The Call for Knowledge Engineers

McMillan and Weiner Talk About Need for Engineers to Improve Their Marketability, Establish Their Brand


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Stan: This month we conclude the thread we started in March – sharing the experience gained over the 38-year career of Lewis Gordon, a principal control systems engineer retired from Invensys. Last month we focused on how the profession is changing in terms of management and goals. This month we wrap up with an exploration of the challenges of capturing and transferring the knowledge and skills of retiring engineers, operators, and technicians.

Greg: A very large proportion of the knowledge and skill accumulated over entire careers will be walking out the door over the next decade. What can we do make sure this knowledge is not lost?

Lew: Firstly, management must recognize full the impact of this loss. For current projects, changes in technology make it impossible to maintain performance by simply copying what has been done before. Fundamental design concepts must be implemented in new environments, and new technologies must be integrated with existing systems to maintain and continuously improve control performance. This requires knowledge – mindlessly copying designs is not adequate to the task.

Stan: Best engineering and configuration practices are immediately essential, along with properly documented designs and operating procedures. The ability of today's control software to document itself must be fully utilized.

Lew: Longer term, management needs to set goals for constantly improving and expanding the technical capital of their staff. This means implementing best practices in capturing and transferring the knowledge and skills held by experienced staff.

But this activity is time consuming, difficult, and expensive. Nobody makes an immediate profit from knowledge capture and transfer. As has been the case for waste treatment and safety, it won't happen unless it is supported by management and incentivized by financial and performance metrics. Companies need to take the long term view that knowledge retention and growth is an essential part of company growth.

Stan: This brings us to the bigger question. Given the motivation and need, how do we make sure knowledge is growing?

Lew: The fundamental issues are these: How and when should knowledge be captured? How and when should it be transferred? Most fundamentally, what knowledge should be captured? How should captured knowledge be made retrievable and useable?

Capturing individual knowledge can be problematic because many engineers and technicians, often the ones with greatest depth of technical knowledge, may not be good communicators.

Greg: I know people with extensive expertise and achievements who are too nervous to standup before a group to give a talk. Many can't get started writing the first sentence for a publication. For these people, more informal settings such as panel discussions and casual workshops allow them to open up and express themselves. I have successfully used an informal conversation rather than a traditional interview to capture and publish the expertise of over fifty experts in my Control Talk Column since 2002. I simply let the conversation take us where it needs to go. Not much is preplanned except some possible topics. The whole experience is a trip with many sites along the way. Part of what makes the talk flow so freely is the understanding shared.


As engineers we can get obsessed with details and perfection. The writing process involves concepts and imperfection. The final product must capture attention and convey the essence of the importance and relevance of the knowledge. The process is iterative by nature, with lots of editing by the writer, reviewers, and copy editors. Technical people need to write and present papers not only to support this knowledge being re-used but also to improve their marketability and establish their brand. 'Tip #60: Write and Present Papers" posted April 19, 2013 on the ISA Interchange site discusses how I got started and the motivation for others to do the same. At the minimum, engineers should keep a detailed list, and preferably copies, of their reports, publications and presentations. Who will listen to practitioners who have not taken the time or sharpened their ability to document what they have learned and accomplished?

Lew: There is also a need for a knowledge engineer who understands how to ask the right questions, develop a conversation, and make the content accessible and retrievable. This is more than a conventional technical writer.

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