Article - Issue 19, May/June 2004

How do practising engineers learn?

Sir David Brown FREng Chairman

Download the article (49 KB)

For decades, the answer to that question was the same. Once qualified, engineers kept up with developments in their field and improved their own skills by reading; by going on courses; by attending seminars and conferences; and by talking to those around them.

We built elaborate structures around these methods of learning, and institutionalised them as Continuing Professional Development, or CPD for short.

We have long recognised that this classic approach has serious limitations.

Reading published materials cannot substitute for dialogue with fellow professionals. So we organise conferences and seminars. But attendances at the best-organised of them are limited by the practical considerations of place and time. The arrangements do not work for everyone. Indeed, they do not work for most people. And for the fortunate few who can attend, the learning experience lacks immediacy.

Worst of all, from an industrial perspective, these traditional methods of learning are slow.

Knowledge is the industry’s most valuable resource. Putting knowledge to work is what generates competitive advantage. Yet the competitive value of knowledge erodes over time, so the advantage is not sustainable. Therefore, industrial success depends on finding ever-faster ways of learning and doing.

Indeed, the rate at which we learn and do will become the last sustainable source of competitive advantage.

One of the reasons that traditional CPD is slow is because it is based on a ‘learn and then do’ model of the learning process. Really rapid learning happens when we ‘learn’ and ‘do’ at the same time.

The Information Age allows us to engage in simultaneous learning and doing on an unprecedented scale. So much so that the distinction between learning and doing is becoming increasingly difficult to discern.

For instance, when we went to the library, or attended a course or conference, we were going to a place set aside for learning, at a time set aside for learning. Then, armed with our new knowledge, we would return to our place of work to put into practice what we had learned.

Instead of going to the library to find the latest published thinking in their field, today’s engineers are just as likely to search for the knowledge online.

The IEE’s INSPEC database, for example, is a repository of nearly 8 million abstracts, growing by about a thousand abstracts every day. We can search it from our desks, on the spur of the moment, as often as we like. It is a world of knowledge just a few keystrokes away – knowledge that we can put to immediate use. Is that learning, or is that doing?

Information Age technologies are enabling us to solve the ‘immediacy’ problem associated with conferences too. The IEE’s Professional Networks allow engineers around the world to share their knowledge informally; interactively; almost conversationally. It allows them to do so with all the immediacy of the Internet – a medium which touches almost every part of our lives, whether we are engineers or not and which was made possible by the inventiveness of the engineering profession.

The IEE’s Professional Networks began only two years ago, yet already they are used by 33,000 people, 30% of whom do not live in the UK.

Professional Networks are not substitutes for face-to-face meetings. They complement them. When engineers integrate their participation in Professional Networks with their regular working day, are they learning, or are they doing? I suggest the answer is ‘both’.

Losing the distinction between learning and doing is one of the keys to improving industrial competitiveness. Some of the most remarkable developments in simultaneous learning and doing have been led by the engineering profession. So we can pause to congratulate ourselves – but only briefly.

As the Information Age continues to gather pace, it will offer many more opportunities for engineers to transform radically the way they learn and do. To seize those opportunities will require us increasingly to challenge the customary ways in which engineers learn, and the CPD structures which have evolved around them.

We must be prepared to do so, for the good of our profession and the society it serves.

Sir David Brown FREng

Chairman, Motorola UK Ltd; President, Institution of Electrical Engineers

[Top of the page]