Social Product Development

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Aging Engineering Workforce: Lessons From Al

When I graduated from college I immediately started working at Raytheon as a "Member of Technical Staff," which is essentially an entry-level engineer. At the time, I was a bit of a novelty – a young woman, who studied engineering, among many men who had been at Raytheon a life time or were on their way. I figured I would do the same; after all, I never went to going-away parties at Raytheon, I went to retirement parties.

My manager, Al, was a wonderful man who took me under his wing and mentored me. He had so much engineering experience and I had very little. Aside from training me to run the Boston Marathon, which I did with his daughter, and giving me tips about saving for retirement (BTW, that was great advice), Al showed me the ropes at Raytheon. He gave me the opportunity to learn the CAD application they were using at the time, showed me how to find (using microfiche), order (where to find and fill out the forms), and check out drawings (from the physical vault) so that I could work with a draftsman or CAD operator to update them for an assembly retrofit. I remember working on a heat transfer problem and he shared his experience working on similar problems in the past.

Al taught me a great deal in the 2.5 years I worked at Raytheon. I took that experience with me to GTE and then to PTC. Now that Al is retired, I wonder what was done to capture his invaluable knowledge and experience so that it could be used to get new engineers up to speed quickly and referenced for new product development.

In conversations with customers, I hear how the aging engineering workforce is of great concern to them. IP and knowledge capture are top of mind. The emerging engineering workforce is growing up with social networking applications that are giving way to social computing. They expect to be able to use this technology in their new jobs. Experienced engineers stand to gain great satisfaction by sharing all they know with anyone who will pay attention…it’s human nature. Is there a better way to capture and harness the expertise of the Al’s of the world for the enthusiastic, yet social networking savvy entry-level engineers, than to connect the two using social product development?


  1. Robin,
    I think we can all relate to this story. I had two "Al's" when I started with GE. One was Bill and the other was (coincidentally) Al. These guys showed me the ropes, including the introduction to the coffee club with a statement of "you drink your coffee black" - mind you, with no question mark at the end. I still drink it black to this day, I hope I learned more from them than that.

    You bring up a great point. The "Al's" of world are the keepers of tribal knowledge. They are the ones that know what the company knows. Unfortunately, the company often doesn't know what the company knows. PLM offers help in this area, but so far it has been primarily for technical data and formal processes. What social computing capabilities offer are a way to facilitate (and capture) the conversations. Threaded discussions, wikis, project notes, and other artifacts can teach us a lot if they are:
    a) Created in the first place (and this will only happen if it helps people with their current job and it is captured as a by-product)
    b) It is stored and readily searchable

    I think you (meaning PTC and other PLM vendors) have the opportunity to do even more. You have the potential to capture the conversation, but also to do it in context. PTC is a key evangelist of the benefits of "associativity" of product data (for those not familiar, this means that related data is linked together). I believe there is a large opportunity for you to help your customers to do three things:
    1 - Facilitate better collaboration
    2 - Capture the communication as corporate/tribal knowledge
    3 - Associate that communication back to the underlying product data to keep in in context and make it available for reuse on similar future projects

    Thanks for reminding me of my two old friends, and for an opportunity to discuss the future of social computing capabilities in PLM (or as you say Social Product Development."

  2. Jim,
    I really enjoyed your story and your comments on this post.

    I think a concern to some is whether Al, Bill, and others like them will use social computing tools. Recent stats ( indicate baby boomers (born 1946-1964) are the fastest growing users of social networking sites, suggesting these tools are intuitive for them to pick up in their personal lives and, I believe, these “skills” and “concepts” can translate into use in their professional lives. If intuitive and relevant social computing tools become readily available in product development and companies can adopt best practices for their use, I think Al, Bill, and their boomer colleagues will embrace social product development. And their companies will reap the benefits of capturing their knowledge and experience for the emerging engineering workforce.


  3. Thanks for the helpful information. Hope to hear more from you.