Embedded in Systems Engineering: How One Organization Makes It Work

Article excerpt

There is growing interest today in dedicating--or embedding--information professionals to a specific team. I'm a librarian embedded in a team, and I'd like to tell you what it's like. First, I need to give you some background about where I work.

The Company

While most of us are aware of information technology as a large part of daily life in our profession, when I started at the MITRE Corporation, systems engineering was unknown to me.

It isn't an easy subject to explain in the space of a paragraph. Systems engineering focuses on functional abstraction (describing and partitioning behavior independently of form), codification of relationships (how things fit together as a solution and what actions are needed so the solution can be realized), and (new to the discipline) the deliberate and accelerated mimicry of the processes that drive natural evolution.

Some of the issues currently being discussed include the management of large-scale businesses and enterprises and the development of systems made up of multiple, interrelated systems. So, while engineers solve problems with the appropriate mix of form, fit and function, systems engineers address how the solutions to individual engineering problems fit together. Keynote speakers at the SLA Toronto conference spoke about systems engineering subjects, such as transparency, the importance of the human mind, and finding innovation in change. This is "big picture" thinking, and MITRE works with its customers to find solutions to "big picture" problems.

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MITRE works in partnership with the Department of Defense, Federal Aviation Administration, Internal Revenue Service, and other U.S. government agencies to serve the public interest. We address issues of critical national importance that require a unique combination of systems engineering and information technology, developing innovative solutions to some of the government's most complex technological challenges.

As you would expect, the discipline of systems engineering is an important skill for many groups within MITRE. However, one group stands out as a corporate champion for the discipline: the Systems Engineering Process Office (SEPO). Organized in 1994, the SEPO team includes system engineers, designer/developers, and writer/editors. They advance systems engineering within MITRE through information, education, and collaboration. One of SEPO's important services is the SEPO Library, a digital collection of information related to systems engineering, so MITRE staff can find information not only from their MITRE colleagues but also from the rest of the systems engineering community.

When I joined MITRE in 2002, I was assigned to SEPO to help manage this digital collection. My position was the result of an agreement between SEPO and the Information Services Department, which also manages corporate library services. Instead of hiring a systems engineer to manage the collection, SEPO would try an information analyst, to be supplied by Information Services. This way, SEPO could gain the skills of someone with a library and information science background, while Information Services would provide supervision, training, and other support.

Co-Location

Being co-located with my customer organization was a critical factor in my success. When I started as the new SEPO information analyst, my office was two buildings away from the SEPO offices, and I knew only two contact people on the team. My assignments were to update and augment the online library and to respond to occasional research requests. I didn't know much about SEPO or about systems engineering, and I was trying to learn through the research I did. Then, at the start of a new fiscal year, I relocated to an office on the same hall with the SEPO Team, and things changed quickly.

Once I was co-located with SEPO, I met the rest of the 15-per-son team. I was invited to their meetings. …