Team Understanding Capability
The New Requirement on Higher Engineering Education

Bengt Lennartsson, Linköpings Universitet, Sweden.
Kristina Davidson, POA Consulting, Linköping, Sweden.

Abstract: There are new requirements in industry on reduced lead times and increased flexibility to adapt to changes in market situation, and in technology. Information technology has enabled new organisational solutions to co-operation, communication, information management, etc. This paper discusses the implications from this new situation on both contents and organisation of engineering education and on industrial training. The conclusions are based on experiences from several ordinary engineering curricula as well as on the development of training programs in industry and in health-care.

Keywords: Team learning, PBL, problem-based learning, project organisation, engineering education.

1 Introduction

One important presuppose for a successful company today is the capability to learn faster than its competitors. "The rate at which organisations learn may be the only sustainable source of competitive advantage" (Ray Stata, Analog Devices; from [1]). As both the development of technology and the market situation are changing faster and faster, it is necessary to integrate learning with the ordinary working activities. It is important to develop the skill to learn how to learn. Today, industrial system development is so complex that teams with experiences from many fields are needed, as well as knowledge from different disciplines, in order to be able to develop the initial shared vision and understanding of what to do, why, and how.

The Problem Based Learning [2], PBL, strategy is becoming more and more spread at universities around the world. Project organised curricula [3] and [4] have been used widely since the seventies in particular in the engineering fields. A combination of the two approaches has been used for industrial training where learning was integrated with the ordinary tasks in order to implement a learning organisation.

In this paper we first present some general ideas and characteristics of education for professional activities. Then we give a summary of what we beleive are very general requirements on education and training today. Our main contribution is presented in the section: Development of a Work Integrated Training Program. We are claiming that what we have experienced has important implications on education in general, and that approaches similar to ours are useful when trying to meet the new requirements. Our conclusions are based on experiences from several industrial training activities as well as from teaching in a large number of university programs.

2 Background

Engineering education is in general aiming at training the creative skills of the students. The professional engineer is expected to be able to design new systems, to develop new features, to built new bridges, buildings, or production plants, rather than to be able to describe the structures or the objectives of existing ones. The answers to the questions a design team may define are in general not available in the literature in the library. It is the task of the design and development team to synthesise an answer based on the total experience and knowledge available in the team. Some background data may exist already, but seldom the total solution. We claim that this skill to synthesise or create new components or systems makes the requirements on engineering education and training different from the situation in many other areas.

The requirement on a more proactive behaviour of the design and development engineer is not about knowledge and understanding. It means a change in roles and attitudes, and to achieve such a goal the group process may be supportive and in general also quite necessary. So there are several reasons to base the education and training on teams: the solution to the design problems will normally need contributions from a broad range of backgrounds, the change in behaviour and attitudes will only be achieved by means of the process in the group, and the general goal about better social and communicative skills.

2.1 Quality Assurance Strategies

Traditionally the view of the industrial system design and development activity has in general been based on the assumptions [5] that: The kaizen model [6] for continuos progress by means of incremental process and quality improvement is based on continuos observations and collection of data from the own current process. Improvements are considered to emerge from adjustments and tuning of the parameters within the current structure, rather than from switching to a new technology, or a new organisation of the work. Quality assurance philosophies [7] and [8] like the ISO 9000 series [9], and CMM, [10] and [11], have been focusing on capability to memorise and repeat procedures and responsibilities prescribed in documents and guidelines.

There are also other views focusing on flexibility and creativity, [12] and [13], rather than on hierarchical control. Ideas about organisational learning and team understanding are based upon proactive individuals [14] and autonomous teams; a bottom-up progression and co-ordination rather than on the old hierarchical model with control and guidelines from the top.

  1. Systems Thinking
    Systems Thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots. That is Systems thinking focuses on dynamic aspects rather than the static ones.
  2. Personal Mastery
    Personal Mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.
  3. Mental Models
    "Mental models" are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour.
  4. Building Shared Vision
    The capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create.
  5. Team Learning
    The discipline of team learning starts with "dialogue", the capacity of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine "thinking together". The discipline also involves learning how to recognise the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning. Continually learning how to see current reality more clearly.
  6. Technology
    Technology is the discipline of exploiting new components and technologies, of using tools and support systems for the ordinary task. The discipline has an impact on the individual work but is also an important leverage for the co-operation and communication within the organisation as well as towards activities in the outside world. The new IT, for instance, is one of the most important means for increased flexibility and efficiency ever introduced.

2.3 Experience Background

The conclusions reported in this paper are based on the following experiences: Bengt Lennartsson (