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Critical need for quality engineering advice in the boardroom, says RAE

25 April 2012

The influence of engineering extends well beyond the traditional areas of heavy industry with engineers increasingly trained in 'whole life' thinking, as well as the management of complex projects and the integration of people with physical systems. This gives professional engineers the capacity to develop overarching, strategic perspectives that can be of significant benefit to businesses and the government, according to a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE)

The report, Professional engineering governance: the critical need for quality engineering advice in the boardroom, highlights an important yet often unrecognised role for professional engineers, which goes beyond technical support, to helping to make long-term decisions that will set the agenda and direction of a company in the global marketplace. A business can benefit from timely, expert and experienced-based engineering advice in the board room to identify opportunities for improving cost-effectiveness, productivity or exploring new profitable business based on emergent technologies.

There is a tendency for boards to recognise the value of people with financial, business or legal backgrounds more than people with professional engineering backgrounds. The report warns that, in organisations where there is not enough engineering advice, serious risks could lie undetected or unmanaged leading, in the worst cases, to expensive projects, or even businesses failing.

Limited time and financial resources mean that many SMEs are already stretched and engineering advice is only sought when absolutely needed rather than in a strategic manner. Given the significant percentage of jobs and wealth that SMEs create in the UK, this is a serious situation.

Government and industry need sufficient science and engineering knowledge to frame properly the detailed questions they ask within their particular context. While large companies normally have the resources to acquire their own professional engineering advice, non-engineering or technology-focused SMEs can find it difficult to access engineers in the same way, says the report.

Government too requires impartial engineering advice internally as it is often engaged with complex, large-scale engineering projects. While a community of Government Scientists and Engineers has been introduced to consolidate engineering advice available to politicians, government only has limited access to in-house engineering advice and largely relies on external consultants.

In the public sector, a lack of engineering advice early in the process can lead to problems further down the track. The report says that government focuses more on the formulation of policy instead of how or whether it will be delivered effectively, but that having high level engineering input early in the policy making process would help to avoid expensive mistakes and sub-optimal outcomes.

Professor Trevor Page FREng, who chaired the report, said: "Effective engineering underpins and enables much of our lifestyle and economy. Engineers possess a highly integrated set of skills including cost-effective project management, the ability to minimise risks to a company and general public as well as take a 'whole system lifetime' approach to introduce new technologies and solve challenges facing our planet.

"Thus, engineers have a great deal to offer the businesses and society. Their advice should be valued and their roles elevated above simply 'keeping the existing plant running,' which was one alarming statement from one survey respondent. The challenge for boards of directors is to know how to access engineering advice and when to use it."

The report says that engineers should be made more aware of their full value to an organisation, communicating their role effectively within it. They must become more commercially literate and understand the variety of issues influencing the running of a business so they can communicate the technical issues they are concerned with in a way that is understood by colleagues with different, but linked responsibilities.

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