technology itself can lead to circular reasoning about just what is proposed to be changed. Is it new software, a new formula for plastic, a nano-material, or the changing face of engineering education? It is all of this – and more – and it is up to today’s engineers to prepare the workplace for the adoption of our various advancements.

We must be ready for the future graduates who will have been exposed to the cutting edges of technology in the classrooms. We cannot expect that a young engineer who has seen the fruits of forward-looking research to be forever satisfied with today’s way of doing business. This implies that as we analyze our businesses and industry, we need to actively pursue and implement positive technologies as soon as possible. It will never be enough to respond to our markets only when standards change and our state-of-the-art becomes just another commodity.

To illustrate, remember (or imagine) what an engineering firm looked like only two decades ago. There was no GPS, no internet, no cell phones, only primitive computing power and CAD systems, and design and drafting were still manual tasks. Those 1986 engineering graduates now have twenty years’ experience and have witnessed an enormous rate of change. It is no surprise that this rate is almost incomprehensible to most people. But the individual is changing as well.

What is mind-boggling to a 40-year old is just another day to a 20-year old. As disorienting as these changes are, however, it is precisely this ability to adopt new technology, harness the young graduates’ comfort with it, and effectively implement it that keeps our profession on the cutting edge. Conversely, our failure to adopt change will force engineering into a further backwater of commoditized tasks, low profitability, and a difficulty in attracting any new hires.

The importance of leading change is reflected in the requirement for continual professional development to maintain licensure. It is a statement that the world will continue to change, and it is our professional duty to be familiar with it in order to uphold our obligation to protect public safety. If we cannot grasp the status quo, how can we be expected to produce designs that must effectively interact with it? Each of us has contributed in some way to our collective advancement in methods, practices, and engineering materials. Those individual contributions force the entire industry to respond to the past and present and anticipate new changes in the future. We will always thrive on innovation, and we will similarly wither if we try hold on to what has worked in the past at the expense of incremental, but continual, leaps of faith into the unknown.

–from Insider’s View, November 2006

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