ICTs versus face-to-face interaction for problem solving

Sources of ideas for innovation in engineering design, Ammon Salter, David Gann, 2003

This paper, published in Research Policy, vol. 32, no. 8, discusses where engineers find new ideas to solve design problems.

Not surprisingly, the paper suggests that personal, face-to-face interactions remain essential for designers working in project/based environments. The findings reveal that although designers are keen users of information and communication technologies (ICT), the rely heavily on close, personal interaction to solve problems, to develop ideas and to assess the quality of their work.

The authors provide an overview of generally recognized sources of ideas for innovation: primarily internal sources, but also customers, suppliers and competitors. Industrial fairs and exhibitions play an important role as well as (in some industries) professional conferences.

The engineering design process itself is principally concerned with how things ought to be. It involves thinking ahead creatively in order to make a technical object fitting the requirements of users or clients. This process of creation often involves developing new combinations of existing technologies. Hacker argues that the engineering design problem-solving process evolves through a series of iterative and overlapping phases: from problem identification, through development of different conceptual solutions, to designing a favoured solution and working out details of the physical artefact.

The role of ICT tools in this process is not clear. Some argue that new packages of ICT tools have the potential to fundamentally alter the design process (see Steinmueller, 2004). Some suggest that these new tools are leading to the codification of the knowledge-set underlying design activities (David and Foray, 1995). The new ICT tools allow for virtual exchanges across space and time between engineering design teams. New visualisation software and simulation packages can also be seen to lessen the need for face-to-face contact and tacit experience.

By contrast, Nightingale suggests that there is little or no evidence that the importance of tacit knowledge for design is declining. In fact, new ICT tools may increase the need for personal, tacit skills and face-to-face communication.

In their survey, Salter and Gann found that designers rely on close, personal relationships for developing ideas in their work. The two highest rated sources of ideas for engineering design were related to face-to-face contact (84%) and working with others on projects (81%). Previous experience was cited by over 70% of the sample.

This was supported by results from personal interviews. In interviews, designers indicated the importance of close contact with others within their team and more widely within the firm. There was considerable interchange between young inexperienced designers and more experienced staff.

Clients and end-users were considered relatively less important sources of ideas. One the one hand, they were considered too far removed from the highly technical problems that the engineers faced. On the other hand, project managers acted as gatekeeper between engineers and clients.

Despite the fact that Arup is among the highest spenders on ICT tools in the UK design engineering sector, only 25% of its designers found on-line databases and working with new equipment and software to be an important source of ideas for design. ... Our survey shows that few designers used electronic scouting or CAD programmes for solving problems. ... Interviewees suggest that these media lack the immediacy or usefulness of other forms of communication.

The survey showed that few Arup designers thought access to information was a barrier to their design activities. ... As Court et al. have suggested, few designers lack information, instead what they lack is time.

In their conclusion, the authors discuss the importance of ICT tools vs/ face-to-face communications. The research shows that although designers may be keen users of new ICT tools, they still rely on personal exchanges and visual communication for the difficult parts of their work. This finding is supported by historical and ethnographic studies of engineering design that have shown that face-to-face communication among designers is necessary when there is a high level of uncertainty in the engineering design process. ... The immediacy of sketching and face-to-face exchanges is a key part of how engineering designers solve problems. New ICT tools have not yet altered the interactive nature of the design process.

Court et al. found that even when designers work on-line, a number of face-to-face meetings are necessary to build up trust to enable successful collaboration. ... Our study confirms the Court et al. (1997) view that designers suffer from information overload. New ICT tools have tended to increase the amount of documentation in the design process. Personal contact is essential to sift through this mountain of information.

The authors find that 'mixed use' is the best way to describe the application of ICT tools in the design process.

Unfortunately, they don't analyze the difference between face-to-face interaction and personal communication using ICTs (e.g. e-mail). It would be interesting to know how much of the personal interaction needs to happen face-to-face, and how much can be mediated by ICTs.

Some comments on the authors' methodology. Many studies in this field are carried out using large scale surveys where 1 representative (often a high-level R&D manager) responds on behalf of an entire firm. Salter and Gann used a different approach to better understand nuances in engineers' approaches to innovation. Through a series of interviews, they built a cast study of the firm in question. Based on this, they then carried out a survey of the firm's design engineers. This allowed them to better understand what was happening in day-to-day work than the traditional approach would.

They offer a complementary approach to large-scale innovation surveys by focusing on a detailed study of the ideas for innovation in engineering design in a single company. ... There have been few studies of sources of ideas for innovation in engineering design. This paper attempts to fill this gap in the literature by combining interview and survey data.

No comments: