Monday, July 27, 2015

Engineering Insights

By: Gary J. Salton, Ph.D.
Chief: Research and Development
Professional Communications, Inc.

A sample of 4,240 engineers from all levels was compared to a sample of 29,893 people from other professions. The purpose was to assess the strengths and vulnerabilities embedded in the structure of the engineering profession. 
Click to View
A companion video augments the explanations and analysis offered here. Clicking the icon on the right directly accesses the YouTube video. Alternatively you can access the video from our website at and/or view the Two-Minute Summary video.

Table 1 outlines the sample used in the study (see Footnote #1 for job titles included in categories).
Table 1 

The large number of organizations gives assurance that the findings are not particular to a company or industry. The nationality column suggests a level of international representation. However most of the respondents are domiciled in the United States. Overall, sample is a reasonable representation of the engineering profession.

A study on the Engineering Personality (Salton, 2012; see Footnote #2 for reference) focused on professional level Engineers. It found that engineers tended to favor particular types of information flows that set them apart from other professions.  This study extends that research to embrace all levels of the engineering hierarchy.
Graphic 1 plots engineering’s commitment to the four basic information processing styles (see Footnote #3 for “style” explanation reference).  Earlier research has shown that commitment to spontaneous RI and RS information processing styles usually increase with rank.  The logically disciplined LP and HA styles usually decline (Organizational Rank and Strategic Style, 2008; see Footnote #4 for reference). These overall trend lines are in evidence in engineering but at much more subdued levels.  

The major difference centers on RS style—decisive action taken with limited information. This style typically rises with higher position. For engineers it is essentially flat (see upper left quadrant in Graphic 1)
Graphic 1

The engineer’s methodical Logical Processor (LP) action-based style gently declines with rising position. Their analytical HA style also declines but at an almost imperceptible rate. The idea-oriented RI rises mildly through mid-management. It then takes a sudden jump at the senior level.

The decisive RS style is distinct from other professions. The direction of the three later styles (i.e., lower LP and HA, higher RI) is similar to other professions. But the change between levels is much less. This is best seen by comparing the degree of change from one engineering level to next higher.

Table 2

Table 2 shows the results of the comparison between levels. Only one change meets the standard for tests of significance—the 13.5% increase in idea-oriented RI (shown in red). But this understates both the difference and its significance.
Graphic 2 (below) separates the VP of Engineering and the Chief Engineer. It shows that the two positions use very different kinds of information to do their job. The Chief Engineer’s high commitment to logical analysis and disciplined execution equips them to technically shepherd the products of engineering. It also means that they are likely to view issues in the same manner as the average engineer. They will just do so with more stringency.  

Graphic 2

The VP of Engineering has a different role. It requires a different approach. They are charged with insuring engineering’s continuing viability while guiding it into the future. This can include adjusting for changes imposed by other groups.  For example, financial constraints can limit development. Logistical bottlenecks can require changes in materials. The engineering VP has to produce options to keep the machine running in the face of these fluctuations. The greater level of idea-generating RI shown in Graphic 1 and Table 2 supports these responsibilities. It makes sense.

Graphic 3 removes the Chief Engineer from the Sr. Executive category. With only VPs in the category the percent change from mid to senior levels jumps from 13% to 22%. The chance that this is just a random measurement variation jumps from 5 in 100 to one in a 1000. The VP of engineering clearly has a distinct role in the engineering matrix.

Graphic 3

The information a person seeks and accepts sets the range of possible behaviors. Engineering exhibits more information consistency than do other professions. Consistency narrows the range of displayed behaviors. A narrower range increases behavioral similarity. Similar behaviors tend to evolve into norms. The norms then tend to solidify into systems of beliefs, values and enforced behaviors. This is the definition of a culture. That culture constrains deviant elements. This strengthens behavioral consistency.  The result is an extremely strong culture.

A strong culture has positive and negative effects. On the positive side it creates a highly efficient environment. Expectations are aligned. Strategies are understood. Standards of acceptability are well established.

On the negative side the engineering culture is keyed to environmental stability. The norms that define a culture are established patterns of behavior. They are proven over time. That makes them “sticky.” Change the environment and those norms can become suboptimal or even dysfunctional.  Organizational catalysts can accelerate the process. And the VP of Engineering is a natural catalyst.

A strong option-generating RI perspective combined with authority and resources equips the VP to facilitate needed change. Organizational pockets like R&D and Disaster Recovery can support change initiatives.  The scattering of people in all functions who maintain a commitment to change-oriented RS and RI styles can also lend support. Together, these make up engineering’s adjustment mechanisms.

The engineering structure is well-suited to its mission.  It has a strong base of logically disciplined people supported by a culture that promotes predictability and quality. A small number of VP level executives, pockets of variant styles and a scattering of uncommon individuals help keep the engineering base aligned with the environment. On balance, the internal structure of engineering is near optimal.  

But engineering functions in a social environment which is comprised of other groups with other functions. How well it aligns with those functions will influence engineering’s success. The relative rates of adjustment matter.

How much engineering differs from other professions is best assessed by comparing their information processing styles.  Differences would indicate that they are paying attention to different things, weighting them in a different fashion and/or tending to do different things with the knowledge. Table 3 compares engineering with a composite of all of the other professions. 
Table 3

Engineering differs from the other professions by an average of 7.2% across all styles and levels when the direction of difference is ignored.  This is noticeable but not remarkable.  It is likely to create an awareness “undertow.” A difference is sensed without being able to pinpoint a cause.

The root cause of the difference can be isolated by looking at the direction of the differences. Engineers rely less on the RS (spontaneous action) and LP (methodical action) strategies than do the other professions (red figures in Table 3). These styles (RS and LP) share an action orientation. Engineers are less inclined to “do” things than are members of the other professions.

The black figures in Table 3 tell the rest of the story. Engineers put more emphasis on the HA (analysis) and RI (ideas/innovation) strategies than do their professional peers. Both are thought based strategies. On average engineers are about 5.8% (average HA and RI styles across all levels) more inclined to rely on thought than are their peers—a noticeable but not striking difference.

Modest levels of difference mask profound real world effects. Engineering’s structure and culture require that issues be thought through before acceptance.  Thought tends to be a slow invisible procedure. It looks like nothing is happening. This can be frustrating for those dependent on engineering for something they need.

”New” is not the issue. Engineers relish assignments involving new products and new endeavors. It is the “how” that is the problematic issue. How is determined by the styles used to interpret reality (see Footnote #5 for elaboration).  The engineer’s analytical HA relies on understood patterns. Their methodical LP depends upon established methods of “doing” things.  The combinations of these styles establish engineering orthodoxy.  And there are a lot of things that can threaten this customary way of doing things. Unfamiliar materials (e.g., nano-materials, micro-fabrication, etc.), new technology (e.g., quantum engineering) and new markets with unfamiliar demands (e.g., internet, globalization) are just some of the current issues affecting the way engineering is done.

Engineering is less willing than other professions to relax standards. It tends to rely more on proven methods—both intellectual and physical. It often demands the full exploration of remote possibilities. The net effect is that engineering is less flexible in approach than are the other professions.  The engineering VP is a key to providing options that facilitate adaptive changes.

Graphic 4 supports the view that the engineering VP confronts a greater challenge than the VPs in other areas.  Engineering VPs are 15% more reliant on RI (p<.05). This suggests that there is something in the engineering job that is not present in their peer groups. 

Graphic 4
(Excludes Chief Engineer)

Predictability is a fundamental engineering requirement.  People want buildings that stand, cars that start and lights that work at the flip of a switch.  This is best achieved by thinking through issues (HA) and then executing with precision (LP). Engineering appears to be ideally suited to its role. Since society’s expectations are unlikely to change, it is safe to assume that engineering’s optimal posture will be stable into the future.

Since the current engineering alignment is both desirable and permanent, it is the side effects that must be managed.  Many negative side effects involve interactions with other staffs.  Graphic 5 identifies some of the inferences that might be made by these other staffs based on the style consistency of engineering. It shows engineering’s likely positive and negative attributional side effects (see Footnote #6 for source reference).

Graphic 5
Some likely negative engineering attributions are located on the bottom vertical axis (HA style) and the lower right diagonal (Conservator pattern) on Graphic 6b (see red arrows). All that is needed to offset these negative attributions is to occasionally behave in a manner that confounds the prejudgment. 

For example, the last citation on the HA axis (Graphic 6b) is “long winded.” This attribution arises due to the HA’s tendency to explain matters in complete detail.  Offsetting this would only require the engineer to occasionally start with their summary conclusion.  Detail would only be offered if there is an expressed interest.  This “to the point” approach would call into question the “long winded” attribution (see Footnote #7 for added example).

The basic idea is to choose situations and conditions that have little downside risk. Then address the issue in an unexpected manner.  This need not be done every time. An occasional display is enough to call into question a negative prejudgment.

The likely result of the strategy of managing side effects is to preserve the positive prejudgments (Graphic 6a) while diminishing the negative attributions (Graphic 6b).  The engineer would be seen as commanding a greater range of options.  This would change the calculus on the merits of including them in a decision.  Engineering’s influence would be expanded to the benefit of all involved.

The average engineer’s information processing election reinforced by the engineering culture makes change a cautious process. It is the engineering VP that has the authority, available resources and the idea-based RI style to guide adaption across the engineering organization.

The average engineering VP is well equipped to handle changes in areas such as manufacturing capabilities, materials availability or customer requirements. The years spent in navigating the engineering network while rising to senior status gives them the experience to handle these kinds of issues. They are less equipped to handle matters that impinge on engineering from the outside. 

Things like changes in workforce (e.g., women engineers), changes in corporate policy/procedure (e.g., team organization) or even changes mandated by unfamiliar technology (e.g. quantum engineering) can require adjustments that lie outside of traditional engineering experience. Universities provide this kind of knowledge outside of engineering proper in their MBA and Executive MBA programs.  It is a wise firm and executive who takes advantage of these programs.

Managing social change also involves managing existing human assets. Engineers are smart people. Harnessing them to achieve the many adaptive change objectives is aided by providing tools compatible with the basic engineering approach.  Tools such as “I Opt” TeamAnalysis™ and LeaderAnalysis™ provide a validated common technology that is tailored to the specific situation being addressed (see Footnote #7 for tool detail). Equipping engineering with tools to facilitate adapting to change should be a part of the engineering toolkit along with things like micrometers, thermometers and CAD/CAM software.  Organizational issues can be approached with the same measurement and logical rigor as any other engineering issue. 

Engineers and engineering are unique among the professions.  The differences are subtle but real and consequential. Engineering people, structure and culture are well suited to the mission. The issue is to manage the side effects of the strategies being used.  A primary exposure is the risk of negative attributions.  This can be offset by introducing unexpected, low-risk behaviors.  These confound expectations and weaken prejudgments. It is a strategy that benefits all involved. 

Another side effect of the engineering organization is reticence in adapting to changing environmental conditions. Things that effect how engineering is done can be difficult to assimilate. A key to wise and prompt adaption is the Vice Presidential level of engineering.  The degree of success is likely to be dependent on the VP’s education in the non-engineering “soft science” of management.  

The availability of organizational tools compatible with engineering methods is a basic support mechanism.  These tools can personally involve all affected. They are well aligned with the engineering approach. They show the what, why and how of the recommendations they offer. Making them available to all involved can equip the engineering organization as a whole to more quickly adapt at an earlier point.


 <1>The “Professional” row in Table 1 are working engineers in all fields of engineering (i.e., mechanical, electrical, civil,
                etc.).  “Level 1 Executive” are supervisory positions.  “Mid-level Executive” include managers, directors, 
            general managers and other similar positions.  “Senior Executive” consists of Vice President, Sr. VP and
            Executive VPs and includes Chief Engineers.

 <2> Salton, Gary (October, 2012). “The Engineering Personality.”
       A textual version can be found on our Research Blog at
A video describing the research can be found on YouTube at
       It is also available in the Coffee Break Videos section of
<3> Salton, Gary (February 2008). "I Opt" Strategic Styles and Patterns.  
       This video provides an orientational overview of how styles are used to represent information processing
       postures. A complete explanation of the theory and application of the technology is available in a
       ~17 hour online/telephone certification program conducted on demand by Shannon Nelson      
<4> Salton, Gary (April 2014). “Organizational Rank and Strategic Style”.
       This video outlines the findings of research that relates information processing elections to the rank of a 
       person in an organization. It found significant differences by level and traced the cause back to the 
       predictability of the issues being addressed at a particular level.

       A textual version can be found on our Research Blog at

A video describing the research can be found on YouTube at
       It is also available in the Coffee Break Videos section of

<5> The underlying concept is that information determines what can be done. For example, the absence of detail automatically limits the degree of precision possible. Similarly, the intended output precludes certain options and favors others. For example, thought oriented output (i.e., plans, evaluations, calculation, interpretation, etc.) impedes simultaneous action. The interaction of the various postures (both kind and degree) within a group determines probable group performance.    

<6> A battery of I Opt “snowflakes” that are predictive of observable qualities and which cover subjects like general behavior, learning, communication, emotional impact, corporate culture and general culture are available free of charge at
<7> The first attribution on the negative list of Graphic 6b—slow--provides another example. This could be offset by making a spontaneous decision without study or reflection on a matter of minor consequence.  The strategy has little risk.  There is a high probability that the decision will be the right one, study time is saved and little can be lost on a minor matter.  This decisive behavior would confound any “slow” attribution.

<8> “I Opt” technology has been used by universities and corporations in both classroom and workplace settings. In classroom settings the technology is typically used educational tool to provide a general framework for understanding human interaction. A variety of reports addressing issues such as self-discovery, learning, career and sales are used to support these activities.

In workplace settings “I Opt technology is used to improve performance of existing groups and teams. The tools typically used in this context include:
The “I Opt” TeamAnalysis™ report shows a mechanism for analyzing a team using quantitatively based methods especially appealing to the exacting standards of engineers. It can be viewed as a video at:

The “I Opt” LeaderAnalysis™ report views a group from the perspective of the leader in a way that considers the opportunities and exposures inherent in the specific group of people being led. This video offers extensive explanations of analytical technique as well as various supporting graphics and tables that are appealing to engineers. The video can be viewed at:
The “I Opt” Emotional Impact Management™ report focuses on controlling the emotions that a person causes through their interactions. Positive and negative emotions directly affect the other person’s likely reactions and performance on matters of common interest. This video can be viewed at: