Engineering professionals have been talking about the importance of soft skills for years, and in the past decade, universities and technical schools have recognized their responsibility in meeting the need to provide education in technical communications.
For experienced professionals, there is no dearth of courses available, both online and on-site. Yet the call for even better skills (in writing for example) continues, and programs are continually being revamped and improved.
“Much work that contains a great deal of technical value gets ignored because the people who did the work failed to communicate properly,” according to Alan P. Rossiter, president of an engineering consulting and training firm Rossiter & Associates, in his book Professional Excellence: Beyond Technical Competence, published by John Wiley & Sons.
Zachery Koppelmann, coordinator of the Purdue School of Mechanical Engineering Writing Enhancement Program, which addresses concerns of the faculty, alumni, and corporate partners, says “Writing is the foundation of efficient, effective communication between engineers and non-engineers.” The program evaluates undergraduate ME writing, identifies weaknesses, and develops instructional resources to directly address those weaknesses.
“Engineers work with complex processes and extremely detailed data,” says Koppelmann. “Being a great engineer is more than being able to individually understand the processes and data; it is also being able to explain the processes and data in a manner that allows audiences to understand their importance,” he adds.
That means being able to communicate well with both other engineers and those with non-technical backgrounds.
“Many engineering students we work with are brilliant at design and the execution of their designs, but they are often poorly prepared to explain their work to folks outside of their project,” explains Koppelmann. “The most brilliant design can only be used if engineers can effectively explain the design, clearly connect the design to other designs or concepts and directly demonstrate the benefits of the design. Raw data is not self-evident.”
Soon after the program started, it was learned that the feedback to ME undergraduates from their instructors was inconsistent. To address this, the program now has specific feedback guidelines and is providing special training for dedicated raters. After this implementation, there has been marked improvement in undergraduate ME writing, says Koppelmann.
Benefits are being realized in more ways than in just the communication process. “We have found that the more engineers are required to explain their designs and processes, the better the designs and processes become,” Koppelmann says. “We believe that this is a result of engineers having to think more carefully about what they are doing, and why they are doing it, so they can effectively and efficiently write about their work,” he adds.
In his book, Rossiter concurs: “Writing is an integral part of a project and should be done as a project progresses and not at the conclusion of the project. Develop an outline and a structure for the report early in the work and draft parts of the report as a project progresses. … The result is not just a better report but a better, more complete, piece of technical work too.”
Nancy Giges is an independent writer.