Technical Coordination in Engineering Practice

By Trevelyan, James | Journal of Engineering Education, July 2007 | Go to article overview
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Technical Coordination in Engineering Practice

Trevelyan, James, Journal of Engineering Education


An empirical ethnographic survey of engineers using interviews and field observations in Australia provides evidence that coordinating technical work of other people by gaining their willing cooperation is a major aspect of engineering practice. Technical coordination in the context of this study means working with and influencing other people so they conscientiously perform necessary work to a mutually agreed schedule. While coordination seems to be non-technical, analysis provides evidence supporting the critical importance of technical expertise. Coordination usually involves one-on-one relationships with superiors, clients, peers, subordinates, and outsiders. Coordinating the work of other people seems to be important from the start of an engineering career.

Engineering education only provides limited informal coordination skill development and current accreditation criteria may not reflect this aspect of engineering. This paper suggests ways in which students can learn coordination, and describes some of the author's experiences in applying this research.

Keywords: coordination, engineering practice, informal leadership


Unfortunately, there are few reliable reports of research on engineering practice. Very few observations have been reported, for example, on the actual work performed by engineers, technical managers, planners, technologists, and technicians. Certain processes in engineering practice such as design and project management have been extensively studied, yet many other aspects such as maintenance have hardly received any attention at all. This is all the more surprising given the extensive debates and written literature on engineering education. An accurate account of engineering practice could help educators explain the relevance of coursework to students, helping to provide appropriate motivation for learning. Such an account may also reveal opportunities to improve curriculum design.

This project started as a comparison of engineering practice between South Asia and Australia. First hand observations of unexpectedly high end user costs for engineered services such as water supply, electricity, transport, and construction in South Asia prompted the question, "Is engineering practice different in South Asia compared with Australia?" At the same time, companies in Australia are reporting significant difficulties and financial losses in maintenance, and attempts to improve maintenance have often been ineffective. Solving these problems requires an understanding of both social and technical issues: a detailed systematic understanding of engineering practice is needed.

This paper presents initial results from an empirical study to establish a systematic framework to explain engineering practice in at least the majority of engineering disciplines. Technical coordination emerged unexpectedly as the most prominent aspect of the work performed by the 55 engineers interviewed so far, and it does not seem to have been mentioned in previous literature. Technical coordination in the context of this study means working with and influencing other people so they conscientiously perform some necessary work in accordance with a mutually agreed schedule. It is an informal process, unlike project management which has formalized written methods. Other aspects such as design appeared to be much less prominent than expected. This paper reviews relevant literature and presents a cross-section of quotations from the interviews before discussing some implications for engineering education. The author also presents some of his own attempts to create opportunities for students to learn about coordination and develop some basic skills in light of the results reported in this paper.


What do we mean by engineering practice? Distinctions between occupational groups can introduce arbitrary boundaries, especially between engineers as professionals and other workers such as technologists.

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