Engineering Knowledge Management

Good engineers aren’t born; they’re made. Over the course of their career, engineers make design decisions and subsequently learn from them. As a result, their decision-making is almost always improving. In contrast, an organization’s collective decision-making doesn’t always improve. It rises as engineers learn. It degrades as engineers leave. To improve decision-making quality, engineering managers are looking for ways to capture and leverage past design experience. Therein lies the genesis of Engineering Knowledge Management.

Engineering Knowledge Management is an strategy to capture explicit and tacit design knowledge for reuse in product development.

Defining Engineering Knowledge Management

Knowledge management (KM) comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizations as processes or practices.

Source: Wikipedia entry for Knowledge Management

In the context of engineering, there are several specific applications of Knowledge Management.

  • Decision-Making Traceability: One such application is the documentation of decisions, both in terms of the sequence of events as well as the rationale behind each decision. This provides an audit trail about the decision for future use, even after the responsible engineer has left the organization.
  • Developing and Distributing Design Guidance: Another application of Knowledge Management in engineering is to assess the basis for many design decisions, whether they are internal or external, and generalize them into guidance for engineers. To do so, engineers need to collaborate to define the guidance. As a result, future generations of engineers can leverage the collective advice of past engineers.
  • Engineering Specialization: This application focuses on the access and exchange of information about specific design domains. This type of knowledge has traditionally been provided through engineering standards or technical references. Access to these kinds of standards and references have undergone a revolution in recent years, providing engineering organizations easier access to validated information. Furthermore, there is a need to interact with other specialized engineers on specific design domains in specific groups.

Challenges addressed by Engineering Knowledge Management

There are many different facets of Engineering Knowledge Management, each providing different advantages. The pursuit of Engineering Knowledge Management directly addresses a number of the challenges that are shaping modern engineering.

Table 3: Challenges addressed by Engineering Knowledge Management

Trend

Challenge Addressed

Advantage Provided

Profitable Growth and Engineering StaffingEngineering managers must maintain engineering consistency and throughput despite the differences across global technical centers.The designation of internal and external sources of engineering knowledge lets the engineering manager reference a single source of truth for engineering decisions regardless of location.
The Expanding Role of the Modern EngineerEngineering managers must maintain their engineers’ technical skills while improving their soft skills.Building out a centrally accessible source of engineering knowledge allows engineers to improve as well as continually refresh their skills and knowledge.
The Coming War for Engineering TalentEngineering managers must find a way to mitigate the brain drain threat from retiring Boomer engineers.Engineering managers can procedurally capture knowledge of the most experienced engineers. When those engineers leave, the organization has a centrally accessible knowledge base.

Steps to pursue Engineering Knowledge Management

  • If the focus is on standards and technical references, then the best means to access such information must be determined. Furthermore, the engineering organization will need to adopt new practices to reference such information.Steps to pursue Engineering Knowledge Management
  • If the focus is on documenting an audit trail for decision-making, then the technology used for documentation must be identified and the procedural process must be rolled out.
  • If the focus is on the creation of generalized design decision guidance, then some means of collaboration must be designated and used to build consensus. Once the guidance is formalized, the organization must embed those practices into their processes.