Chad Jackson

Engineering Knowledge Management

This entry provides an introductory orientation to Engineering Knowledge Management solutions and why they are important for design teams.

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 almost always improves. In contrast, an organization’s collective decision-making doesn’t always improve. Instead, it rises as engineers learn and degrade as engineers leave. To improve organizations’ decision-making quality, engineering managers should search for ways to capture and leverage past design experience. Therein lies the genesis of Engineering Knowledge Management, which is a 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 are comprised of knowledge, either embodied in individuals, or embedded as processes or practices in organizations.

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 design decisions, regarding both the sequence of events and the rationale behind each decision. This provides a decision-making audit trail 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 design decisions, whether they are internal or external, and generalize these into guidance for engineers. To do so, engineers need to collaborate to define this 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 has undergone a revolution in recent years, providing engineering organizations easier pathways to validated information. In creating this access, engineers need to interact with other specialized engineers assigned to specific design domains.

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 allows the engineering manager to 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 at the same time improving their soft skills.Building out a centrally accessible source of engineering knowledge allows engineers to improve, as well as continually refreshing 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 their most experienced engineers. When these engineers leave, the organization will then have 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.
  • 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 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 then embed these practices into their processes.
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