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Posts tagged ‘IPENZ’

The ideal member

Engineering institutions try to appeal to everyone. Bad idea

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

You can get lost navigating IEEE membership if you’re not careful. The list of benefits can feel endless—and so can spiels that recite the list to potential members. With over 1,200 conferences a year and over 150 regular publications (and that’s barely the beginning of it), there is probably no-one, even the President, who is familiar with so much as 10 per cent of what goes on in the IEEE.

It’s natural, in an organisation of 400,000 members, to have such a diverse range of activities. It makes sense, too. The institution’s volunteers are, rightly, constantly reviewing what engineers expect from their institution. When they notice a gap, they seek to fill that gap. Different people inevitably expect different things, so the gaps and consequential initiatives are many and varied.

But diversity has its drawbacks. When the proliferation becomes unguided, the collective of activities loses the common principle underpinning it. There’s not much point having an organisation with lots of segmented activities. Members can be forgiven for forgetting why they were an IEEE member in the first place.

Getting what you pay for
It’s understandable that people question their money before they pay their membership dues. It’s not a huge amount to pay, but there’s no point if there’s no benefit. So much of the recruitment effort goes into impressing individuals with the vast array of benefits from which they can pick their favourite. You give me your money, and I’ll give you rights to all these things.

It’s a poor approach, for two reasons. The first is that the true benefits of membership aren’t obviously tangible. It’s quite hard for people to understand the power of community as it’s laid to them in a brochure. They might be able to understand access to 150 different publications, but that’s far less compelling as a benefit. (Engineers in industry don’t rely on 150 different publications.) The second is that it demeans what a professional institution is: representing the profession, supporting entire careers, facilitating the progress of the profession as contributors to the progress of society.

The engineer’s obsession with numbers at the expense of the big picture also plays a part. For volunteers, membership statistics are often the primary measure of success. A way to get more members is to appreciate that membership is a two-way street: listening to what members want. The irony is that volunteers forget their own side of the street: they plug every gap they can find without asking themselves if it even should be filled. In a hidden fear of losing members, they shy away from dictating to them what underpins the IEEE. Eventually, they forget themselves.

The recruitment rhetoric should be about values. When Dr Andrew Cleland addressed my final-year class on behalf of IPENZ, the one thing he did right was not to try to appeal to everyone. You can get a job and keep at your job, he said, or you can join a profession. You can adopt the values of the profession, and be part of a group that has a real impact and is respected for it. Only if you want to do that is this the organisation for you.

Defining a profession
An institution is a community. It is a group of like-minded people who have similar objectives and realise they can achieve more in unison than they can on their own. A corollary of that, and the recognition that everyone is different, is that there are some people who don’t buy the same values as the institution.

We should try to persuade them to hold these values, of course. That’s how the profession becomes stronger as a whole. But if we can’t, we shouldn’t be afraid to shun them. An institution is only as strong as the common thread that runs through everything it does—all its events, online features, publications and everything else. We shouldn’t be sacrificing that thread in pursuit of more members.

The common thread itself can and should be broad. This isn’t surprising; it’s just a reflection of the diverse range of activities that professions tend to undertake. Broad, though, doesn’t mean all-encompassing. Even a simple notion like supporting the profession (though, admittedly, that is far too open to interpretation) or advancing technology for humanity (same drawback, but will sound familiar to some), would help to bring back a focus to our activities. But it needs to penetrate through what we do, how we present ourselves and—most importantly—how we think, far better than it does now.

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

If it’s that awesome, then pay for it

Engineers are too often unwilling to invest in their own development

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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])

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])