Managing knowledge for Engineers in the information age

Since ancient times, engineers have strived for betterment of society. Their contribution towards human race in improving the quality of lives is very well known. Even the name of Vishwakarma, the famous engineer and architect of Hindu mythology is mentioned with great respect and reverence.

Since times immemorial civilizations and cultures underwent transformations that lasted for an epoch and with each transformation, the engineering profession too went through drastic transformation. The beginning of civilization saw agricultural age which turned into an industrial one a couple of centuries ago. The dynamics of society has led to today’s age of connectivity and globalization.

During all epochs of human history, an engineer has ardently used his professional knowledge to contribute towards nurturing and building comforts for society while also facing challenges relevant to those ages. Whatever times of civilization he belonged to, an engineer adapted to the changes and always leveraged the knowledge and skills he acquired through continuous learning. Knowledge and skills were the pillars that endeared him to his profession.

Knowledge is the buzzword of present times. Industries are heavily depending on knowledge and countries all around the world are increasingly investing on knowledge to successfully drive their economies.

 

Knowledge and skills   

What are these twin bastions of success- knowledge and skills? Why is the knowledge management so important for long-term survival of mankind itself?

“Knowledge is power” or “half knowledge is dangerous’ are oft encountered adages. Knowledge is defined in Wikipedia as the experience or expertise gained by a person in a field by practice or information.

Interestingly, even the history of knowledge and skills is as old as the history of   mankind and civilization itself. Knowledge and skills are in fact closely intertwined.

In the ice and stone ages civilizations evolved mainly due to economic reasons. The prehistoric men on this planet were hunters and gatherers. In their attempt to find food they killed the surrounding animals using tools made with bones and skins. Their knowledge of world around them was limited to using these tools to fulfill their basic need of gathering food on daily and immediate basis.

Knowledge also means information gathering, processing, communicating and expressing.

Irrespective of the age, a human mind has tried various ways to express knowledge. In the prehistoric age these expressions of knowledge were in the form of arts- paintings. When languages evolved as means of communication, even better tools and techniques for expression had also developed. Using finer skills of building and craftsmanship monuments were erected by men that encapsulated their knowledge and skills that could last for posterity. Egyptian pyramids built during 3000b.c are great examples of the level of technical knowledge and skills of those times. Concurrent birth of scripts even added written documents to the canon of knowledge. When ancient Indian scriptures Vedas were written in 1500b.c long before the discovery of the present Devanagari script many other ancient civilizations of the world had also written their own texts and documents.

Knowledge includes studying, memorizing and mastering the written scriptures, treatises and doctrines.

Since olden times these forms of art and literature have intrigued scholars and knowledge seekers, which were left by their predecessors. The process of learning and deciphering these scriptures and doctrines sparked desire in these scholars to further seek solutions and fill up their knowledge gaps. Steam engine which actually became a reality in 19th century was first imagined and hypothesized on paper by a great scientist in Alexandria in 1st century A.D. This scientist was an inspiration for 15th century Greek philosopher, painter and scientist Leonardo Da vinci. Among other machines that he himself postulated, Da vinci had designed a flying machine that became a reality in the twentieth century.

As knowledge and skills evolved and concurrently discoveries and inventions grew, by twentieth century humanity was blessed to have been able to unravel the mysteries of paintings of antiquity discovered recently in deep caves in France, to the extent that techniques like radiocarbon dating could be used to accurately tell the age, mode and material used in the paintings.

Knowledge is intuition and imagination born out of creative minds.

In medieval ages civilizations of the world like Greek, Egyptian, Indian or Chinese produced thinkers, scholars, scientists and mathematicians. They were great men with novel ideas and theories. They were the seekers of knowledge and truth. Some of the most fundamental laws of science and mathematics were laid down by these men who not only excelled in their understanding, hypothesizing of scientific theories or physical laws; they also were great thinkers, philosophers, poets, painters and artists. Their knowledge encompassed the realm of thinking and imagining – an understanding of the world around them as an amalgamation of art with empiricism. The creative genius in these men stemmed out of their own creative minds.

   Is knowledge part of skills or are skills encompassed in an overall sphere of knowledge? Can knowledge anytime be complete or perfect?

While certain jobs need specific skills some jobs demand thorough knowledge of a specific subject. Skills need utmost precision that can be perfected by practice and experience. Architects, engineers, craftsmen were professionals with skills to turn the hypothesis postulated by the great men into working reality. Knowledge of a subject makes a person wise, insightful and visionary. Skills acquired by practice and experience add a dimension of understanding and executing that knowledge in real world. Skills acquired fill up knowledge gaps. Skills are needed to aid in discovery and invention of new materials, techniques and tools. Skills acquired by practice and perseverance can turn failure into success.

The great Chinese philosopher and thinker Confucius of second century BC put this truth in immortal maxim “the essence of knowledge is in having to apply it”.

Engineers put the knowledge of these great men into application. Thomas Alva Edison credited for gifting the society with Electricity rightly reflected the views in his famous saying “genius is only ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration”. A true inventor, engineer, and scientist all put in one, Edison sought to find commercial application of scientific discoveries and spent long hours in his laboratory perfecting his skills and knowledge in the field.

Knowledge of metals and metallurgy was used to make implements for agriculture, the backbone of economy in ancient times. As civilizations prospered and thrived, it was increasingly used for defense purposes. Knowledge which was largely parochial in early ages was shared and spread through many parts of the world as connectivity between different states grew by land and sea. Increased trade and commerce between them brought increased exchange of knowledge.

With many breakthroughs in scientific inventions, as agriculture led economy was replaced by industry driven economy, engineering field branched out into different areas. Engineers found themselves working in big factories in a set up with vertical hierarchies of classic corporations.

 

 Knowledge in the new age

Twentieth century can be termed as a century of technology explosion. Growth and convergence of technologies of semiconductor, communication, and information have made strides like never before. In the internet age vertical links have broken to become horizontal or level playing fields. The players of businesses are innumerous and rising exponentially everyday. Unprecedented connectivity and cut throat competition has led to knowledge taking up entirely new meaning for companies.

Definition of knowledge hasn’t changed but definitely its role and context for the professionals has. Management of Knowledge is now the bottom line for companies to enhancing productivity, reducing cost and for competitive advantages. In this age of knowledge economy, each employee of a company is viewed as a knowledge worker. Companies are placing the assets of intellectual capital at a higher premium than tangible assets. Intellectual capital for companies is being viewed as the most valuable and irreplaceable asset. More than structural capital or customer capital, human capital is the most important component of intellectual capital. Each employee makes for the human capital. Every knowledge worker is involved in creation, distribution and application of knowledge.

Companies have leveraged on information technology for knowledge management.  In the stiff competitive age engineers working in knowledge industries are much sought after by companies. The tacit knowledge that they carry with them is required by companies for investing in knowledge management. Investment in knowledge results in best practices which in turn affect the processes. For past two decades engineering professionals have found placement and career progression in as wide industries as finance, service, manufacturing, consultancy and R&D. Irrespective of the industry, engineers have very important role to play in their organizations increasingly investing in knowledge management. Whether they are collaborating as customers, consultants or internal staff for companies they are considered invaluable and indispensable.

 

Continuous learning

Companies or organizations that realize and invest in knowledge management are both at organization level and at individual level, life long learners. Continuous learning or life long learning is learning from your colleague, from outside sources, customers by training or networking. Such organizations are bound to make great organizations.

Jim Collins , the best selling author and management researcher has studied organizations that were good but later became great from good. They all were built by individuals who were lifelong learners. They were great leaders who shared some common characteristics. Their principles were founded on knowledge of themselves, their organizations; knowledge of what sparked their passion, what were they best at and what drove their economic engine. Their knowledge of themselves and their company held them grounded in their belief that it is the human capital at the core – people who make all the difference. And that led them to hire only the best people. Best people are the best knowledge workers who can bring about best practices; best processes enhance productivity and optimize costs.

Engineering professionals who know themselves well by using their heart, mind, body and spirit are great knowledge workers .According to Steven Covey, such people make great choices and are winners. They are creative geniuses like the Socrates or Aristotle of the new age who need not reinvent the wheel but can bring about enormous productivity and cost gains to their organizations thus giving them a competitive edge in the knowledge age. Productivity and innovation are keys to survival of companies and in fact Productivity boost via proper management of Knowledge is recognized as the summum bonum for long term survival of mankind itself.

Engineers on their part have to adapt to the demands of knowledge management and through lifelong learning make significant contributions to their organizations and to the society.

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References:

  1. “The last mysteries of the world”, publication of Reader’s Digest
  2. “Managing knowledge to fuel growth” and other books by different authors.
  3. “Good to great” by Jim Collins
  4. “The 7 habits of highly effective people”, Steven Covey

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