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Posts tagged ‘IET’

Things I notice: volunteer thinking in the IET and IEEE

A recent IET volunteers’ conference gave me hope. The contrast to similar IEEE events is regrettable but undeniable.

It’s a terrible comparison to make, but I found it far too tempting. I was ambivalent about the IET Asia-Pacific Communities Volunteers’ Conference (AP-CVC), not because of the IET, but because years on years as an IEEE volunteer had tarred me. Would attitudes in the IET be any different?

I was pleasantly surprised. The differences in volunteer culture are subtle, but to me they made a huge difference.

It goes without saying, but to be clear: Opinions are my own, and not representative of those of the IET, IEEE, any institution or any sub-unit thereof.  I also give more disclaimers at the end of the post.

1. Services, not statistics.
I got sick of hearing about membership statistics in the IEEE after a while. The IET AP-CVC barely mentioned them. The emphasis was on what the IET does: professional registration, MyCommunity (an online networking tool), examples of student activities.

Marketing is rightly recognised as important in both institutions, but here it focussed on values, not volume. The myriad of IEEE benefits could often feel disjointed to me. The IET’s pitches had a clearer valued proposition.

2. Addressing the root cause.
The emphasis on services meant that when they spoke about member recruitment and retention, they would say things like “get the product right” (with details, of course) rather than “send people who haven’t renewed by November an e-mail to ask them to”.

This epitomised a broader tendency I notice: where things aren’t perfect, attack the root cause, rather than any plausible initiative.

3. Senior volunteers support junior volunteers.
I very rarely felt this way in the IEEE; on the contrary, I often felt like a minion of a senior volunteer, doing their pet projects for them. In contrast, the Asia-Pacific committee chair was unequivocal in his first message: “We’re here to help.” It was a theme repeated by senior volunteers and staff. They saw their roles as to support and guide local committees, not instruct them.

4. Tell things like they are.
Most noticeably, there was a brutal honesty about the conference. The diagnoses made by speakers were astute, acknowledging shortcomings, and by that I mean actual shortcomings, like a “gap in [service] provision for [a group]”—not just “the statistics show some weaknesses”.

I really appreciated that. Why? Because the truth is that neither institution is in good shape. To be clear, they both do some excellent work in certain activities (IEEE in academic publishing, IET in professional registration). But far too many engineers are unconvinced they will get something from membership. Even I don’t know how to convince people, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

A bad comparison (i.e. more disclaimers)
I said it’s a terrible comparison to make. The first reason is that the IEEE and the IET are not (or at least should not be!) rival organisations. There’s simply no sense in having competing professional institutions. And I still think the IEEE is a worthwhile organisation. It’s just the differences in volunteer thinking that were too hard to ignore.

The second reason the comparison is imperfect is because “Asia-Pacific” in the IET, unlike the IEEE, doesn’t cover South Asia. I’m not personally convinced the differences are attributable to that, but it is an uncontrolled variable, so to speak, so read into it what you will.

The obvious final reason to take all this with a grain of salt is that it’s based on a sample size of one (for the IET, three for the IEEE). Indeed, some people I talked to afterwards seemed to imply that the culture at this conference wasn’t the same as similar conferences in the past.

So in the grand scheme of things, this shouldn’t count for much. But I’ve been on a personal mission to discover exactly how my belief that a professional institution can be helpful to its profession can be realised. It’s been five years so far; for the first time, I really feel like I’m a step closer.


If it’s that awesome, then pay for it

Engineers are too often unwilling to invest in their own development

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

They say you can never have enough money. But sometimes the lack of it is dire. The question of how to fund its activities regularly plagued the IEEE Student Branch I ran. Many an initiative, some over-ambitious (the 2009 Global Student Congress that became an Asia-Pacific one, plus one Canadian), some less so, has fallen with funding not being forthcoming.

Members regularly talk about increasing benefits, and rightly so. The top recommendation from Sections Congress 2008 was an annual entitlement to IEEEXplore downloads. Countless praiseworthy initiatives have been started by enthusiastic young volunteers, particularly in Regions 8 and 10. But the drive to introduce more benefits is often without expectation of a rise in cost to members. In fact, every now and again, there is talk of lowering the cost of membership. People want more, for less.

IPENZ, whose membership fee is more than double the IEEE’s and one-and-a-half times the IET’s, seems to have resigned to accepting that engineers don’t value institutions. In Dr Andrew Cleland’s lecture to my final-year class about IPENZ, he told us to negotiate it into our employment contracts—as if he knew we wouldn’t just pay for it from our own salaries. Indeed, the practice, while not universal, isn’t uncommon in engineering firms. Most people just don’t want to pay very much for professional institutions. In the case of the IEEE, they expect to join and get things, and increasingly more things, for free.

We can still live if lunch isn’t free
The Student Branch I chaired for two years was as guilty of this as any other. When I took office, we ran all of our events for free, providing free food to attendees courtesy of the Section budget. Some of our events weren’t even restricted to members. Then, on two occasions, we started to charge members to cover costs. They were more willing than we imagined.

The first was a field trip, where a nominal charge for a chartered bus covered the entire cost incurred. The second was the IEEEXtreme competition, where we offered competitors access to bulk meal orders. These are admittedly modest examples (people would have needed to get their own food anyway). But they show it’s not unthinkable.

Asking attendees to fund their own trips from Auckland to Melbourne for the inaugural IEEE Australia and New Zealand Student Congress in full was a bit of a long call. But the subsidy we negotiated for the eight attendees (seven of whom were volunteers) covered less than half the cost of the trip. Attendees realised that we, too, were beneficiaries of our travel.

People from other Sections balked when we told them that. Some continued to balk when I suggested we encourage future attendees to pay for their travel too. To this day, I struggle to comprehend why. Many university students fork out the money to go to sports tournaments, development camps or holidays. They do this because they derive benefit from it—improved skills, personal development, new friends, good times. Why should engineering congresses be any different?

Toughen up and pay
There is a deeper truth that volunteers miss when they concede, “There’s not enough funding for it.” What they should be saying is, “People don’t value it enough to pay that much for it.” And they should be assessing why their idea isn’t valued: is it just not that worthwhile, or do people just need convincing that the value is worth the cost?

The free-lunch culture limits what the institution can do for its members with more than just events involving travel. Local units are often reliant on volunteer speakers to give up their time—or to see some intangible benefit, like “exposure”—to help their members. I would bet anything that more speakers would come if we paid them to help make us better professionals.

Engineering is a middle-class profession. People who enter it are (mostly) brainy, work hard and are paid (and expect to be paid) well above the average wage from day one. It shouldn’t be a tall ask for them to invest in their own professional development. The annual membership fee is part of it, but not enough for a proliferation of initiatives—it doesn’t make sense for a US$141 fee (or US$27 for students) to result in free travel across the country (or world). The system won’t work if we spend beyond our means.

It might be that engineers really don’t see value in professional development, and that this is all a waste of time, but I doubt it. Almost every engineer and engineering student, and certainly every volunteer, will tell you that they want to develop communication and leadership skills, broaden their networks and further their technical abilities. They see, or at least claim to see value—but are too used to expecting others to cover the costs of that value for them. This is not a sustainable model. Engineers should stop expecting things to happen for them, and start buying into their profession. Literally.

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

Promotion is not the answer

IEEE volunteers assume that people don’t understand the benefits of membership. Actually, it’s just that there are none

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(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

Every so often in institutions like the IEEE, someone figures out that too many people don’t appreciate why they should be a member. They’ll then set out to “introduce” people to the benefits of membership. That is the explicit purpose of the IEEE’s STEP initiative, which is aimed at getting graduating students to renew as professional members. It’s also an assumption of the much-glorified IEEE Blog, Tweet and Win Contest, which rewards people who fill their social media streams with IEEE propaganda.

The attitude runs deeply in membership development. While the original objectives for the Region 10 (Asia-Pacific) Student Congress included both “to discuss and add value” and “to increase knowledge of [student activities] information”, in practice more recent Congresses have tended heavily towards the latter. The two are equally important, but you wouldn’t think so with the heavy emphasis on IEEE speakers giving spiels on IEEE benefits.*

The institution then becomes an institution for its own sake: activities run by the institution become about the institution, rather than directly about the profession. Other initiatives aim to spread the member base wherever it can go: the core driver of IEEE’s GINI initiative is to form new and “reactivate sick” Student Branches.† Little attention is paid to whether the benefits that are being promoted are of very much use.

Not so beneficial
The official list of IEEE benefits is long, but uninspiring. Many of them are online, like memberNet, and an IEEE e-mail alias. While admirable, they’re not really selling points for membership. Browsing member profiles (memberNet) isn’t, in practice, how people make contacts (LinkedIn’s “second-degree contacts” model is closer to reality, and it’s a bigger network too). Online videos ( will never get on the priority list for professional engineers whose time is very precious. And while IEEE e-mail aliases are used, it seems like a trivial thing to join an organisation for. Others, like Microsoft’s software for students, are nice but superficial: the benefit doesn’t encapsulate what it means to be an IEEE member. (At least, it shouldn’t.)

Why are volunteers‡ so convinced themselves? I’ve heard many successful volunteers readily offer their stories, both informally and in presentations at Congresses. What they don’t realise (or do) is that the “benefits” they describe are always benefits reserved for volunteers: most commonly friendships struck abroad, but also organisational and leadership skills, and free trips around the world. In fact, I’ve heard it several times that “the best way to get benefit from IEEE membership is to volunteer”.

That statement has an element of truth—more in almost always means more out—but it’s a dangerous attitude to take. Not everyone can be a volunteer. Or maybe everyone can—but an organisation that exists for its members to run the organisation is a pointless existence. Members shouldn’t need to be organisers to feel like part of the institution.

This is seldom considered. By being caught up in the benefits of volunteering, volunteers forget to analyse the benefits for normal members. While they run activities (even the ones that aren’t IEEE information sessions), they’re often for their own sake. Some have an underlying purpose, but most are because some higher up said we should, because we always have, or because we really needed an idea for something to organise.

There must be a meaning
What volunteers tend to lack is an understanding of what (other than “volunteer benefits”) motivates their membership of the IEEE. Many IEEE volunteers assume their role is simply to advance the IEEE: that’s a circular existence. The astute can recite the IEEE’s mission, “to foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.” But that’s never applied (and hardly useful) at a grass-roots level.

The IET has caught on to this to some extent, with its recent “Professional Home for Life” programme. The notion is that the IET should be an “anchor point” for one’s entire career, through any number of job changes. While that can mean different things to different people, it still clears up the raison d’être of the IET. It also provides a good litmus test for the usefulness of an activity. (Just talking about the IET’s own brilliance obviously fails the test.)

Indeed, supporting engineers’ careers is the most obvious thing that comes to mind for an institution’s purpose. It’s by no means the only possible one. IEEE’s notion of “advancing technology for humanity” is admirable—except when you ask how the IEEE itself will actually achieve that. It’s true that engineering is largely responsible for advances in the quality of life for everyone. Maybe the IEEE’s role is to help its members do the groundwork to make it happen.

This matters because it informs what volunteers do for members. By understanding this, volunteers can give themselves a framework to assess true usefulness for ordinary members (not themselves). If we do that more often, we might begin to understand why people feel like they don’t get anything out of the IEEE, rather than just assuming they’re uninformed.

What motivates me? I like to think that joining a profession goes beyond just your job or your study. I like to tell myself that I’m part of something bigger, a group with a collective societal role. I want there to be an association that supports that role, not just one that exists to give me opportunities within it. But I’m still thinking about what all of that means. And more importantly, how it guides what benefits we should have for our members.

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

* Disclosure: I’m responsible for the programme for the next Congress. Needless to say, I’m trying to shift emphasis back to the “add value” objective.
† Disclosure: I was GINI Co-ordinator for Australia and New Zealand. I shunned that aim, preferring instead to focus on connecting Student Branches, which is another aim of GINI.
‡ A volunteer is someone who holds an organisational role, i.e. someone who sits on a committee of some IEEE sub-unit.

The irrelevant institution

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

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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])