Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crowd-Sourced Engineering

My Dad and his favorite pastimes:
working the earth and being with his grandkids.
My dad would tell you straight off that he wasn't exactly the smartest person in the world.  He had a hard time understanding fractions.  Academically, he may have been right but my dad could find the problem, figure out a solution, and create that solution with nothing more than a utility knife, duct tape, and a plastic milk bottle.  They even made a show about it, it was called MacGyver or something like that.

I learned a lot more about engineering from my dad and being raised in a blue-collar household than any textbook or professor could teach, although my dad repeatedly stated he wasn't smart enough to do what I can do.  None the less, my dad was able to do things I am not able to do and by that, I learned to trust my skilled-labor coworkers when it comes to their opinions about improving a design, fixing a problem, or just making the system better.  But, I also know that if I were to put a blank piece of paper in front of them and tell them to come up with a solution to a specific problem, they wouldn't be able to do it.

So what does this story have to do with crowd-sourced engineering?  Simple, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.  Some people are great at taking existing objects and making improvements to them.  Other people are great at taking a blank sheet a paper and creating something new.  When you are crowd-sourcing engineering and design, which group is working on your team?

Engineers have a natural affinity towards creating something from nothing.  That's why engineers became engineers.  They hone that ability through extensive education and temper it with experience.  They learn to think outside themselves, to their audience, to potential users, and to consider as many requirements as humanly possible in order to conceive a brand new design that fulfills a need capable of withstanding future unknowns.  My father, on the other hand, could only create something that solved the immediate problem.  He did not have the background or training to learn how to consider factors outside of the obvious.  When you are crowd-sourcing engineering and design, which group is working on your team?

If you are an engineering or design firm and are considering crowd-sourcing your project because you think it will save money, take a second thought on who is on your team.  Is the person on your team someone who is educated and trained to think outside the given problem statement and anticipate future needs or requirements; or is it someone who just has the uncanny ability to solve a specific problem with an eloquent fix?  Is it someone who is capable of developing a solution from concept to reality; or is it someone who will only be able to make incremental improvements to existing ideas?  Is it someone who is able to support the design and determine root causes for any potential issues; or is it someone who will only to able to come up with another band-aid repair that addresses the symptom, not the problem?  Do you have the time and resources to verify all the work your crowd-sourced team has done?  Would that save you anything over having to do it yourself?

I'm trying not to judge whether crowd-sourcing is right or wrong.  Crowd-sourcing has the potential to combine the best strengths of all those who participate.  But, it also has the potential to combine the worst weaknesses as well.  When you are crowd-sourcing engineering and design, do you really know who is working on your team?  Can you take that chance?
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