- Socio-Technical Centre
A lasting effect of the industrial revolution has been the complete redefining of manufacturing. Incredible and ongoing advances in technology and globalisation mean that the process of designing complex products, such as jet engines or mobile communication systems, are unrecognisable when compared to the norms of previous generations.
Engineers commonly work in distributed, decentralised and multidisciplinary teams and use sophisticated technological tools, such as Computer Aided Design (CAD) and digital prototyping software, to create and test their designs in virtual environments.
Despite, or perhaps due to, such advances in technology, the complexity of design decision making has increased and product development processes have become technologically and socially complex. Making design decisions requires the careful balancing of a complex set of considerations. This has led to multiple problems including communication and knowledge sharing problems, information overload, and cognitive biases at individual and team level such as, for example, confirmation bias, which is a tendency to interpret new information in line with our pre-existing beliefs.
A typical modern engineering organisation has two critical functions: managing information effectively and optimising decision making processes. These are vital not just for the success of the products but also for providing a rewarding working environment for staff.
My research - “Collaborative Information Behaviour and Decision Making in Product Development” - investigates how to design and manage new approaches that support these critical functions. This involves interviewing engineers and product development professionals in engineering companies, observing their work practices and collecting documents and other tools used to support decision making. What really motivates me is to understand how collaborative decision making processes practically unfold in real-world engineering organisations and to provide new insights on how to manage these processes better.
A novel approach to investigate decision-making processes in engineering companies is Activity Theory. Activity theory has its origins in the thinking of early 20th century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his successors. Vygotsky understood that a person’s consciousness emerges through the process of ‘activity’; that is through constant interaction with reality, for example - other people and the direct environment.
These interactions are ‘mediated’ by what Vygotsky called ‘tools’, which include anything we use to shape the world around us, from physical artefacts such as home repair tools, to languages, digital technologies, and even ideas. Ideas shared by many people such as ideology, culture or religion can in fact be thought of as tools that enable humans to cooperate on a very large scale. Activity theory has since gained prominence in the wider academic community and it has proven influential in areas such as education, human-computer interaction and information systems design. Recently it has also been gaining recognition in management and organisation studies.
Its applicability to my research stems from fact that activity theory allows me to combine context (the engineering organisation with its structure, history, rules and communities), technology (as a mediating tool) and the professionals themselves into one unit of analysis: the collective activity of developing a complex engineering system. A further testament to its usefulness is the fact that activity theory does not emphasise technology over the people, nor does it privilege individual over the collective or vice versa. On the contrary, it allows me to study collaborative decision making without losing sight of the vital role that individual engineers play in the decision-making processes.
The engineers I interviewed painted a picture of a rapidly increasing complexity of products being designed, such that traditional methods to support design decision making (dedicated business processes and checklists, for example) are no longer foolproof so there is a clear and urgent need to innovate in this area. It is my belief that research into improving information management and decision-making processes has the potential to make a tangible positive impact on an industry that is so vital to our economic future.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.