Elaine C. Wisniewski
Purpose: This mixed-methods case study identified workplace communication practices of novice engineers and the perceptions of their managers.
Method: The study design employed convergent parallel mixed methods to identify common themes. Qualitative data were collected through open-form survey questions, diary/activity logs with follow-up semi-structured interviews, and contextual inquiry methods. Quantitative data were collected through surveys with Likert-rating scales and choice questions. Data were collected using three sources (novice engineer, engineering manager, researcher) to triangulate methods and consisted of a macro-study, with 12 participant engineer/manager pairings, and a micro-study, with 4 pairings.
Results: During data analysis, a major theme that emerged was project management communication activities, such as planning project activities, providing or soliciting updates on project activities, coordinating or facilitating a meeting or training session, and documenting and disseminating meeting discussions. Managers provide constructive criticism to novice engineers regarding their communication abilities. Specific themes were needing to (1) provide ‘big picture’ context prior to technical details; (2) develop clear, appropriate written and visual content; (3) provide confident, timely content to the audience; and (4) increase interactions with technicians and operators.
Conclusions: Novice engineers fit into a technical and social context and communicate as project managers. These communications and activities are not reserved only for more experienced engineers. Additional research with novice engineers and project management communication activities would be helpful, including an analysis of the training and support needed to be effective communicators as project managers.
Keywords: novice engineers, project management communication
When mentoring engineering students in academia or novice engineers in industry regarding project management strategies, look for approaches to
- increase their exposure to and practice with a variety of meeting communication, including impromptu meetings to formal project meetings,
- raise their awareness of the importance of building relationships with downstream audiences and external audiences,
- practice their preparation of informal communication genres, and
- raise their awareness of strategies for working with multi-disciplinary colleagues.
Novice engineers begin their employment with basic, technical, disciplinary knowledge from their coursework and/or internships and co-operative education experiences. This technical—mathematical and scientific—knowledge is then utilized in the engineer’s daily activities to analyze and solve problems. To assist in their work, the engineers will use—at varying frequencies—computerized tools to develop work products/deliverables, such as spreadsheet software for data analysis, word processing software to prepare short reports/memos and meeting minutes, presentation software to prepare slides, computer-aided-design (CAD) modeling software to develop prototypes, and email software to transmit their deliverables and schedule meetings (e.g., Anderson, 1985; Kreth, 2000; Winsor, 1996; Wolfe, 2006). This type of work can appear, on the surface, to be solitary and void of social interaction and considers the engineer as only a technical specialist, which is not consistent with how engineers actually function within an organization.
Studies of engineering workplaces show that engineers work on multi-disciplinary project teams and are required to demonstrate non-technical professional skills (or “soft skills”), such as effective communication skills and ethical reasoning, and societal and global awareness (e.g., ABET, 2016; NAE, 2005). Other studies provide insight into the dynamics of effective teams, including the importance of engineers needing to employ interpersonal skills in a conversational and informal setting (Darling & Dannels, 2003; Martin, Maytham, Case, & Fraser, 2005; Wolfe, 2009). Ultimately, queries of executives and managers show that “technical abilities are a given; communication and leadership differentiate,” leading to recognition, promotion, and confidence (Sageev & Romanowski, 2001, p. 690) and that “an essential part of an engineer’s job is communicating results or recommendations” to motivate action (Norback, Leeds, & Forehand, 2009, p. 13; Trevelyan, 2014).
The work of an engineer is situated within both technical and social contexts, and the engineer’s work cannot exist in only one or the other. In Making of an Expert Engineer (2014), James Trevelyan, who conducted numerous field studies of former students/practicing engineers at work, argues that the engineer may not consider him- or herself as a project manager, which the engineer may view as “planning, preparing a Gantt chart, and is largely an administrative non-technical function, something that anyone who can’t handle ‘technical stuff’ is able to do” (Trevelyan, 2014, p. 325). However, Trevelyan argues, project management is actually “leading and guiding people to faithfully translate technical ideas into an engineering reality in line with project objectives” (p. 325), of which having membership within the socio-technical contexts allows experienced and novice engineers to be particularly well suited as project managers. Other perceptions of the project management role, as reported in the literature, is as a transition from a technical role to a managerial role in the organization/company and as a career shift to more power and influence in the organization (Hodgson, Paton, & Cicmil, 2011).
Project management can be viewed as a profession in and of itself, especially given the 40+ years existence of the PMI (Hodgson, Paton, & Cicmil, 2011; PMI, 2018). The PMI website markets its Project Management Professional (PMP®) as the “gold-standard” certification that provides “a significant advantage when it comes to salary and earning potential . . . a higher salary (20% higher on average) than those without” (PMI, 2018). However, Hodgson, Paton, & Cicmil (2011) argue that although the shift later in one’s career from a technical role to a management role is often viewed as a promotion, it can be met with the misconception of power and heightened status. Hodgson et al. (2011) found in their focus groups with experienced project managers who transitioned from a technical role to a project management role that their daily activities are “often at a lower level than was anticipated . . . including responsibilities of a ‘glorified secretary’ such as managing templates and schedules for delivery, and chasing up overdue tasks” (p. 380).
Although project management responsibilities are not specific to just engineers (quite the contrary, as project management is ubiquitous throughout disciplines and industries), the expectation for novice engineers (rather than more experienced engineers) to assume this role and to demonstrate effective communication skills has not been explicitly stated in the technical communication literature. Therefore, the present study suggests that novice engineers communicate as project managers.
This article describes how novice engineers approach project management communication with data drawn from a larger study designed to explore gaps in engineering communication curricula. I begin by briefly describing the overall study in order to contextualize the data relating to project management communication. I then use the Project Management Institute (PMI) five-phase process to analyze two types of results: 1) project management communication practices observed, and 2) feedback from managers and engineers about improvements needed in project management communication. I then bring these two sets of results together and offer suggestions for future research.
The study design employed convergent parallel mixed methods, in which the quantitative and qualitative data collection occurred simultaneously to converge upon identifying common themes (Creswell, 2014). Qualitative data collection methods included open-form survey questions, diary/activity logs (“weekly updates”) with follow-up semi-structured interviews via email as needed, and contextual inquiry methods (semi-structured, unstructured interviews; observations; focus groups). Quantitative data were collected through Likert-rating scales and choice questions. All methods were exempt by the Human Research Protection Programs at Texas Tech University (#505246) and the University of Michigan (#HUM00102347).
To reduce systematic bias and triangulate methods, data were collected using three sources (novice engineer, engineering manager, researcher). Twelve participant pairings were recruited through non-probability sampling approaches (purposeful, snowball, and convenience sampling) and through various sources, including alumni databases, colleagues, guest speakers in courses, and the already recruited participants. Participation was not incentivized. Table 1 shows demographic and company information for the 12 pairings.
Table 1. Demographics of engineers and managers, and site descriptors. Each pairing was assigned a numerical code, and their numerical codes range from P1 to P10. However, two engineers (P2, P5) were transferred to another rotation and location within their company in mid-March, but they still wanted to participate in the study. Because they had a new manager, the code for their first pairing was coded as “a” (P2a, P5a) and their second rotation is coded as “b” (P2b, P5b).
|Gender||Major||Age||Grad Year||Gender||Years Exp.||Industry||Comp.||Location|
Data collection occurred from January 2016 through May 2016 and consisted of a macro-study, with 12 participant pairings, and a micro-study, with 4 participant pairings.
Macro-Study Data Collection
The macro-study data collection process consisted of two on-line surveys (study start and end) for both engineers and managers, and diaries/weekly updates for the engineers.
The engineers’ survey consisted of 13 questions, which were divided into 6 general topics: preparation to communicate in industry, definition of effective communication, forms and frequency of communication, intended audiences, effectiveness as a communicator, and demographics. Questions were adapted from studies of workplace communication practices (e.g., Aller, 2001; Anderson, 1985; Kreth, 2000). Many questions asked of engineers were also asked of managers from the perspective of their perceptions of the novice engineer’s communication (e.g., definition of effective communication and its importance, effectiveness of their engineer’s communication, forms and frequency of communication, intended audiences). In addition, managers were asked about the types of feedback or training they provide their engineer, potential consequences of poor communication skills, and demographics. The surveys were designed using Qualtrics Survey Software and consisted of 5-point-Likert scale statements, multiple-choice questions, and open-form responses.
All engineers completed weekly updates, akin to behavior diary studies that request participants to document their behavior as they perform activities (Goodman, Kuniavsky, & Moed, 2012, pp. 245–246; Spinuzzi, 2013, p. 124). The engineers were geographically located in several regions throughout the United States (seven Midwestern states, three Southwestern states, one Northeastern state, one Southern state); therefore, email with Microsoft Word attachments was used to request and collect the updates. The engineer was typically emailed the writing prompt at the start of the week with the request for a response within the week. The prompts included the same questions each week, which were framed through a rhetorical lens to capture various aspects of the communication activity, including context, purpose, genre, intended audience, technology or mode used, and frequency.
Micro-study Data Collection
The goal of the micro-study was to strengthen the quality of the data by conducting contextual inquiry of the workplace and by triangulating the methods and the participant viewpoints. Framed by three guiding principles––(1) the data gathering takes place in context of users’ work, (2) the people at the inquiry form a partnership, and (3) the inquiry is based on focused concerns rather than on specific questions––contextual inquiry can provide a rich perspective regarding how the worker(s) operate as they conduct real work (Raven & Flanders, 1996). During contextual inquiry, four kinds of information can be gathered, including (1) tools used, (2) sequences of actions, (3) participants’ methods of organization, and (4) interactions with others (Goodman et al., 2012, p. 233, citing Beyer & Holtzblatt’s framework). Four pairings participated, with visits lasting 3–5 hours. With care toward reducing self-reporting bias from surveys and updates, the engineers’ responses were reviewed for any responses that needed clarification. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers, consisting of questions to clarify their responses to the survey and observations made during the visit.
Data Analysis Methods
The data were analyzed as two groupings: (1) communication practices and (2) perceptions of communication and areas for improvement. Quantitative data collected from surveys was exported from Qualtrics into Excel where mean values, ranges, and counts were determined for the scale and multiple-choice questions. Qualitative data collected from surveys, updates, and contextual inquiry were imported into and coded in NVivo 11.2.2 for Mac, using provisional and descriptive coding approaches (Saldana, 2013). Coding and analyzing the data was fairly straightforward because of how the questions were designed. The responses regarding the communication practices fit into pre-determined codes, such as purpose, genre, frequency, audience, modality, and technology. However, what was lacking was an appreciation of the exigency and motivation for the communication. Therefore, asking, “Why is the engineer preparing xyz?” allowed for a higher-level coding framework to emerge, which were the five PMI project management phases.
As background, the Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI), a not-for-profit professional membership association, has almost 3 million members and 650,000 certified practitioners worldwide through their 8 exam-based and experienced-based certification options (PMI, 2018). PMI defines project management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements” and has defined five process phases within the project life cycle (PMI, 2013):
- Project Initiation: “processes performed to define a new project or a new phase of an existing project by obtaining authorization to start the project or phase”
- Project Planning: “processes performed to establish the total scope of the effort, define and refine the objectives, and develop the course of action required to attain those objectives”
- Project Execution: “processes performed to complete the work defined in the project management plan to satisfy the project specifications”
- Project Monitoring and Controlling: “processes required to track, review, and orchestrate the progress and performance of the project; identify any areas in which changes to the plan are required; and initiate the corresponding changes”
- Project Closing: “processes performed to conclude all activities across all Project Management Process Groups to formally complete the project, phase, or contractual obligations”
Table 2 shows categories of the engineers’ communication practices, including its purpose (project management, project research and analysis, meeting), audience, genres, communication modes, and media forms.
Table 2. Coding for engineers’ communication practices in the workplace
|Communication Practices||Codes and Sub-Codes|
|Project management activities||Project initiation: Define project scope; Define stakeholders; Identify financial resources; Prepare initial timeline
Project planning: Refine budget; Refine project scope; Refine timeline
Project execution: Coordinate personnel, resources; Develop deliverables; Manage stakeholder expectations; Perform project activities
Project monitoring, controlling: Monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Project closing: Prepare end-of-project deliverables
|Project research and analysis activities||Interpersonal communication: Initiate or facilitate meeting; Assign tasks/action items; Propose design change; Train colleagues
Intrapersonal communication: Analyze technical data/lab results; Review financial data; Review safety issues; Review standards/regulations
|Meeting communication activities||Types of meetings: Daily/weekly/monthly; Design review; Impromptu; New project/kick-off; Project status/action steps/report-out
Activities for meetings: Initiate meeting; Participate during meeting; Perform after meeting activities; Prepare for meeting
|Audience||Internal audiences: Upstream (president, vice president, director, manager/supervisor); Midstream (engineer, sales, finance, maintenance, scientists, production); Downstream (receptionist, operator/technician, interns)
External audiences: Contractors; Customers; Legislators, government; Outreach activities; Vendors
|Genre||Electronic communication: Email messages
Written communication (project management): Meeting minutes; Pre-printed forms (trial requests, work orders, quotes); Progress report (slides/memo); Task list; Timeline
Written communication (project analysis): Advertising/marketing material; Journal articles; Letter; Patent applications; Poster; Proposal; Report (feasibility, laboratory, trip, product evaluation, A3); Scripts; Specifications; Spreadsheet data; Technical instructions; Web pages
Oral communication: Formal presentation; Informal presentation; Pitch presentation; Poster presentation; Project report (oral)
|Hardware used to communicate||Written communication: Computer, laptop, monitor; Flip chart; Paper, pen, pencil; Telephone w/texting; Whiteboard
Oral communication: Computer, laptop, monitor; Conference call system; Telephone; Walkie-talkie
Visual communication: Computer, laptop, monitor; Flip chart; Presentation equipment; Video recorder; Whiteboard
Electronic communication: Computer, laptop, monitor
|Software used to prepare communication||Video, conference call: Lync; Skype; WebEx
Email: Outlook (or not specified)
Drawings: AutoCAD; Visio
Data analysis: Excel
Word Processing: Word
Table 3 shows categories developed for the perceptions of communication and areas to improve. Table 3. Coding for perceptions of engineering communication in workplaces
|Perceptions||Codes and Sub-Codes|
|Characteristics of effective communication||Able to interact with varied audiences: Address audience needs (upstream, midstream, downstream, external); Use audience preferred medium (memo, reports, email, text/IM, phone, face-to-face, visuals)
Able to apply communication strategies: Structure, focus message; Use clarity, concision; Use professional tone, level
Able to apply interpersonal skills: Deliver information confidently; Work as a team
|Consequences of ineffective communication||Engineer’s responsibilities and career opportunities would be limited: Not being reliable; Not selected to lead projects; Limited chances for promotion; Limited chance for foreign/international project assignments
Loss of trust amongst internal and external audiences: Frustration for customers; Loss of business; Loss of trust from customer, boss, peer
Negative impact on project: Project activities; Timeline; Budget
|Areas for improvement||Provide “big picture” context prior to technical details: Need context: Too much focus on technical details
Develop clear, appropriate written content and visual content: Clarify wording; Clarify technical descriptions; Improve readability; Modify graphs
Provide confident, timely content to audience: Address difficult situations; Provide information confidently; Provide information timely
Increase interactions with technicians and operators: Engineers need encouragement to interact
|Support and training resources||Public speaking: In-person training; Networking events; On-site and off-site groups (Toastmasters)
Negotiation: In-person training; Off-site training (PowerTalk)
Confidence development: In-person training
The results are presented in two sections: first, the communication practices in project management, using the PMI framework are presented; second, the perceived areas of improvement are presented.
Results: Communication Practices in Project Management
During data analysis, a major theme that emerged was project management communication activities, such as planning project activities, providing or soliciting updates on project activities, coordinating or facilitating a meeting or training session, and documenting and disseminating meeting discussions. As shown in Figure 1, the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) five phases of the project life cycle provided a framework for further analyzing these activities (PMI, 2013).
Phase 1. Project Initiation
The Project Initiation phase consists of “processes performed to define a new project or a new phase of an existing project by obtaining authorization to start the project or phase” (PMI, 2013). Only one engineer (P3) reported in her survey that she actively recruits customers to offer her services for new projects. Other engineers did not report in their survey or weekly update and were not observed initiating projects into the company workflow by defining stakeholders or defining initial project scope, timelines, and financial resources. However, one engineer (P6) did report in her weekly update that she received direction from her managers to start planning new projects that were already initiated.
Phase 2: Project Planning
The Project Planning phase consists of “processes performed to establish the total scope of the effort, define and refine the objectives, and develop the course of action required to attain those objectives” (PMI, 2013). This phase may “require the use of repeated feedback loops for additional analysis,” such as revisiting project timelines and budgets (PMI, 2013). As shown in Figure 1, the activities that were observed in this study were refining project scope, timelines, and budgets.
As one example of the communication that occurs during Project Planning, one engineer (P6) described in her weekly update a new project assignment that her manager asked her to plan and scope. As part of receiving this new assignment, the engineer needed to communicate with an external stakeholder (a contractor providing services to their company). The engineer emailed the contractor to request a telephone conference call. During this conference call, the engineer raised concerns about a proposed existing solution (proposed by a more senior-level engineer) that would temporarily address a safety hazard but was not addressing the root cause of the problem. As an action item from the meeting, the engineer developed a potential solution and a plan for executing the solution. The project plan included a timeline, the perceived risks associated with the project, potential solutions to the problem, and the cost savings to support the idea. The engineer would then email the plan to their manager and, eventually, the company employees who handle the company’s financials.
Another engineer (P5a) reported in her weekly update that she was responsible for planning a new design phase of a capital plant project. This engineer was tasked with ensuring that the project’s scope and equipment design requirements aligned with the needs of the facility and the operators. Through face-to-face meetings with the stakeholders; including the engineering design group, the plant and operations managers, and the capital project/asset managers; the engineer prioritized the new phase of the project based on the safety issues and the annual capital budget. The engineer also presented the overall project status, timeline, and budget to the project team in a design review meeting.
Phase 3: Project Execution
The Project Execution phase consists of “processes performed to complete the work defined in the project management plan to satisfy the project specifications” (PMI, 2013). Activities within this phase include “coordinating people and resources, managing stakeholder expectations, as well as integrating and performing the activities of the project in accordance with the project management plan” (PMI, 2013). Because of the iterative nature of project management, the phases do not always function in a linear fashion; therefore, the Project Planning phase can be revisited during the Project Execution phase.
Coordinating personnel and resources
The engineers reported being responsible for coordinating personnel and resources during Project Execution and that they were responsible for the appropriate project personnel attending a meeting, initiating and organizing the meeting, and facilitating the meeting. Figure 2 shows a visual representation of the meeting communication types and activities.
To execute their projects, the engineers relied on email communication. From the surveys, both the engineers and the managers rated email messages as having the highest frequency of preparation over all types of communication. (Engineer final survey: n = 11, M = 4.91, SD = 0.30; Manager final survey: n = 10, M = 4.60, SD = 0.52). Within the weekly updates, the main context when using email was during project management activities, specifically when performing project activities and initiating or facilitating various types of meetings, such as daily/weekly/monthly meetings, project status meetings, design review meetings, new project/kick-off meetings, and impromptu meetings.
The following example describes one engineer’s (P1) experiences during meeting activities, specifically how email messages supported these activities. (Additional support of these experiences as reported by other engineers and managers are also addressed.) The engineer (P1) reported that she had scheduled and facilitated an “action-step” meeting with her colleagues. However, prior to deciding to convene this meeting, the engineer had to decide whether to discuss the project issues via email with the project team or initiate a face-to-face meeting. Because of the urgency of the issues, the engineer decided to initiate a meeting via email one day in advance to have time to prepare. This finding was consistent with a manager’s comment (P2a) that he encourages engineers to forego email messages/correspondence for project discussions and opt for in-person or Web conference meetings; and, three other engineers (P3, P4, P6) also mentioned that they have found using the phone to schedule a meeting to be much simpler than starting an email chain. Two other engineers (P2a, P3) reported using this approach and only used email in non-emergency and low-urgency situations, such as sending work products/deliverables or sending requested information. Another engineer (P6) was observed in a contextual inquiry preparing an email message to her manager by attaching a project update report. Another engineer (P2a) also reported that email messages were used by his colleagues as “a sort of log for their own records” regarding the project activities.
Within the engineer’s (P1) email message that initiated the meeting with the project team, the engineer also provided the team an opportunity to prepare for the meeting by attaching an agenda that outlined the scope of the meeting and a bullet point list of topics to discuss. When the attendees met, because the engineer (P1) was the host, she took notes while participating in the meeting and emailed these notes as meeting minutes and next steps to the attendees after the meeting.
In the contextual inquiry, all four engineers were observed and/or interviewed regarding their preparation of email messages. For example, an engineer (P6) attended a meeting with a logistics/scheduler to discuss the logistics of testing and manufacturing a new chemical formula or “recipe” for a desired product. This engineer was also responsible for coordinating a training session with process engineers and her manager. Another engineer (P1) reported via interview that it was common for new engineers, especially if a Product or Program Manager, to lead meetings, and the engineer had been leading meetings since starting at the company. However, the engineer did bring in a more experienced engineer to sit in on phone calls in case of “push back” from the customer. Collectively, the engineers reported using email to initiate meetings with colleagues, to provide materials to colleagues to prepare for the meetings, to document the meeting conversations during the meeting, and to disseminate the meeting minutes and action items to colleagues after the meeting.
Managing stakeholder expectations
The stakeholders involved with the engineers’ projects were wide ranging, including upstream, midstream, and downstream as internal audiences and customers, and vendors as external audiences. To manage the stakeholders’ expectations of the project activities, the engineers reported in their weekly updates that they initiate or attend meetings that will review the status of their projects on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
Performing project research and analysis activities
The engineers reported activities that are related to project research and analysis activities, including interpersonal or intrapersonal communication activities. Interpersonal activities (as reported in the weekly updates or observed in the contextual inquiry) are when the engineers were interacting with other people to accomplish the project’s goals, which included (1) initiating or facilitating meetings, (2) assigning tasks or action items, (3) proposing design changes, and (4) training colleagues.
- Initiating or facilitating meetings. All engineers reported in their weekly updates or were observed initiating or facilitating meetings. The types of meetings were daily, weekly, monthly, and impromptu meetings.
- Assigning tasks or action items. Several engineers (P1, P2a, P6) reported in their weekly updates or were observed assigning tasks or action items. These activities were usually reported by the engineers as being part of the meeting activities when planning for next steps on the project.
- Proposing design changes. Several engineers (P2a, P2b, P5a, P7, P9) reported in their weekly updates that they were responsible for proposing design changes to their colleagues. As an example, one of these engineers (P2b) reported that he needed to prepare a proposal for solving a problem with a primary reactor. This problem was discovered during a walk-through audit of the plant with an Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) specialist from the company. By sketching a Piping and Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID), the engineer identified a potential solution to this problem by adding an additional piece of equipment. In a conference room, the engineer verbally presented his proposal, including the sketch, to the plant manager, a plant engineer, and the EHS specialist. As another example, one engineer (P9) was responsible for researching options and developing implementation plans for a new stretch-wrapping machine to secure her product drums to pallets. Every day, the engineer communicated with various people inside the company, such as logistics supervisors and personnel, manufacturing representatives, and technical engineering managers. The engineer also communicated with outside vendors through email messages.
- Training colleagues. Only one engineer (P6) reported in her update that she was responsible for training colleagues. This engineer trained the process engineers and operations leaders on using a GoPro video camera. The process engineers and operations leaders would use the camera to record plant activities and to study any problems; they could then develop countermeasures to these problems. In addition to providing a hands-on demonstration and an opportunity to “play with” the camera, the engineer also developed a procedural manual for how to use the camera. The manual included many pictures and described very specific details for operating the camera’s features.
Intrapersonal activities occurred when engineers worked alone to accomplish project goals, which included (1) analyzing technical data and/or laboratory results, (2) reviewing journal articles, (3) reviewing standards and/or regulations, (4) reviewing financial data, and (5) reviewing safety issues.
- Analyzing technical data and laboratory results. Two engineers (P1, P6) reported (in their updates) and were observed analyzing technical data and laboratory results.
- Review standards and/or regulations. One engineer (P2b) reported (in his updates) and was observed reviewing industry consensus standards. The engineer was developing a best practices guide for creating Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams (P&ID). When reviewing existing diagrams, the engineer was confused as to how to notate a particular measurement on a piping line. The measurement could either be the pipe’s nominal pressure rating or the corrosion allowance for the pipe. The engineer referred to the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) standards but also emailed with a company expert in P&ID documentation to discuss many different standards.
- Reviewing financial data. Three engineers (P5a, P6, P9) reported (in their updates) reviewing financial data related to their projects. As one example, one engineer (P5a) addressed his preparation for a meeting between the project team and the regional controlling team. The meeting’s purpose was to gather and review financial information for their value chain analysis. The engineer reviewed the financial data, prepared informal notes, and provided a verbal assessment in a face-to-face meeting.
- Reviewing safety issues. Several engineers (P2b, P3, P5a, P6, P9) reported (in their updates) needing to review safety issues with their products or processes. As one example, an engineer (P3) reported that her customer had requested a status update on the investigations related to warranty parts, a determination for why the parts failed, and a determination for who was responsible for the part failure. In managing the stakeholders’ expectations, this engineer performed the research and also prepared a Process Failure Modes Error Analysis (PFMEA) form.
All engineers reported (in their surveys and/or updates) or were observed developing deliverables, such as email messages, presentation slides, and meeting minutes. The typical project management communication included meeting minutes, task lists, timelines, progress reports (slides, memos), and pre-printed forms (trial requests, work orders, quotes). Of the project analysis genres, the most commonly reported genre was spreadsheet data, as seven engineers (P1, P2a, P4, P5a, P5b, P6, P9) reported or were observed preparing or reviewing this genre. The spreadsheets included testing trial data, production data, and accounting or financial data. Several engineers (P2a, P2b, P5a, P7, P9) reported being responsible for developing proposals for equipment design changes or additions to their colleagues. Although the engineers did not report preparing specifications, three engineers (P1, P3, P5b) identified situations when they use specifications in their project analysis activities. As an example, one engineer (P1) prepared requests for product specifications through her company’s electronic pre-printed forms. Another engineer (P3) used specifications to support conversations with customers. Another engineer (P5b) needed to provide equipment specifications as reference material at design review meetings. Only one engineer (P6) prepared technical instructions for colleagues; these instructions were for how to use a GoPro camera. The engineer included many pictures to accompany the manual and described very specific details for operating the camera’s features. The engineer reported that having these details would be the most helpful to colleagues, especially if they were not able to speak with an engineer for clarification. Finally, no engineers prepared or used feasibility or laboratory reports.
As addressed later in the Project Closing phase, two engineers (P2a, P5a) prepared or delivered a formal oral presentation, which was their end-of-rotation presentation. Also, as mentioned earlier regarding meeting communication, many engineers presented oral progress reports on their project activities.
Phase 4: Project Monitoring and Controlling
The Project Monitoring and Controlling phase consists of the “processes required to track, review, and orchestrate the progress and performance of the project; identify any areas in which changes to the plan are required; and initiate the corresponding changes” (PMI, 2013). As described above in “Managing Stakeholder’ Expectations,” several engineers were involved in project status meetings with internal and external audiences. These meetings consisted of reviewing project timelines, presenting results from testing or research activities, and proposing changes to the project scope or timeline, as necessary. One engineer (P5a) specifically reported his involvement in monthly meetings where he monitors many aspects of the projects, including a review of high-profile accidents/incidents, a review of process safety Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and a review of internal audit/inspection of housekeeping, safe work permits, and safety work order progress.
Other engineers also described specific examples of when they needed to initiate and execute changes to their work. For example, one engineer (P1) had identified a new technology to address a customer’s need, even though the customer had already agreed to the original plan. The engineer needed to convince her project team and the customer that this new approach was valid to pursue.
Phase 5: Project Closing
The Project Closing phase consists of the “processes performed to conclude all activities across all Project Management Process Groups to formally complete the project, phase, or contractual obligations” (PMI, 2013).
Three engineers (P2a, P5a, P7) prepared project closing documentation. Two engineers (P2a, P5a) were completing their 8-month rotation assignments and were required to summarize their project work for other employees in the company, including plant supervisors, program managers, and other rotation engineers. This communication included a 30-minute presentation and an information project handoff memo that identified the problems and solutions developed on the project and lessons learned. However, these projects continued after the engineers left their rotation, and these communication activities were not representing an official closing of the project but rather the engineers’ involvement on the project.
Results: Improvement for Project Management Communication
To determine areas of improvement, the engineers and managers were asked to report how the engineers could improve their communication skills. All managers reported (surveys, interviews) that they or the company provide novice engineers with training and support with their communication skills. Collectively, the feedback was constructive criticism rather than major deficiencies in their communication abilities. Specific themes related to the types of feedback provided to the engineers were needing to (1) provide ‘big picture’ context prior to technical details; (2) develop clear, appropriate written and visual content; (3) provide confident, timely content to the audience; and (4) increase interactions with technicians and operators. In addition to addressing this feedback, the majority of managers (n=10) reported the availability of computer-based courses and/or in-person workshops as support resources sponsored by their company or external companies. Topics included how to
- improve their preparation of documentation,
- manage conflict,
- work as a team,
- develop confidence, and
- develop their public speaking and presentation skills. (e.g., Toastmasters).
Provide “Big Picture” Context Prior to Technical Details
One engineer (P2b) and several managers (P2a, P4, P8) responded in their surveys that engineers should provide a “big picture” context prior to describing the technical details in both written and oral communication. The engineer (P2b) reported that he received feedback from his manager regarding how he tended to focus on the technical details and can “get hung up on small details that do not matter in the long run.” Similarly, one manager (P2a) mentioned that his engineer, who is the same engineer as P2b, had prepared a written project update to a unit manager but “dove right into the details” rather than provide “context and scope.” The manager (P2a) explained to the engineer that, although the unit manager would have knowledge of the project, the document needed to remind of the context prior to presenting the details. Furthermore, this manager provided feedback to the engineer that the purpose of providing the context was for “painting the picture of the situation.” This manager (P2a) also provided similar feedback to his engineer regarding their oral presentation content for a mixed audience of technical and non-technical attendees. For this situation, the manager provided “a good deal of feedback on how to tell a story” during his presentation to reach all audiences.
Develop Clear, Appropriate Written and Visual Content
Several managers (n=4) provided feedback to engineers that focused on developing clear, appropriate written content. The types of feedback provided to engineers included needing to clarify wording and descriptions of technical information to improve the readability of the document and to modify visuals and graphs. One manager (P5a) provided feedback to his engineer regarding the appropriateness of the wording used in a document (a risk assessment). The main purpose of the feedback was for the document to include the company’s key terminology:
Our new engineer had to perform and document a risk assessment. Prior to issuing the risk assessment, 2 different people reviewed the assessment to ensure that it was worded properly. Where changes were made there was a discussion on why. We also commented on the other parts of the document to re-enforce the why making the points was necessary. The modifications were mainly to ensure that they hit on key terminology for our company. (Manager P5a)
One manager (P8) suggested that the document needed more clarification regarding the content being presented:
Review of information received from the customer regarding technical specifications for the project. My feedback was only to clarify some points described regarding interpretation of the specification. (Manager P8)
Another manager (P2a) praised the technical content of the document (a controls outline for a reactor) but still needed to provide feedback to the engineer regarding the readability of the document:
The controls outline for the . . . reactor. I provided a good deal of feedback on readability of the document. All of the technical was there, that was not the problem. (Manager P2a)
Another manager (P6) praised the report written by the engineer but asked the engineer to provide feedback for modifying the graphs:
[engineer] prepared a report for a trial [they] had executed on our equipment. This was [their] first trial and report. I had [them] modify some of the graphs but everything else met expectations. (Manager P6)
Provide Confident, Timely Content to the Audience
Some managers provided feedback (n=4) to engineers regarding being more confident and comfortable when presenting information to their audience. Similarly, one engineer (P9) reported that he has sometimes received feedback that he is too “hesitant” and needs to “just pick up the phone or walk over and talk to people whenever I can, don’t wait.” Example manager quotes regarding this type of feedback are the following:
The feedback is usually more about being confident and thorough. If they do not sound confident the customer or receiver will sense it. (Manager P1)
In discussions with the engineer, the topic of increasing the effectiveness of the verbal communication by being more forceful in the decisions and recommendations from the test results. (Manager P7)
One manager (P1) provided feedback to her engineer regarding the importance of confidently providing timely content to the audience. The feedback was specifically regarding content that was “not so good news” or “bad news” to the audience. The manager commented that avoiding a difficult situation “only makes it worse,” and the engineer should “address tough topics promptly.” Prompt communication was identified by the manager as being able to “reply within minutes or a[n] hour, but no later than 24 hours.” This manager also suggested that even if the engineer did not have “the answer” to the inquiry, she should “acknowledge the receipt of the note and say when next steps can be provided.” When confronted with a difficult situation, the manager emphasized the importance of not allowing “someone to talk you in to doing something that is wrong or does not make sense.” In this situation, the manager suggested that the engineer should request help from her manager.
This manager’s engineer (P1) also commented that her manager suggested training classes that focused on public speaking and negotiation. The manager had told the engineer that she was “too quiet and need[ed] to be more confident” in meetings. This engineer reported that these classes were helpful in improving her communication and believes her communication “will improve over time as I become more comfortable.”
Increase Interactions with Technicians and Operators
As mentioned previously, the engineers reported and were observed interacting with technicians and operators in their job, even though their coursework did not emphasize this potential audience. In one manager’s (P2b) survey, he identified interactions with technicians as a “gap” in the skillset of the novice engineer, given that most novice engineers have only worked with other engineers until they are employed; therefore, interacting with operators becomes a skill learned on the job:
A gap that typically exists is engineers working with operators (plant floor personal) on specific problems. Many new engineers have only worked with other engineers. Having the ability to relate to plant floor personnel is typically learned on the job, but can be very valuable if the new engineer already has this experience. (Manager P2b)
One manager (P2b) mentioned in his interview and another manager (P5a) mentioned in his survey that he has needed to provide feedback and encouragement to his engineers to communicate with this audience, and, after this encouragement, both managers mentioned that the engineers were able to have positive interactions.
The present study was designed to research workplace communication practices of novice engineers and the perceptions of their managers, and to specifically bridge gaps between those findings and classroom instruction of engineering students. Although this study was not designed to specifically explore project management communication, this theme emerged as a framework for describing their activities. Therefore, the main takeaway from the results is that novice engineers apply their technical knowledge and communication skills to manage projects and facilitate activities toward the project goals.
Consistent with James Trevelyan’s (2014) text, Making of an Expert Engineer, the findings from the present study show that the novice engineers utilize project management communication and are involved—in some capacity—in all phases of the project life cycle, ranging from project initiation through execution and closing. These communications and activities are not reserved only for more experienced engineers. Although numerous studies have identified engineer communication practices, such as the range of purposes, audiences, genres, and technologies, very few studies have connected the dots as clearly as Trevelyan has. The present study, therefore, supports Trevelyan’s claim that engineers fit into a technical and social context, and they communicate as project managers. (More research into whether the engineers have awareness of this fit would be interesting to pursue, as well as their awareness of the project life cycle steps and PMI framework.)
Although not unique to project management communication, the areas of improvement offered by managers and engineers can be categorized into four themes, all of which are consistent with findings from other studies of alumni and engineers and managers. On the highest level, the themes are related to awareness of the audience attitudes and values (Norback et al., 2009). For example, the first theme was to provide “big picture” context to the audience prior to the technical details. Rather than starting with the details of the project, managers suggested that the engineer “tell a story” to provide a larger picture of the project. From other published studies, having this awareness of and sensitivity to audience needs is essential when communicating with a decision-making audience, such as upper management and executives or a global audience who may not have the familiarity of the project (Martin, Maytham, Case, & Fraser, 2005; Nicometo, Anderson, & Nathans-Kelly, 2010; Norback et al., 2009).
Audience awareness is also relevant in the second theme of needing to provide clear and appropriate written and visual communication. Consistent with other studies, being concise and direct, and using the appropriate jargon and conventions is fundamental to communicating effectively (Aller, 2001; Conrad, 2017; Nicometo et al., 2010; Norback et al., 2009).
The third theme is providing confident and timely content to the audience. Similar to other studies, being able to demonstrate interpersonal skills were reported as essential aspects of communicating effectively, such as being confident and assertive at meetings, being proactive when information-seeking and sharing, and being able to initiate conversations with others using proper etiquette in-person and via email (Nicometo et al., 2010; Norback et al., 2009; Sageev & Romanowski, 2001).
The fourth theme is increasing interactions with downstream audiences, such as technicians and operators. As an engineering student, an engineer may not have had an opportunity to work with non-students on classroom projects but may have had exposure to the multi-disciplinary and multi-generational workplace in an internship or co-op. In the workplace, engineers will need to interact with all levels and must learn strategies to handle and resolve interpersonal conflicts (Dannels, Anson, Bullard, & Peretti, 2003) to be an effective listener and understand “voices” different than their own—clients, customers, teammates, and a non-engineering audience (Clark, Sheppard, Atman et al., 2008; Leydens & Lucena, 2009; Nicometo et al., 2010; Norback et al., 2009; Sageev & Romanowski, 2001).
As demonstrated by the results of the present study, the novice engineers served in a project manager role almost immediately upon graduation. However, without a larger sample size and differing industries and companies, it is difficult to generalize. A larger study focused specifically on the novice engineer and project management communication activities would be helpful, including an analysis of the training and support needed to be effective communicators as project managers. A wide-reaching survey of companies who hire novice engineers and/or managers who work with novice engineers could provide insight into current training and support resources that are used (or not used). Identifying the “best resources/practices” would be helpful for those who do not have training and support resources.
Although outside the scope of the present study (and perhaps challenging to study), the question of whether novice engineers are so different than other novice employees could be explored. One manager (P1) mentioned that “emotional intelligence” is a consideration when working with an engineer. The manager believes that an engineer’s ability to develop self-awareness of their actions and awareness of how they are perceived by others are very important to being successful when working with others. However, narrowly focusing on the novice engineer suggests that engineers may have unique social and personality characteristics, which does not seem to be a fair conclusion. Therefore, a study that explores whether novice employees in other disciplines (e.g., finance, construction, banking, etc.) are also provided with training and support resources, and which kinds, would be helpful.
I am grateful for the guidance of my committee–Kelli Cargile Cook, Greg Wilson, and Joyce Carter; the advice from colleagues at UM; and the openness of the participants who shared their workplace practices.
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About the Author
Elaine Wisniewski, Ph.D. teaches engineering communication courses at the University of Michigan (UM). Her dissertation research at Texas Tech University focused on the workplace communication practices of novice engineers and the pedagogical implications. This article is based on her dissertation. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Manuscript received 8 January 2018; revised 17 February 2018; accepted 18 February 2018.