Innovation on a Level Field

Richard (Gene) E. Feigel, Ph.D.

March 1, 2006

Today, strategic issues influencing industry, business and professional associations focus on global competitiveness and innovation. Globalization touches every aspect of our lives—which, in turn, affects how innovative companies and institutions respond to the challenges and opportunities it brings.

Projects are team driven and multidisciplinary, requiring more finely tuned management skills. Engineers must be good at design and analysis, but they also need to manage complex technology projects across teams, offices and borders. Employers need managers who make the connections that will lead to deeper insights, resulting in more creative solutions. Engineers can be leaders in this new era because technology inherently connects economies, social benefits and natural resources.

Relying on electronic communication and educational access on a global scale, the playing field is leveling, with improved productivity and innovation the determining factors, rather than geographic proximity. Shifts in workforce strength, educational trends and emerging markets alter familiar landscapes, offering exciting opportunities alongside deeply felt shakeups. A critical question is, how are engineers and companies staying ahead of the trends and responding to them?

Environmental scanning can help. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has identified several issues through its new strategic management sector, which it is using to address these emerging trends. ASME is a not-for-profit professional organization promoting the art, science and practice of mechanical and multidisciplinary engineering and allied sciences.

Attracting and educating young engineers is critical to maintaining U.S. competitiveness. Young engineers are identifying key systemic and entrepreneurial responses to global needs for water, energy and other basic quality-of-life concerns. The National Insulation Association’s (NIA’s) interest in promoting the importance of insulation for energy conservation, emission reduction, personnel protection and process productivity improvements relates well to this collaborative, team-design approach. Everyone in industry today plays an important role in helping shift from a design focus on parts to seeing the whole and working with the demands of a complex world.

Future improvements will depend not only on more agile organizations, but also on research and development (R&D) efforts toward product and process improvements. ASME plays a significant role in identifying R&D needs, advocating for funding, and organizing and managing research through several institutes.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) articulated the key role of investing in research in a recent report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” (National Academies Press, The report sets priorities based on two main premises. First, leading-edge scientific and engineering work is being accomplished in many parts of the world, not just in traditional bastions. Second, economic vitality depends on the productivity of well-trained people, resulting in innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology.

The NAE report also argues that the low-wage workforce available globally (anywhere and anytime) will continue to have a competitive advantage. Relatively high-cost countries such as the United States must compete by optimizing knowledge-based resources and providing a fertile environment for innovation. Aimed at maintaining a high standard of living, the report’s recommendations focus on early education initiatives that lead to high-quality jobs in the workforce; support for long-term research; and, in particular, a focus on clean, affordable and reliable energy. Recommendations like these translate into actions such as the National Innovation Act of 2005, which recommends revitalizing government research in science and engineering through Innovation Acceleration Grants and other, private-sector, incentives.

World-market competition increases consumers’ expectations for customized production, tailored to specific wants and needs, delivered quickly anywhere, with no reduction in quality or premium for customization. To remain competitive, the workforce of the future will need partnerships in globally extended enterprises, with companies evolving to remain flexible by shaping the size and skill sets of its employees.

ASME expects to see company policies investing in employee education and training to meet changing market demands. Several ASME initiatives address needs in this area. Through a new program called ASME Solutions, the organization is customizing training programs and helping to find industry-specific solutions that identify needs and fill the gaps for companies and organizations. This can take the form of collaboration with local schools to address company needs.

ASME also has launched an Engineering Management Certification program, which provides a resource for global standards and “best practices” sharing and is viewed by some as an alternative to an MBA program. In addition, ASME and NIA recently partnered to provide jointly sponsored workshops at technical, professional and student conferences hosted by both organizations.

Over more than 125 years, ASME has built a tremendous heritage for technical exchange, standards setting, higher education, professional ethics and leadership in technological development and advocacy. ASME is drawn toward partnering with other organizations, expanding its advocacy on behalf of a global membership, focusing on emerging markets and the needs of industry, academia and government agencies. The organization believes it is important to demonstrate clearly that it is meeting emerging global expectations beyond today’s standards for performance and quality.

To help build an innovative, flexible workforce, organizations must be willing to learn and understand that the competition has changed. Everyone is on a more level field, where leadership and expertise stand on merit. Bringing the right information to the right place, at the right time, is the challenge.