The Manager’s Guide to Keeping Up with Engineering and Manufacturing Technology
Technology waits for no one. Now more than ever, the accelerating pace of technological change is both an opportunity and a curse. Technology is the engine that drives product improvements, cost reductions, and market expansions. But tech is also a source of great disruption, cultural strife, and the occasional robotic uprising.
Often, the difference between companies that persevere and those that perish is how deftly they navigate technological change. Yet dealing with such relentless change may seem overwhelming, if not a little depressing. Nevertheless, in all things engineering and manufacturing, technology is more important than ever. How do you build a group that stays current? I answer your anticipated questions below.
Which technologies matter most to my business, and more importantly, how the heck do I keep up?
Managing engineering and manufacturing technology is a leadership challenge, and often a difficult one. Conventional IT organizations may be preoccupied with generalist concerns or may be altogether out-sourced, leaving your engineering technology strategy flapping in the breeze. No help there. Even dedicated engineering tools groups found in larger organizations is not enough to manage the technology tide. Specifically staffing for every relevant tech is impractical, not only for being prohibitively expensive, but because you can't possibly predict what's coming down the pipeline. Not everyone has an obedient time-traveling cyborg to warn them about disruptive mimetic poly-alloy.
So before you pull your hair out dissecting the finer points of the internet of things, things of internets, hybrid cloud, PLM, or titanium laser sintering and what it means for your business, set expectations properly. Keep in mind that managing technology strategy is all about managing the unknown.
Well that's just great. How am I supposed to manage the unknown?
You must allow your organization to develop an intrinsic flexibility to adapt, and that requires both identifying and harnessing technological intuition.
What are you talking about?
Technological intuition is the capacity for someone to discover and adapt to new technology and is a combination of attitude and innate talent, much like writing or singing. While anyone can train to improve, many are just naturally gifted. Chances are you already know who those individuals are - they're your go to people when things go wrong. Or they might be the guerilla rebels of any Shadow IT. You'll find them at any level of your organization, in a variety of roles. The key to technology management is giving those select individuals both a voice and additional responsibility.
Ok, Ed. How do I give select individuals both a voice and additional responsibility at my company?
Thanks for asking. Here are some suggestions on how to do exactly that:
- Make technology advocacy part of someone's job description. You're looking to marry technological enthusiasm with first-hand knowledge of how you're getting work done in the trenches today. Find people in your organization with these qualities and recruit them to actively participate in tech decisions above their regular duties. You will benefit from their fresh, unfiltered perspective and they will appreciate the additional responsibility and career opportunity. Win-win. In special cases, you may make technology their entire job description. They will become your tech strategists going forward.
- Build a technology SWAT team. Provide both the means and budget for the individuals above to regularly participate in cross-functional teams for discussing new technology topics. Make sure to have a moderator skilled in diplomacy, and give them a specific directive to match new innovations with real business problems.
- Provide a direct, regular conduit to senior leadership. Reserve a place for representatives of your tech SWAT team at higher-level meetings, so you can tie higher level business challenges with possible technology solutions not otherwise visible to the management team. That can be a challenge for a traditionally hierarchical organization; but there's no need to migrate fully over to an autonomous collective, or an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Splitting an executive meeting between an inclusive conversation about operations followed by a managers-only session onmore sensitive issues works exceptionally well.
- Budget for experimental pilot projects. Evaluating technology on paper is often insufficient. There's work to be done in separating reality from marketing and that requires experimentation and iteration. In other words, provide a means to try new technologies before committing to them. The best way is to pilot new processes or software within a limited scope. More importantly, understand that tolerance for failure needs to exist. Not everything pans out as anticipated.
It's true managing technology correctly can bring additional cost, but the potential costs for not adopting the right technologies going forward could mean life or death for the business. There's certainly a balance to strike between current and future needs. Just keep an eye on those robots.
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About the author: (Ed Lopategui)
Technology evangelist, entrepreneur, and aerospace engineer specialized in the software tools and technology which enable engineering, design, and product development - PDM, PLM, CAD, CAE, CAM. Any views, opinions, prophecies, and sarcastic remarks are my own and are in no way associated with any current or past employers.
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