Engineering Competence and The Digital Revolution

What new competencies are required for the digital revolution?

Competence saves lives. It recognises risk and opportunity and it supports innovation and productivity. Our global engineering workforce has competence. Every engineer has a unique blend of skills, knowledge and experience that they have assembled and developed during their lifetime. But is it the right competence for today and tomorrow?

The digital revolution is clearly upon us; we can see, hear and experience it in our daily lives. The pace of development seems exciting, yet alarming at times, and it will surely only increase. What new competencies are required to respond to this change? Are the old ones still relevant?

To answer those questions, let’s look first at the principles of competence management and then explore how it is affected by fast-paced technological change.

The fundamentals of competence management remain intact: decide what you are trying to achieve; determine the competencies required; choose people who have those competencies or train and develop people who don’t.

The whole process should be under-pinned with a sound understanding of risk; perhaps take a chance with competence when the risk is low but high-risk activities should be subjected to rigorous and systematic competence assurance.

The challenge now, is the rate of change. The process is the same, but it must be applied far more frequently. Any competence assurance or management system must therefore be very streamlined and easy to use.

In a digital world, the most fundamental ‘new’ competency required is the ability to share data, information and records digitally within a common data environment. As user interfaces become more intuitive, this becomes more about the process and discipline of data management than the technology itself.

Sharing digital information via networked devices (the internet of things), increases the risk of that information being accessed for malicious purposes. Today’s engineers must be competent enough to avoid data security issues and to understand the risks of cyber-attack to their systems, facilities and structures.

Another new competency is the ability to see and apply the potential in digital tools: 3D design tools and simulations allow the design and analysis of much more complex systems and structures; artificial intelligence and predictive analytics allow us to foresee and prevent harmful events before they happen and to optimise operations; virtual and augmented reality allow us to test the ergonomics of our designs with end users, positively influencing the human factors in operation and maintenance.

These new competencies don’t replace all the old ones though. Remembering that competence is a measure of skills, knowledge and experience it is important to recognise the value of experience. There is a risk that engineers develop a ‘computer says…’ mentality, accepting potentially disastrous computer-based design decisions due to an over-reliance on technology. Fundamental engineering competencies are still very much required.

Interestingly, one new competence that is required for success in a digital world is the ability to look after the personal wellbeing of colleagues and oneself. It is very easy to remain connected to digital devices around the clock, exposing yourself to constant pressures without providing an opportunity to escape and build resilience. I wonder how many universities and employers seek to actively develop that competency.

Competence management is dynamic and situational. Inherent competence does not necessarily provide the required capability to undertake a task, particularly if it is in an unfamiliar setting or at an unfamiliar time or where only unfamiliar tools are available. The digital revolution is increasing the dynamics and making a bewildering array of tools available. One of the most important competencies required from any engineer is the ability to understand the limits of their own competence.

It is important not to spend too much time developing competencies in specific tools or technologies. Once the tool or technology becomes obsolete, the competency is redundant. A better approach would be to develop the ability to quickly embrace and apply new tools and technologies where they add value. Coupling this with practical competencies in engineering and problem solving will create the engineers we need for the future.

As previously discussed, competence management is dynamic and situational. To manage risk, an organisation should: decide what it wants to achieve; determine the competencies required and choose people who have those competencies or train and develop people who don’t. The digital revolution is bringing accelerated change. The most successful organisations will be those that create effective, dynamic competence assurance systems as well as people-development programmes that enable rapid adoption of new digital technologies.