The Accidental Botanist: Growing Your Knowledge Base

The week here usually begins with a vase of freshly cut flowers.

Each time I check into this hotel in China’s Guangdong Province, there’s always a vase of stargazer lilies waiting by the bath, compliments of the housekeeping staff. They’re not lilies yet, mind you, just buds. These buds are anticipating their forthcoming lives as flowers much in the same way I am anticipating what the markup on my laundry bill will be this week.

Each day as I see the buds a little more opened, I know I am one day closer to finishing out the week’s project work: a floral Gantt chart of sorts.

Engineers are typically well equipped to take on the multifarious challenges that cross-functional project work requires. Marketing, supply planning, manufacturing: the gang’s all here. Through rigorous ABET-approved course after course in our academic lives, the countless times fingers have been numbed on our HP48Gs (which we still use even though we switched to the HP35S for the state EIT and PE exams), no brick has been spared from the banging of our foreheads when at a loss for words (or calculations). But as our academic skills were vetted in the bowels of senior design labs, those beginnings were just preliminaries for the next step in the phase change.

James Surowiecki’sThe Wisdom of Crowdsshared the benefits of seeking a diversity of knowledge. When subject matter experts mix with on-the-job practitioners and fresh eyes from outside functions, an emergence of innovative solutions sprouts forth organically. Such knowledge diversity is the true force of problem solving across skill-sets, creating enough new dimensions that even the most fledgling of string theorists would be envious of. New perspectives sow those new realms across which engineers can innovate. An insight from a commodities trader may tell you just why battery grade steel is skyrocketing and how that impacts your cost strategy. Workers in a mineral mine two continents away may suddenly go on strike and your masterfully executed product specifications are now legless from paper to platform.

Among engineers’ most versatile skills is the steadfast acquisition and incorporation of external technical expertise. Hear out the line mechanic who may not know what FEA stands for, but can tell you that on days of high humidity, his powder compaction dies fail on every other rotation. Problems become redefined, ideas become gifts, and engineers get to do what we love most: inventing new solutions when old solutions have long since withered into outdated antiquity.

This week I have engaged in discussions with global procurement teams to best position our business, re-assessed why mixing ABS plastic with other kinds of resins is a bad idea, and have wiped away tears of joy when a colleague and I learned how the auto-filter function in Excel would save us countless hours in mining process improvement data. There is no shortage of stress of course, but think of it more as activation energy than groveling for aspirin.

It has been a long week but I have emerged wiser from the harvest. As an added bonus, psychological bruises heal pretty quickly, too.

The lilies have bloomed.

Published September 9, 2009 by Austin Lin

Filed under: wisdom of crowds, knowledge base,

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