Embrace engineering change—or risk failure
Engineering firms that avoid change and cling to the status quo are destined to fail.
I have worked in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) profession for nearly 30 years and have witnessed a tremendous amount of change during this period. The rate of technological change has accelerated in recent years as the infrastructure for buildings become more complex and sophisticated. Moreover, globalization has radically transformed the design process as individuals and firms collaborate in new ways. These shifts present great opportunities for engineers and companies that can adapt.
Building complexity and globalization
Mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and fire protection engineering has become very specialized in just one generation. Thirty years ago, the electrical engineer had the requisite skills to design the power, lighting, and life-safety systems. On the low-voltage side, voice and data, security, and audio-visual systems were straightforward and the electrical engineer could handle those requirements. Today each of these areas is very specialized. It is the norm to find an engineer who is an expert in one area (i.e., power) and a generalist in the other areas. Several engineers and consultants are often engaged to design the electrical and low-voltage systems for the modern building.
The mechanical engineering discipline has also become more advanced as specialists emerge in HVAC, building modeling, sustainability, energy, control systems, sanitary systems, and fire protection systems.
Globalization enables these specialists to collaborate. Thomas Friedman, in “The World Is Flat,” describes the disruptive nature of digital technology. This phenomenon, described by Friedman as Globalization 3.0, connects people and companies worldwide. Information is democratized and available to virtually anyone with access to the Internet, and data and ideas are shared instantaneously around the world. Globalization enables groups to use sophisticated tools and processes, like building information modeling (BIM), which advance the design of modern buildings. The architects, engineers, and contractors exchange data interactively and in real time, which enables the design team to develop solutions quicker and with more accuracy.
The complexity of buildings creates the demand for more specialists while globalization connects them. Traditional geographical constraints are removed and AEC firms now deliver their offerings locally, nationally, and internationally. The design process is divided into pieces where firms offer services that fit their competitive strengths. For example, one company may possess the specialized skills to design a mission-critical facility while another firm may be better positioned to provide CAD services due to a low-cost labor advantage.
Implications for the firm
The confluence of specialized services and the global economy presents tremendous opportunities. Organizations must adapt to the new reality to capitalize on the changes. Here are some observations and ideas for accomplishing the transformation:
- Design and consulting firms need to focus on areas where they provide “best-in-class” services. In a globalized economy, mediocre firms disappear as buyers search worldwide for the best value.
- Companies must recruit engineers who have the ability to collaborate and communicate. Technical acumen must be accompanied by the ability to work with others as firms partner to deliver projects.
- Rigid top-down hierarchies are anachronistic. Instant communication, coupled with the ubiquity of information, empowers workers at all levels.
- The flattened corporate structure implies that ownership, authority, and accountability need to be shared with a larger group, not merely a handful of managing principals.
- Cultural diversity becomes more important as firms cross borders and partner in new ways. Collaborators must be aware of cultural sensitivities as well as differences in time zones.
Organizational change often lags behind the disruptive challenges created by technology. Design firms that look forward and embrace change can capitalize on these shifts. The companies that avoid the issue and cling to the status quo are destined to become marginalized.
Raj Gupta is CEO of Environmental Systems Design Inc. He is exacting change at his firm by incorporating global strategies, empowering younger engineers, and promoting cultural diversity.