Text-messaging, IMing, blogs—these new ways of communicating are becoming more and more popular. Each day, fewer people are relying upon land lines and good-old-fashioned face-to-face conversations.
And these new communications methods are now bringing new efficiencies to the workplace. I've personally benefited from being able to participate in conference calls while on layovers in airports and to view new manufacturing processes through "virtual tours" accessed through my Blackberry. These are just two examples; I could give many more.
Yes, there are definite advantages to the speed and convenience of these new forms of communication. Yet when I consider the knowledge and skill gaps of the North American manufacturing workforce, along with the nature of the engineering profession, I need to remind myself how important it is to use these new, less-personal methods of communicating to supplement, not substitute for, more traditional methods.
Industry-led studies of competency gaps have identified teamwork, interpersonal communications, and hands-on experience as key weaknesses within the manufacturing engineering workforce—both the existing workforce and new graduates. An initial "competency gap" study was sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' Education Foundation, and updates have been done regularly since then. The Foundation has shared the results with manufacturing educators and business leaders, and has launched a Manufacturing Education Plan (MEP) grants program, through which funding is directed to colleges and universities with proposed curricula or programs that address the gaps specifically identified by the studies.
While industry has had some competencies fall off the "most critical" list and new ones come on over the last several years, communications and teamwork skills have remained among the top weaknesses.
There's another reason I'm concerned about the danger of having electronic communication become a substitute for "live" interaction. In engineering, there really is nothing more valuable than hands-on experience. Knowing the theory is not the same thing as knowing how to apply it. Textbook and classroom learning is, of course, essential, but once you've got the principles down, you've got to roll up your sleeves and see how all of that applies in the real world.
That takes real interaction with other people, and with products, tools, and equipment. You've got to visit the plant floor. You've got to see things and touch them, and walk through processes as they really occur. You can't learn everything through "virtual" or simulation technology. One of the key tenets of using lean to become more efficient is interacting through "binary communication" while looking for "muda." This methodology requires people to engage one another.
The Society of Manufacturing Engineers was formed in 1932, long before the introduction of the Internet—heck, long before color TV, the electric typewriter, or PCs. It began when a group of 33 tool and die engineers got together to discuss better ways to build this "newfangled machine" called the automobile. Times have changed. Products have evolved. Manufacturing processes have improved. And even the way we communicate has changed. Today, these same engineers might share some of their ideas via Internet forums or teleconferences. In fact, today's SME members do a lot of that. But members have also continued to seek, and find, opportunities for personal interaction, face-to-face meetings, and hands-on forums for experimentation—through conferences, trade shows, plant tours, and more.
There is definitely value in using technology to share information more quickly than ever, to save paper and postage costs, and to provide people with meeting alternatives when it's not practical to get them physically together in one room. As a supplement to traditional forms of communication, today's electronic forms of sharing information allow us to work every minute, if we choose!
I guess that's another point—a scary one. Our work lives can now follow us anywhere, anytime. And it's easy to lose perspective. Everyone has experienced one of those moments where we let ourselves become slaves to technology: when we forgot to turn the cell phone off during a child's concert, had three devices ringing at the same time and accidentally hung up on someone, or sent an e-mail to a colleague who turned out to be only a few feet away. The power is in our hands to be more productive and effective, so long as we remember to use all our new electronic devices as a means to an end, and don't let them take over our lives.
When I began my engineering career, my first "real" learning came when I was able to go down to the shop floor and interact with the machinist for whom I was programming. Without this direct engagement, my mistakes would have been numerous and costly. Over time, as I've taken on more leadership responsibility, I've found that nothing can replace the value of face-to-face interaction with my team and going to the "gemba." I must walk the floor to really understand what is happening, not only to get a true perspective for the health of the enterprise, but also to ensure that people feel valued and connected (really, not virtually).
A phrase we use around my enterprise is "People Link the System," and we remind ourselves of that every chance we get. There must always be a balance of technology and interpersonal networking.
As I observe the pitfalls of some corporations and industries, I continue to see just how valuable it is to find ways to communicate that create true connections between people, leveraging the values within the products and services in which we participate, and managing communication in the most ethical fashion.
Let's help our workforce be as efficient as possible, while remembering that there is never a replacement for good old-fashioned eye contact.
In addition to the many conferences, expositions, and other live events in which SME members participate, new on-line forums are providing hundreds of manufacturing professionals with an additional venue for interaction and information-sharing.
The forums operate like threaded discussions, and members use them to post questions, provide solutions to problems that others have posted, and connect up with individuals to discuss specific interests or information needs. This venue is becoming more and more popular among members, for whom face-to-face meetings are often impractical. (SME is an international society with members in more than 60 countries.) Convenience is a benefit for everyone, since the forums are "open for business" almost any time of day, or night.
Discussion topics are organized by technical "niche" areas in line with the seven communities that comprise SME's Technical Community Network, a flexible "people network" designed to meet the information needs of manufacturing professionals, students and educators.
As of press time, more than 60 threaded discussion forums exist. Not only do they represent most of the specialized technical "niche" areas for which technical groups have been formed within the Technical Community Network, they also provide interaction points for members of local communities (chapters), participants in youth programs managed by the SME Education Foundation, those interested in additional technologies, and those who want to continue the dialogue that was initiated at SME's Rapid 2007, 3D Scanning, and CAD Data Exchange Conference earlier this year.
Here are some of the dozens of topics generating interest as of "SME Speaks" press time:
If you are looking for help in solving a problem, have information to share, or simply want to see which hot topics your colleagues are talking about, check out the SME Forums at http://forums.sme.org.
This article was first published in the September 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.