Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Global Design

A few years after earning my M.A., I ended up leaving Houston to move to Alabama.

In the process, somebody asked me why my M.A. wasn't an M.B.A.. So, after I moved here, I set out in search of a degree that would be more applicable to my work in engineering. I looked into MBA programs, I looked into Engineering programs. Eventually, I looked back at my alma mater, at Purdue.

Purdue has an M.S.E. in Interdisciplinary Engineering, and one of the options is Engineering Management & Leadership. At the time I took the program, the business courses were offered in partnership with Thunderbird School of Global Management, leading to a Certificate in Global Management, and I decided that was what would work best for me.

Last fall I attended WE14, the Annual Conference for the Society of Women Engineers. This year was different, because it was held in conjunction with ICWES16, the International Conference on Women Engineers and Scientists.

I made a point on Saturday to go to some of the ICWES sessions. I don't see my notes, I think it was related to startup Technologies and Apps in Africa. There were a variety of attendees, including a diasporic student, studying engineering here in the United States (she asked about returning home, and was told that she would have to integrate her knowledge, to make what she learned here appropriate for life at home).

There were at least two other white women, I'm guessing undergraduate students or early career, who late in the Q&A portion asked about what they needed to know to write an App for Africa. After the speaker struggled to answer for a while, I spoke up.

Design, also, connects to culture. I've written about taking Globalization & Engineering. Another textbook for that course was From Global to Metanational: How Companies Win in the Knowledge Economy.  It described how a company in Detroit attempted to design an appliance (a washing machine, perhaps) for the Asian market, IIRC Singapore. A group of engineers from Singapore were brought to Detroit to help with the effort... but their efforts were not sufficient. The appliance was designed, exported, and failed in the market.

One of the reasons that the book gave, was that there is considerable tacit knowledge about a country that can only be understood by living in it. I'm vividly reminded of struggling to remember Russian prefixes, the distinction between в- and вы-, particularly when paired with verbs of motion. Four years of Russian grammar couldn't make it clear to me. One day in Moscow, going to the Metro station and watching streams of people come out the выход, and only being able to enter through the вход, made it crystal clear.

"Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me, and I understand."

The book described a second case study, where instead of bringing, say, Singaporean engineers to Detroit, they brought a few American engineering experts overseas. That design proved successful in the market, because even the Americans were experiencing what life was like in that city.

My Air Force friends have told the story, of watching a small, elderly man strap a washing machine to his back & forehead, and carry it up 5 flights of stairs to an apartment. That's not something normally experienced in the U.S., by engineers.

Now, there continues to be discussion in the U.S. about engineering culture. Kate Heddleston has written an EXCELLENT post on the subject, and I intend to follow her series.

With what I know now, I would argue that the first From Global to Metanational case study I described, the American engineers marginalized the imported engineers. Whether they "talked over" them, excluded them from social events, or listened and simply didn't comprehend what they were told... the study was not that specific.

Please read Kate's series on the subject, and think about it.