The Business-Savvy Engineer’s Introduction to Engineering Management

27 Feb 2018 6:00 PM | Tricia Simo Kush (Administrator)

By Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA
(Blog #2 EMBOK series)

In this first installment in our series on the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge (EMBoK), we answer a fundamental question: what does an engineering manager do?

Management is easy to see but difficult to describe. Given how hard it can be to wrap your arms around what constitutes management, nailing down a definition becomes very important. Understanding what is involved in being an effective engineering manager is critical to executing and improving your work.

The EMBoK says that engineering management is the “art and science of planning, organizing, allocating resources, and directing and controlling activities that have a technological component.” (p. 3). In the rest of this post, I’ll dig into what all this means in a practical sense in order to help you apply it to your day-to-day work.

Planning

Planning is the act of determining an end state you wish to see realized and determining which steps need to be taken to get to there. There are three basic levels of planning in an organization: strategic, tactical, and operational. Engineering managers, depending on where they reside in a given organization, can play a critical role in any or all three levels of planning.

At the corporate level, the CEO and executive team craft a mission and vision for the organization. These are the foundational elements of strategic plans. These plans reflect the organization’s big picture and the long-term.

Strategic plans get translated to tactical plans at the business unit level, where the planning gets more concrete and focuses on a shorter time horizon. If a company were to have a strategic plan to differentiate themselves through their advanced technology, for example, a corresponding tactical plan might be for a business unit to increase it’s spending on research and development.

Finally, tactical plans are broken down into operational plans. Operational plans cover the day-to-day work that goes on in an organization. These are the plans that get down into the nitty-gritty of how work actually gets executed.

Organizing

Organizing is the part of management that has to do with providing a structure and relationships for people in an organization. These structures make it easier for people to contextualize and execute their own work. Structures help people to see where they stand in the grand scheme of things and how they should relate and interact with others.

There are three basic organizational structures that engineering managers are likely to encounter in their organizations: functional, project-based, and matrix.

Functional organizations are the traditional hierarchical organizations that most companies used until recently. Each branch of the organization represented a particular function, like engineering, human resources, or manufacturing. Here, the functional manager is in charge of the work that goes on within their function.

Project-based organizations are grouped around the individual projects that the company is pursuing. Project teams are multi-functional and led by a project manager, who has autonomy over the project and its work. Project teams in an organization like this are a bit like mini-companies within the larger organization. When the project gets wrapped up, the team is disbanded.

In matrix organizations, employees report to both a project manager and to their functional manager, creating a hybrid of the other two organizational types. This allows for everyone to have a “home” in his or her function, and for each project to have a full cross-functional complement in order to execute work.

Allocating Resources

Allocating resources is exactly what you might expect – assigning people, capital, or equipment to a given task. Strong engineering managers are able to allocate resources in a way that gets the job done as effectively and efficiently as possible. This is often a fairly active part of an engineering manager’s work given the dynamic and uncertain nature of the technical work that many of us do.

Directing

Directing is composed of three related activities all geared towards helping staff get work done: motivating, supervising, and influencing. Anyone who has led a team before can tell you that simply asking the team to accomplish its goals won’t get the job done – teams need leadership in order to keep work going in the right direction. This is why leadership is so critical to engineering management. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” This is the essence of directing in an engineering management context.  

Controlling

Controlling is a fairly analytical component to management – one that many engineers, myself included, tend to gravitate towards. Controlling has to do with measuring performance against a pre-established baseline and taking corrective action where necessary. The real art in controlling is to decide which things to measure and when to take corrective action. With so much information available to most engineering managers, being able to cut through the fog of data to pay attention to what’s really important can be the difference between a good manager and a great one.

Next Steps

If you’re already an engineering manager, spend some time this week taking note of the activities I’ve mentioned above. Which ones tend to get emphasized for you? Which ones aren’t emphasized enough? If there is a significant imbalance, is that creating problems in your team or project? Try and make a conscious effort to redistribute your time and energy into the areas that may not be getting enough attention. There’s no doubt that the effort will yield positive results for both you and your team.

Next month, Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, CPEM will tackle Domain 2 in the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge, which covers leadership and organizational management. If you’d like to read the other posts in this series, click here. You can learn more about becoming a Certified Professional Engineering Manager here.

About Patrick Sweet

Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA is a recognized expert in engineering management and leadership with expertise in systems engineering, project management and product management. You can read more from Pat at the Engineering & Leadership blog.

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