Engineers as Communicators
I remember enjoying a dinner with a college friend Mark; we are both Clarkson Graduates. My degree is in technical communication and his is in civil engineering, but we joked because he writes far more than I do. “I went to school so I could build bridges”, Mark said. “Now, all I do is write and you know how I hate to write.” The joking ended fairly quickly though when Mark described his frustration with his stagnated career.
“I’m tired of being stuck in the back room, crunching numbers all day.” he explained. “Other engineers get to go out and promote the firm. They ask me for the project details and then they get all the credit when the client likes the report or proposal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been passed over for promotions. I’m thinking I’m going to have to start looking again. There’s got to be a firm out there that sees me for what I’m worth.”
That’s when it hit me. My friend graduated top of the class in engineering and was a remarkable engineer, but his firm was about to lose him. Later, I learned the reason why: although he was a highly capable engineer, Mark’s communication skills were inadequate. His reports tended to ramble, his proposals seemed to lose focus, and his e-mails often had to be questioned. I once suggested to him that he should take a course in technical communication at the local community college, but he scoffed at the idea: “They’ll only teach me a lot of grammar and sentence diagramming – I had enough of that at school. Anyway, if I’d wanted to be a writer I would have gone to a Liberal Arts college, not Clarkson.” I tried explaining that technical communication was taught differently today, but he clearly wasn’t listening.
Mark’s problem is common and has existed for over one hundred years. In 1901, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education (SPEE), which had been formed in 1893 to evaluate the quality of engineering education reported:
The writing skills of Engineering students are deplorable and need to be addressed by engineering colleges.
Courses were not added to undergraduate engineering education, as one might expect, but certain engineering professors around the world took notice and quietly did something about it. Notable among these were T.A. Rickard, J. Raleigh Nelson, and Reginald Kapp, all professors at engineering colleges in the US and UK. They inserted technical writing topics into their engineering courses, although the subject was not listed in the curriculum. After doing this for 15 to 25 years, they recorded their ideas and published them as books. Here are some excerpts:
Conscientious writers try to improve their mode of expression by precision of terms, by careful choice of words, and by the arrangement of them so that they become efficient carriers of thought from one mind to another.
T. A. Rickard, 1908
In report writing, in particular, there is an increasing demand that the first page or two shall provide a comprehensive idea of the whole report.
J. Raleigh Nelson, 1940
You must consider carefully the extent of (the reader’s) knowledge, his range of interests, his likes and dislikes, his capacity for understanding, his limitations, the rate at which his mind works, any misapprehensions that he may entertain, any prejudices from which he may suffer, any peculiarities, whatever they may be, that might influence his receptivity for the information you have to impart.
Reginald O. Kapp, 1948
The style of language is not the same as we use today, but the messages are as just as important today as they were then: Rickard focused on coherence; Nelson first introduced the idea of an executive summary (although he did not call it that); and Kapp stressed the need to clearly identify the audience.
These were technical people writing for technical people. Their purpose was to encourage their readers to clearly and coherently describe their work, whether they were writing letters, reports, or operation and maintenance instructions.
Today, there still is a need to help engineers communicate, and engineering managers need to encourage them to do so. True, most engineering colleges now include a technical communication component into the engineering curriculum, although it’s often too brief—squeezed by the demand to include more technical subjects. (There also is another problem: most undergraduates don't understand that report writing will be an essential part of their career, and may not put in the reqired effort.) So we need to push, push, and push.
This is not just a North American problem. All over the world engineering managers are complaining that, on the whole, their engineers do not communicate well. Whenever I meet engineers I tell them “Never underestimate the power of a well-written document.” It frightens me to think of the brilliant ideas that are lost because engineers avoid writing or if they do write, they don’t take the time to polish it because of the negative experiences they had in previous English courses.
The engineering field has a rich history of technical writing but it often is overlooked. Engineers pride themselves on their technical capabilities while neglecting the need to improve their communication skills.
My friend Mark is now just understanding that to be a Professional Engineer, requires him to be able to explain (both in writing and speaking) his ideas to others. In the competitive consulting engieering fields, the one thing that can differentiate you or your firm is how you communicte your ideas in writing and speaking.