Creating the right culture to unlock innovation

Creating the Right Culture to Unlock Innovation

Adam Roberts - Marketing Consultant

By: Adam Roberts
Marketing Consultant

4th April 2018

Home » Innovation » Page 2

Having a customer-focused mindset is essential in business today. We all know that if you build differential and customised customer service plans you can increase your loyalty, increase revenues and grow your market share.

However, the most successful brands in the world are doing more than this to stay successful and market leading. Companies like Google, Apple and IBM are applying the same customer-focused mindset to building superior employee experiences (EX). So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge?

Let’s start with some research. In a recent study by Accenture, companies with highly engaged workforces are 21% more profitable than those with poor engagement. Furthermore, leading companies are already realising the striking comparisons between CX (Customer Experience) and EX with 51% of business leaders surveyed planning to create individualised employee experiences comparable to consumer experiences in the next two years.

So employee experiences are important, what does this mean to me?

In order to remain competitive organisations must have employee engagement plans that enhance employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. In doing so, you’ll also promote brand equity, competitive advantage, and sustainable growth. A big part of this, I believe, is creating a culture that unlocks innovation and the keys to accomplishing this are threefold.

Tools to collaborate

Have you ever noticed the technology we use and enjoy at home (in our personal lives) doesn’t always help us carry out the roles and responsibilities of our jobs? Many people find that when they get to the workplace, every app that they have on their phone becomes an unwanted distraction that actually hinders and/or slows them down. Using the right tools enables an open and transparent environment for employees to effectively communicate and work together.

This principle is fully embraced by Google as every employee can view the personal goals and objectives of every other employee. On a similar note, software engineers at Google also get access to almost all of Google’s code on their first day. This might sound a little extreme but by valuing an open and transparent company culture, Google teaches its employees that it believes them to be trustworthy and have good judgment. That, in turn, empowers staff to collaborate as a team to deliver their best work.

Tech SMEs can start to embrace this principle of openness and transparency in their processes by adopting a number of technologies that aid communication, such as open calendar access and/or use of an intranet site or forum. One of the ways we communicate project success at Plextek is through a bespoke project management system where all engineers and project managers can access each other’s workloads. This aids collaboration in meeting deadlines and ease of communicating progress to the rest of the consultancy.

Culture to Collaborate

Create an environment that sparks creativity and innovation. Having rooms and offices that are decorated with pictures and painted with vibrant colours does more than just impress the visitors at the reception desk. There is actually some science behind the layouts of offices and how they can be the catalyst for creativity in the workspace. I’d like to demonstrate this with an office that I’m fairly familiar with – the Plextek office.

We have a completely flat organisation. Directors, Executives, Managers, Consultants, Engineers and Graduates all sit at desks just beside everyone else. There are no pop-up office walls or offices with assistants or secretaries standing guard outside. This means that there are very few barriers to stop people from going to talk to the exact person they need at that moment in time.

It sounds simple I know, however, this physical equalisation, this physical democratisation, makes people at any level feel like their ideas are just as important as anyone else’s ideas. Everyone feels comfortable to speak up and share. We also have a kitchen/coffee point (with a whiteboard) that is placed between different engineering groups. This is another intentional effort to encourage great spontaneous conversation between staff where different ideas and different solutions can take form.

Some of you might be thinking that it is too difficult to implement some of these things into what you already do but the principles are quite simple. Have monthly socials between working teams (we have a Chinese Cook Off and the food is always incredible!), host a running or walking club, whatever the activity may be, it is about creating and having a spontaneous environment for people to come together and cross-pollinate ideas.

Embedding Change

Whatever change your organisation or team is going through it is important to actually make change stick. Teams and organisations not only need to survive with this change but they also need to thrive in it. At the beginning of this blog, I posed the question “What does this mean to me?” and that will be one of the first questions employees will be asking when accepting your change. I believe you must communicate your change to the head, the heart and the feet of your employees to ensure that it becomes part of the new routine.

Head

    Make your messaging for these changes very clear and simple to understand. Customise this message to the different user groups the change will involve and have specific logical reasons that the user can easily consume.

Heart

    Have a carefully picked executive sponsor who is well known and make sure this person is trained on the change, understands it, and leads by example. Promote the desired result in overall company vision and culture with emotion. And if the change is coming from you, make sure you walk the talk!

Feet

    Do they have the behaviours they need? Do they have the training and knowledge required to walk the walk in the new world of your change?


So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge? Yes, I believe that it plays an integral part (but only a part) of a much bigger shift for businesses in the future. Deloitte are calling this shift “The rise of the social enterprise” and ultimately summarises the need for building superior employee experiences in order to succeed in this new landscape.

“Organisations are no longer assessed based only on traditional metrics such as financial performance, or even the quality of their products or services. Rather, organisations today are increasingly judged on the basis of their relationships with their workers, their customers, and their communities, as well as their impact on society at large — transforming them from business enterprises into social enterprises.”

Having a customer-focused mindset is essential in business today. We all know that if you build differential and customised customer service plans you can increase your loyalty, increase revenues and grow your market share.

However, the most successful brands in the world are doing more than this to stay successful and market leading. Companies like Google, Apple and IBM are applying the same customer-focused mindset to building superior employee experiences (EX). So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge?

Let’s start with some research. In a recent study by Accenture, companies with highly engaged workforces are 21% more profitable than those with poor engagement. Furthermore, leading companies are already realising the striking comparisons between CX (Customer Experience) and EX with 51% of business leaders surveyed planning to create individualised employee experiences comparable to consumer experiences in the next two years.

So employee experiences are important, what does this mean to me?

In order to remain competitive organisations must have employee engagement plans that enhance employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. In doing so, you’ll also promote brand equity, competitive advantage, and sustainable growth. A big part of this, I believe, is creating a culture that unlocks innovation and the keys to accomplishing this are threefold.

Tools to collaborate

Have you ever noticed the technology we use and enjoy at home (in our personal lives) doesn’t always help us carry out the roles and responsibilities of our jobs? Many people find that when they get to the workplace, every app that they have on their phone becomes an unwanted distraction that actually hinders and/or slows them down. Using the right tools enables an open and transparent environment for employees to effectively communicate and work together.

This principle is fully embraced by Google as every employee can view the personal goals and objectives of every other employee. On a similar note, software engineers at Google also get access to almost all of Google’s code on their first day. This might sound a little extreme but by valuing an open and transparent company culture, Google teaches its employees that it believes them to be trustworthy and have good judgment. That, in turn, empowers staff to collaborate as a team to deliver their best work.

Tech SMEs can start to embrace this principle of openness and transparency in their processes by adopting a number of technologies that aid communication, such as open calendar access and/or use of an intranet site or forum. One of the ways we communicate project success at Plextek is through a bespoke project management system where all engineers and project managers can access each other’s workloads. This aids collaboration in meeting deadlines and ease of communicating progress to the rest of the consultancy.

Culture to Collaborate

Create an environment that sparks creativity and innovation. Having rooms and offices that are decorated with pictures and painted with vibrant colours does more than just impress the visitors at the reception desk. There is actually some science behind the layouts of offices and how they can be the catalyst for creativity in the workspace. I’d like to demonstrate this with an office that I’m fairly familiar with – the Plextek office.

We have a completely flat organisation. Directors, Executives, Managers, Consultants, Engineers and Graduates all sit at desks just beside everyone else. There are no pop-up office walls or offices with assistants or secretaries standing guard outside. This means that there are very few barriers to stop people from going to talk to the exact person they need at that moment in time.

It sounds simple I know, however, this physical equalisation, this physical democratisation, makes people at any level feel like their ideas are just as important as anyone else’s ideas. Everyone feels comfortable to speak up and share. We also have a kitchen/coffee point (with a whiteboard) that is placed between different engineering groups. This is another intentional effort to encourage great spontaneous conversation between staff where different ideas and different solutions can take form.

Some of you might be thinking that it is too difficult to implement some of these things into what you already do but the principles are quite simple. Have monthly socials between working teams (we have a Chinese Cook-Off and the food is always incredible!), host a running or walking club, whatever the activity may be, it is about creating and having a spontaneous environment for people to come together and cross-pollinate ideas.

Embedding Change

Whatever change your organisation or team is going through it is important to actually make change stick. Teams and organisations not only need to survive with this change but they also need to thrive in it. At the beginning of this blog, I posed the question “What does this mean to me?” and that will be one of the first questions employees will be asking when accepting your change. I believe you must communicate your change to the head, the heart and the feet of your employees to ensure that it becomes part of the new routine.

Head

    Make your messaging for these changes very clear and simple to understand. Customise this message to the different user groups the change will involve and have specific logical reasons that the user can easily consume.

Heart

    Have a carefully picked executive sponsor who is well known and make sure this person is trained on the change, understands it, and leads by example. Promote the desired result in overall company vision and culture with emotion. And if the change is coming from you, make sure you walk the talk!

Feet

    Do they have the behaviours they need? Do they have the training and knowledge required to walk the walk in the new world of your change?



So is having the right employee culture the new competitive edge? Yes, I believe that it plays an integral part (but only a part) of a much bigger shift for businesses in the future. Deloitte are calling this shift “The rise of the social enterprise” and ultimately summarises the need for building superior employee experiences in order to succeed in this new landscape.

“Organisations are no longer assessed based only on traditional metrics such as financial performance, or even the quality of their products or services. Rather, organisations today are increasingly judged on the basis of their relationships with their workers, their customers, and their communities, as well as their impact on society at large — transforming them from business enterprises into social enterprises.”

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Many sectors are already harnessing the power of open innovation, but the UK’s defence industry seems to lag behind. Plextek’s Chief Executive Officer, Nicholas Hill explains the benefits of open innovation for defence manufacturers and highlights examples of successful collaborations.

Brite Innovation Review interviews our Chief Executive Officer, Nicholas Hill.

To read the full article click here.

50 ways to leave your lover

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover…. And to Solve a Problem

Stephen Field - Lead Consultant, Product Design

By: Stephen Field
Lead Consultant, Product Design

15th November 2017

Home » Innovation » Page 2

There are ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ according to singer Paul Simon in his hit song from 1975. Looking back, he only managed to recommend five, quite vague, ways of extricating yourself from a physical relationship. I suppose you’d call that false advertising, or perhaps, over-promising and under-delivering.

Of course, Paul is only tapping into his own personal experiences and knowledge. There are likely more than fifty ways to leave one’s lover and, with no pretence of a subtle transition, I move on to compare the themes of this song to the role of the engineering designer.

In terms of mechanical design, there are usually many ways to solve a design problem. In fact, you’ll be able to find parallels here that relate to any design or engineering specialism. While there are numerous solutions to a problem, no one person, no matter how clever or experienced, can have sufficient insight to see all the possible approaches. Each of us has a limitation on what training and experience we have received and what life has exposed us to. This knowledge informs how we react to design challenges; how we approach them and the courses of action we inherently pursue.

Collaboratively, we can accomplish so much more. The adage ‘two heads are better than one’ is completely true in this scenario. Working together to solve problems enables a much wider experience to fertilise the problem-solving egg. When done at the right time, this can be amplified by the use of brainstorming techniques.

Brainstorming is most effective when the team is comprised of a diverse range of backgrounds. An individual’s engineering experiences ensures each member brings something unique to the creative process and we’re able to visualise many possible solutions as a result. Brainstorming helps us avoid simply opting for the first solution that comes to mind, which may not be the best. Furthermore, working in a team also helps the creative process. One idea sparks another, and so on.

A diverse team with an open dialogue approach to the creative process allows for the introduction of different ways of seeing the world and the challenges we face. These varied viewpoints help to steer the design to the best solution. The person who can see the holes in another’s plan has just as an important contribution as the one making the suggestion.

The moral of the story; during the creative phase of the design process – share and collaborate with your colleagues. Almost certainly they will have a perspective you’ve not seen. When faced with a mental block over your design, share and welcome different and even opposing views from a supportive team. Make a new plan, Stan.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

There are ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ according to singer Paul Simon in his hit song from 1975. Looking back, he only managed to recommend five, quite vague, ways of extricating yourself from a physical relationship. I suppose you’d call that false advertising, or perhaps, over-promising and under-delivering.

Of course, Paul is only tapping into his own personal experiences and knowledge. There are likely more than fifty ways to leave one’s lover and, with no pretence of a subtle transition, I move on to compare the themes of this song to the role of the engineering designer.

In terms of mechanical design, there are usually many ways to solve a design problem. In fact, you’ll be able to find parallels here that relate to any design or engineering specialism. While there are numerous solutions to a problem, no one person, no matter how clever or experienced, can have sufficient insight to see all the possible approaches. Each of us has a limitation on what training and experience we have received and what life has exposed us to. This knowledge informs how we react to design challenges; how we approach them and the courses of action we inherently pursue.

Collaboratively, we can accomplish so much more. The adage ‘two heads are better than one’ is completely true in this scenario. Working together to solve problems enables a much wider experience to fertilise the problem-solving egg. When done at the right time, this can be amplified by the use of brainstorming techniques.

Brainstorming is most effective when the team is comprised of a diverse range of backgrounds. An individual’s engineering experiences ensures each member brings something unique to the creative process and we’re able to visualise many possible solutions as a result. Brainstorming helps us avoid simply opting for the first solution that comes to mind, which may not be the best. Furthermore, working in a team also helps the creative process. One idea sparks another, and so on.

A diverse team with an open dialogue approach to the creative process allows for the introduction of different ways of seeing the world and the challenges we face. These varied viewpoints help to steer the design to the best solution. The person who can see the holes in another’s plan has just as an important contribution as the one making the suggestion.

The moral of the story; during the creative phase of the design process – share and collaborate with your colleagues. Almost certainly they will have a perspective you’ve not seen. When faced with a mental block over your design, share and welcome different and even opposing views from a supportive team. Make a new plan, Stan.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Innovation… What Does It Mean?

Stewart Da'Silva - Senior Designer, Product Design

By: Stewart Da’Silva
Senior Designer, Product Design

8th November 2017

Home » Innovation » Page 2

The buzz word of the moment that is constantly being bandied about is ‘innovation’. There is hardly a departmental or company briefing where that word isn’t mentioned.

Indeed, it seems to be held up in the business world as the holy grail of survival; a panacea against the risk of extinction (in the corporate sense). Market gurus metaphorically stand on tip-toes whilst balancing on rooftops shouting through megaphones…”INNOVATE OR DIE!”

But what exactly does ‘innovation’ mean? What does it mean to us as individuals and as a company?

My perception of ‘innovation’ is that it isn’t something that I, personally, should bother my pretty little head about. After all, I know for certain that having spent my whole working life immersed in the world of engineering… I have never once in all those many, many years had a spark of an original idea that has ever taken seed and germinated in the wilderness that is my brain.

No, I had assumed that this call for us to innovate was directed towards the more intelligent amongst us and that they were being asked to dream up some new ground-breaking idea… a blinding flash of inspiration that our company could exploit in the form of some great new product.

Then the realisation began to dawn; that there, in fact, had been very few real inventions of any substance for many years.

A case in point is in our own industry – electronics.

It is accepted that the transistor was the starting point of the phenomenal growth of the electronics industry as we know it today. The ‘invention’ of the transistor took place in the Bell Laboratories in 1947 by John Barbeen and Walter Brattain, in fact, they, together with William Shockley, received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for “their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.”

Except… they didn’t ‘discover’ the transistor effect.

It was, in fact, described by one Julius Lilienfeld in a patent that he filed in Canada on the ‘field effect transistor’ in 1925. Although he patented it – he published no known research articles on the subject. Bell scientists Bardeen and Brattain, in fact, built a field effect transistor utilising Lilienfeld’s patent in their research laboratory and surprisingly it worked, they then set about improving and refining the efficiency of the device and then published their findings – although Lilienfeld’s patent was the basis for their transistor, he was never credited in their published papers.

But then Lilienfeld himself had built upon research and observations that had gone before.

In 1833, Faraday’s research on the negative temperature coefficient of resistance of silver sulphide was the first recorded observation of any semiconductor property. The trail from Faraday’s experiments to the Lilienfeld patent had many, many contributors.

My point?

Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes’ – discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.

The first working transistor wasn’t invented in 1947, it evolved from Faraday’s first observations in 1833. At that time, that is all it was, an observation – with no obvious applications.

This meandering pathway had then progressed towards its conclusion (the transistor) in a succession of incremental steps. Academics and scientists didn’t carry on their given research in splendid isolation from those that went before. If they found some relevance to their own research then they applied those previous observations and investigations to further their own knowledge and that of those that were to follow.

Which brings me back to where I started – ‘Innovation… what does it mean?’

In today’s engineering environment, I believe that it means that we, each and every one of us, could be an innovator. We don’t have to be qualified in a specific field. We just need to be open and have the vision to see how established techniques in the world around us could be transferred and applied to other disciplines to create or improve an existing product: cross-pollination of ideas and skills. Indeed, in the first instance, there is no need for detail… just the vision.

I believe that each and every one of us is capable of doing that.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

The buzz word of the moment that is constantly being bandied about is ‘innovation’. There is hardly a departmental or company briefing where that word isn’t mentioned.

Indeed, it seems to be held up in the business world as the holy grail of survival; a panacea against the risk of extinction (in the corporate sense). Market gurus metaphorically stand on tip-toes whilst balancing on rooftops shouting through megaphones…”INNOVATE OR DIE!”

But what exactly does ‘innovation’ mean? What does it mean to us as individuals and as a company?

My perception of ‘innovation’ is that it isn’t something that I, personally, should bother my pretty little head about. After all, I know for certain that having spent my whole working life immersed in the world of engineering… I have never once in all those many, many years had a spark of an original idea that has ever taken seed and germinated in the wilderness that is my brain.

No, I had assumed that this call for us to innovate was directed towards the more intelligent amongst us and that they were being asked to dream up some new ground-breaking idea… a blinding flash of inspiration that our company could exploit in the form of some great new product.

Then the realisation began to dawn; that there, in fact, had been very few real inventions of any substance for many years.

A case in point is in our own industry – electronics.

It is accepted that the transistor was the starting point of the phenomenal growth of the electronics industry as we know it today. The ‘invention’ of the transistor took place in the Bell Laboratories in 1947 by John Barbeen and Walter Brattain, in fact, they, together with William Shockley, received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for “their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.”

Except… they didn’t ‘discover’ the transistor effect.

It was, in fact, described by one Julius Lilienfeld in a patent that he filed in Canada on the ‘field effect transistor’ in 1925. Although he patented it – he published no known research articles on the subject. Bell scientists Bardeen and Brattain, in fact, built a field effect transistor utilising Lilienfeld’s patent in their research laboratory and surprisingly it worked, they then set about improving and refining the efficiency of the device and then published their findings – although Lilienfeld’s patent was the basis for their transistor, he was never credited in their published papers.

But then Lilienfeld himself had built upon research and observations that had gone before.

In 1833, Faraday’s research on the negative temperature coefficient of resistance of silver sulphide was the first recorded observation of any semiconductor property. The trail from Faraday’s experiments to the Lilienfeld patent had many, many contributors.

My point?

Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes’ – discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.

The first working transistor wasn’t invented in 1947, it evolved from Faraday’s first observations in 1833. At that time, that is all it was, an observation – with no obvious applications.

This meandering pathway had then progressed towards its conclusion (the transistor) in a succession of incremental steps. Academics and scientists didn’t carry on their given research in splendid isolation from those that went before. If they found some relevance to their own research then they applied those previous observations and investigations to further their own knowledge and that of those that were to follow.

Which brings me back to where I started – ‘Innovation… what does it mean?’

In today’s engineering environment, I believe that it means that we, each and every one of us, could be an innovator. We don’t have to be qualified in a specific field. We just need to be open and have the vision to see how established techniques in the world around us could be transferred and applied to other disciplines to create or improve an existing product: cross-pollination of ideas and skills. Indeed, in the first instance, there is no need for detail… just the vision.

I believe that each and every one of us is capable of doing that.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

The New Shamans?

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

27th September 2017

Home » Innovation » Page 2

We can view the engineer today as someone who has special powers to control or influence the spirits of technology. A guardian of the magic of electronics and software; someone who can be looked to for a vision of what can be achieved if the spirits are willing, and someone in whom we trust that the spirits will be successfully harnessed and the vision delivered (on time and to budget).

I started driving at 17 in an old Mini that was built in 1964, and, as such, was fairly basic in engineering terms. To give a flavour of how basic it was, the windscreen wipers did not self-park (they stopped dead the moment the switch was turned off). There was also no starter solenoid, so you activated the starter motor by pressing a heavy duty push switch mounted next to the handbrake.

Being both an aspiring engineer and a rally competitor, I was soon pulling the car apart to make performance improvements, in the process finding out how all the mechanical and electrical parts and systems operated. The simple engineering was a blessing at that point as it was fairly self-evident how most things worked once you had them stripped down to the core components, whether it was the engine, suspension, brakes or electrics.

Over the years since I started driving, the change in technology has been astonishing. The change seems more remarkable now, looking back over a few decades than it did as I experienced it evolving. Layers upon layers of complexity have been added to everyday objects from the motor car to the telephone: first in electronics, then in software, and most recently in artificial intelligence.

There was a period of time when using the new technology was just too unfriendly for many people – remember all the complaints about not being able to program a video recorder? I think we reached a tipping point where user interface design had moved on far enough to make devices intuitive to use, and since then the general public can’t get enough of what technology can deliver. The trajectory now for the public at large seems to be an ever growing hunger for the benefits of new technology, in tandem with an ever-diminishing idea, or concept of, how any of the technology works.

Going back to the starter motor on my Mini, you could quite quickly become confident of explaining its operation without any difficulty to a layperson without any specialist engineering knowledge. A fat wire connected the battery to the electric starter motor via the big switch that I referred to. That was it. There were only really four concepts to grasp – the electrochemistry in the battery, electrical conductors and switches, and enough electromagnetics to explain how a motor produced torque. Indeed, you could make a small scale demonstrator using a torch battery and a small motor and then pull them apart to aid explanation.

This got me wondering about how I would go about explaining to a similar person how my present car gets started. At the highest level, it is easy enough: when I press the button on the dashboard, the car checks that the appropriate key fob is actually somewhere in the vehicle and then tells the engine to start; the starter motor runs for as long as it takes to get the engine going and then turns off. It soon gets harder as you get into describing a collection of sensors, radio links, processing units, communications buses, and power electronics and so on. If you want to get beyond mystery black boxes it gets much harder still.

To tackle just one element, say the wireless key fob, in any depth, would require an explanation of its physical radio link to the vehicle, the communications protocol, and the authentication methods. Dealing with any of these elements is going to require a discussion of great breadth and depth. And then, of course, there’s the issue of how all the electronic components involved actually work. I concluded that it was probably beyond me, technology had just moved on too far.

Artificial intelligence is only going to make comprehension harder, as behaviour becomes less deterministic. Until recently, a device manufacturer could describe to a user exactly how a device will behave in a given set of circumstances, albeit the explanation might be complicated. Going forward, you might find that your next generation robotic vacuum cleaner has behaviour that is unique to you because the environment in which it self-learned its behaviour is unique to you. The manufacturer you now are calling for an explanation may never have seen the behaviour you describe, but the device may actually be behaving perfectly ‘normally’.

What does this mean for the engineer whose job it is to provide the technology under the hood to companies who wish to bring new and evolving products to market? Where the end user knows (and perhaps cares) less and less about how it all works. This puts the engineer in a position of considerable power and influence and needs to use that power both wisely and ethically.

I will be exploring this topic in Part 2 of this blog.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

We can view the engineer today as someone who has special powers to control or influence the spirits of technology. A guardian of the magic of electronics and software; someone who can be looked to for a vision of what can be achieved if the spirits are willing, and someone in whom we trust that the spirits will be successfully harnessed and the vision delivered (on time and to budget).

I started driving at 17 in an old Mini that was built in 1964, and, as such, was fairly basic in engineering terms. To give a flavour of how basic it was, the windscreen wipers did not self-park (they stopped dead the moment the switch was turned off). There was also no starter solenoid, so you activated the starter motor by pressing a heavy duty push switch mounted next to the handbrake.

Being both an aspiring engineer and a rally competitor, I was soon pulling the car apart to make performance improvements, in the process finding out how all the mechanical and electrical parts and systems operated. The simple engineering was a blessing at that point as it was fairly self-evident how most things worked once you had them stripped down to the core components, whether it was the engine, suspension, brakes or electrics.

Over the years since I started driving, the change in technology has been astonishing. The change seems more remarkable now, looking back over a few decades than it did as I experienced it evolving. Layers upon layers of complexity have been added to everyday objects from the motor car to the telephone: first in electronics, then in software, and most recently in artificial intelligence.

There was a period of time when using the new technology was just too unfriendly for many people – remember all the complaints about not being able to program a video recorder? I think we reached a tipping point where user interface design had moved on far enough to make devices intuitive to use, and since then the general public can’t get enough of what technology can deliver. The trajectory now for the public at large seems to be an ever growing hunger for the benefits of new technology, in tandem with an ever-diminishing idea, or concept of, how any of the technology works.

Going back to the starter motor on my Mini, you could quite quickly become confident of explaining its operation without any difficulty to a layperson without any specialist engineering knowledge. A fat wire connected the battery to the electric starter motor via the big switch that I referred to. That was it. There were only really four concepts to grasp – the electrochemistry in the battery, electrical conductors and switches, and enough electromagnetics to explain how a motor produced torque. Indeed, you could make a small scale demonstrator using a torch battery and a small motor and then pull them apart to aid explanation.

This got me wondering about how I would go about explaining to a similar person how my present car gets started. At the highest level, it is easy enough: when I press the button on the dashboard, the car checks that the appropriate key fob is actually somewhere in the vehicle and then tells the engine to start; the starter motor runs for as long as it takes to get the engine going and then turns off. It soon gets harder as you get into describing a collection of sensors, radio links, processing units, communications buses, and power electronics and so on. If you want to get beyond mystery black boxes it gets much harder still.

To tackle just one element, say the wireless key fob, in any depth, would require an explanation of its physical radio link to the vehicle, the communications protocol, and the authentication methods. Dealing with any of these elements is going to require a discussion of great breadth and depth. And then, of course, there’s the issue of how all the electronic components involved actually work. I concluded that it was probably beyond me, technology had just moved on too far.

Artificial intelligence is only going to make comprehension harder, as behaviour becomes less deterministic. Until recently, a device manufacturer could describe to a user exactly how a device will behave in a given set of circumstances, albeit the explanation might be complicated. Going forward, you might find that your next generation robotic vacuum cleaner has behaviour that is unique to you because the environment in which it self-learned its behaviour is unique to you. The manufacturer you now are calling for an explanation may never have seen the behaviour you describe, but the device may actually be behaving perfectly ‘normally’.

What does this mean for the engineer whose job it is to provide the technology under the hood to companies who wish to bring new and evolving products to market? Where the end user knows (and perhaps cares) less and less about how it all works. This puts the engineer in a position of considerable power and influence and needs to use that power both wisely and ethically.

I will be exploring this topic in Part 2 of this blog.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save