It’s one of the biggest misconceptions young engineers have.

Collaboration is not a technical skill, is it?

Well, let me tell you a little story. A friend of mine graduated from electrical engineering at the same time I got my literature degree and we both found jobs quickly; he at a multinational infrastructure company and I at a major publisher. We worked close to each other and would catch up for a drink on Fridays. When he would talk about his work, I would often envy him for not having to deal with a multitude of people all the time like I had to. I imagined him working on developing engineering models without having to talk to research subjects, authors, printers, distributors, advertising and legal teams and all the other departments I had to work with.

That is until I asked him one day.

I said, “Isn’t it great that engineers don’t have to deal with other people and just put their technical knowledge into building cool stuff and solving problems?”

This was his response - “Do you know Sartre once said that Hell is other people? I’m certain he worked as an engineer at some point.”

60% to 80% of work performed by engineers is collaborative in some form.

Most successful engineers understand that collaboration is a socio-technical skill and not ‘non-technical’. It is key in being able to deliver projects with minimum disruptions and within agreed timelines & budget.

While engineering is a technical profession, in real life engineers don’t spend a lot of time doing hands-on technical work. There are technicians, operators, tradespeople and labourers for that.

What they do do is educate clients and government bodies and other teams in their organisation of engineering possibilities. They try to understand the needs of their clients and then translate them into technical requirements. There is a fair amount of negotiation involved in this process. And this is just the beginning.

An original engineering design often uses existing designs and materials and involves collaboration with peers, suppliers, end users and of course clients. Extensive project management systems need to be put in place to engage a variety of relevant stakeholders that can influence the results. The organising and coordinating of all the technical deliveries is the responsibility of the engineer and requires way more collaboration than most new engineers have had any experience in.

Employers often reject candidates with higher marks in favour of those they feel have better communication skills.

Because employers know how crucial it is for an engineer to be able to collaborate with many people, they specifically look for engineers with highly developed communication skills. Communicating effectively especially when it comes to communicating technical ideas and plans to non-technical teams and individuals is a highly specialised skill. It is far more complex than it seems and rare to find and therefore highly valued.

Communication is what people use to collaborate. Not just written communication but verbal and non-verbal communication is instrumental in breaking down barriers, building respect, gaining trust and influencing others. And an effective engineer knows how important it is to be able to do this.

Unfortunately, while most engineering graduates think they are already in possession of good communication skills owing to reasonably high marks in their written assignments and technical presentations at university, employers frequently complain about the below par communication skills of recent graduates.

So, where’s the gap?

Both graduates and employers are right. It’s the context that makes all the difference here. The kind of communication skills required at university are well suited for the academic environment but in a professional environment, they just don’t fly. It’s a whole different world out there. And either you quickly regroup and find your footing and march your way to a successful career or you become one of those ‘difficult’ engineers everyone tries to avoid in your organisation and no one wants to be that guy!

“But I’m just an entry level junior engineer. My manager will tell me what to do.”

Many young engineers think that they will be doing a specialised role in which they will not have to interact with anyone but their manager who will tell them exactly how to proceed.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Engineers are hired for their technical knowledge and often know more than their managers in their specialised area. While your manager will try to explain the bigger picture of the organisation’s goal and plans and how your role fits in to that, s/he will not provide a step by step guide to accomplishing your tasks. You are expected to already know how to do that.

Now you may think that that’s easy. That your tasks would include mostly writing, designing, modelling or building plans. That’s true. But who will adopt and build on your plans to make them a reality? For that you will need to collaborate with and influence each and every stakeholder in your organisation and also external partners.

Often young engineers make the mistake of thinking that this is a non-technical task but if you observe engineers in the professional environment, you will notice that most of their interactions with other stakeholders are about discussing technical issues and finding solutions. This is why we say that collaboration in the context of engineering roles is a socio-technical skill and not a non-technical one. And it’s a skill that you need to master if you are to see your ideas come to fruition successfully and lead to a fulfilling career.

But before you can get to that, you need to find a way to demonstrate to your prospective employer that you are in possession of this skill so you know, you can get hired and the rest can follow.

Effective communication and collaboration can be taught.

Some people just have it. They have charisma and they are able to talk to everyone and get them to do what they want so effortlessly. Have you ever thought that you’re just one of those people who are not very socially competent? And that’s just how things are.

You’re not alone in thinking in that. I used to think that too. I thought I had a different personality. More introverted. Less likely to build instant friendships. It didn’t bother me most of the time. But it did bother me at work when I couldn’t get my ideas the support they needed in the organisation. And that’s when I decided to sign up for a Collaboration Skill Training workshop.

And do you know what…it worked!

Sure, I didn’t turn into Prince Charming in one day. But I did learn that there are ways one can try to adapt and tricks that can be used to,

  • Build Rapport
  • Be Open & Authentic
  • Invite feedback and gain shared knowledge
  • Communicate across large teams to avoid misunderstandings and maximise efficiency
  • Collaborate under pressure to develop an adaptive mindset

There is a direct link between collaboration and innovation

Not just the person interviewing you for a job but over 85% of global CEOs see collaboration as a crucial skill for innovation.

Ideas are great. They’re exciting and powerful and they pave the way for the future. They can make or break entire organisations. But most ideas don’t get anywhere because you need the collective to power an idea and see it realised. And that’s a delicate skill powered by effective collaboration.

CEOs recognise this. Good engineers recognise this. Do you?