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The irrelevant institution

Despite a growing member base, engineering institutions struggle to remain relevant to their profession. What’s wrong?

This is the first in a series of five posts.  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

The cynicism that people have about IPENZ, New Zealand’s professional institution for engineers, struck me all too hard and too consistently. It’s not just my father, a mechanical engineer who gave up on it long ago. Lecturers who I asked seemed similarly disillusioned; even those who supported IPENZ in principle conceded that, at best, it was only for civil engineers. IPENZ Chief Executive Dr Andrew Cleland delivered a lecture to my class in our final year of engineering school on why professional institutions are important. No-one believed him.

It’s not just IPENZ. When I asked my boss at my first engineering summer student job how many colleagues were a member of the IEEE (the world’s largest professional technical association), the answer was pretty much no-one. I’m now in my graduate job, and apart from myself, my boss and his boss, I know of no-one in my office who is a member any of IPENZ, IEEE or IET (the world’s second-largest). People don’t despise IEEE or IET the same way as IPENZ, but they still shrug at the whole thing.

To be fair, the plural of anecdotes isn’t data, and optimists will point out that IEEE’s membership statistics* are growing. Don’t be fooled. That’s more a reflection of IEEE’s recent surge in areas where it previously had no existence, i.e.outside the United States. In the five years to 2010, IEEE’s membership in its original home country shrunk by 4%. In the Asia-Pacific, which in 2005 had less than a third the number of members the United States alone did (but six times the population), it grew by 45%.

More telling, though, is the membership from those employed in industry (as opposed to academia). No country in the Asia-Pacific has more than 55% of its members coming from industry. I’m not sure how many engineering graduates remain in academia, but I’m sure it’s a lot lower than 45%. In India, Pakistan and China, academics comprise more than 85% of the IEEE membership. Clearly, there’s something missing for the bulk of engineers.

Quality, not quantity
Volunteers and staff already know this, of course (how else would I have found the statistics). But relying on data as the primary measure of success—as volunteers often do—masks a deeper, sadder truth: that the engineering institutions are seen by most (even members) not as integral to their profession, but as a fee in return for a range of side-show benefits. To paraphrase, the institution just isn’t that important.

A lot of volunteers are understandably determined to improve the situation. But they’re doing so in the wrong ways and with the wrong attitudes. First, they focus too much on numbers to think about the quality of member benefits. Somewhere in the emphasis on increasing the number of members or Student Branches, the meaning of our work is forgotten.

Then, they assume that it is the members and would-be members, not the institution, who are uninformed. They also get far too caught up in their own volunteer experiences to spare a thought for the members who don’t volunteer—the ones they’re supposed to be serving. Not often enough is the question asked: what would actually, genuinely be useful either to everyday engineers in their careers, or for supporting the profession?

More fundamentally, though, in my years of volunteering I’ve noticed a conspicuous vacuum in understanding what, at heart, drives the IEEE, IET and IPENZ. Despite having chaired an IEEE Student Branch for two years, having been to two Student Congresses, and having talked to more people than I can count, the few who could actually construct an answer could give me nothing more convincing than a plethora of artificial and often disjointed “benefits”. I have yet to hear a proper raison d’être for an engineering institution.

A closer look
This is a series of posts about attitude. It’s about a mentality that runs deeper than any structure, beneath any formal initiative, beyond anything institutional that the Board of Directors can lay their hands on. It’s the very approach volunteers have to their organisations and the way engineers treat their profession. In the next few posts, I’ll examine the how the prevailing attitudes can be a barrier to progress. I’ll then propose the shift in mentality that I think is necessary to turn these institutions into what they should be: an organisation that offers unity and support for the engineering profession.

Volunteers who stumble upon this can choose to do one of several things. They can label my assessment blasphemous—that would be denial. I could be criticised for airing these concerns publicly rather than internally. That would miss the systemic and attitudinal nature of these issues. Alternatively, we can take a good hard second look at ourselves, and realise that—deep down—something is fundamentally wrong with how we do things. It’s a big ask. But I guess I should at least hope.

* This series will make references to institutions I’ve experienced generally, but it will revolve around the IEEE mainly because I’ve volunteered in this institution the longest.

This is the first in a series of five posts.  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Will Sommerville #

    I am a volunteer in IEEE and I generally agree with your assessment. There are a lot of reasons (excuses?) for the mindsets of major engineering professional organizations, but I have seen a strong tendancy for open dialog on these topics even at the highest levels. These organizations are, after all, democratic and run as not-for-profits. My view is that we have a catch-22, where young members need to get involved and bring these organizations up to date while the fact that they are out of date discourages young members from joining.

    The raison d’etre (in the business sense) for many of these organizations is a very successful publishing and standards business. The stated mission, that volunteer leaders use the proceeds or the publlishing and standards for, is the benefit of the members, the profession, and humanity. IEEE’s tagline is Advancing Technology for Humanity. We really want to do this, even if it is sometimes not as effective as we like.

    3 July 2011
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