In the July 2016 issue of Structure magazine, an article reported that an error was found in Timoshenko’s thin plate theory. Authors Angus Ramsay and Edward Maunder prepared detailed finite element analyses of different shell configurations, and then they compared the results to what would be predicted by Timoshenko’s theory. Differences were found for some boundary conditions between the two, and the authors concluded that the theory was in error. The discrepancy was for a relatively minor condition, and it probably has had little impact, if any, on actual designs.
Even so, the amount of study and analysis that supported the paper was impressive. The authors prepared a sophisticated finite element study and needed to understand what the software could and could not do. They needed to understand the mathematics and implications of Timoshenko’s theory. The problem they found was actually by accident- they weren’t even looking at this particular issue. So on top of everything else, the authors needed to be thinking outside the box and ready to evaluate technical issues beyond the scope of what they thought they were studying.
The magazine article was just one of many in the July issue. The paper filled three of the seventy-six pages. The other seventy-three pages included advertisements and many articles with additional detailed information for structural engineers. Everything in the magazine, with the exception of the advertisements, featured potentially useful material that structural engineers probably should know. Conversely, it might be a problem for engineers not to know it.
It is a great challenge and responsibility for engineers to deal with so much information. There are potentially dire consequences for not knowing something that needs to be known. An editorial in the June magazine issue made a case of the need for separate structural engineering licensure. The editorial commented that:
“The need for separate SE licensure is a recognition of the explosion in the volume of structural engineering knowledge necessary to practice competently. One need only compare the 636 pages of ASCE/SEI 7-10 to its slim predecessor ANSI A58.1-1972 or the same explosion in the size of AASHTO’s highway bridge design code to appreciate the impact. We are, by necessity, more specialized and complex today.”
So, structural engineers, and all engineers and technologists, need to stay ahead of the of the expanding information curve. But it is not enough for engineers be proficient in the thousands of pages of AASHTO code. People dealing with technology have to know the technology. But they need to do more. They need to work with organizations and people to master the set of “soft skills” that allow them not just to know the technology, but be in a position to implement that knowledge.
Participants in some other professions do not face this dilemma. Successful actors need to be able to act and do not have to master thousands of pages of AASHTO code. Their acting skills provide more direct access to navigating “soft skills” issues. It’s part of the job. I have chosen not to be an actor (and that choice was guided by my lack of acting ability and matinee idol looks). So as a bridge engineer, it’s really two jobs for me: technical competence plus mastering the “soft skills”.
Ideally, leaders, technical and otherwise, would know enough to make rational decisions related to engineering and technology. In a perfect world, wise leadership would create a “safe space” for those on the front line of technology so that they were free to drill down to do their work. The leaders would know enough to understand that they don’t know enough. Leaders would also be wise enough to appreciate and understand what those directly responsible for technology are dealing with. This is an understanding in a broad sense, but not necessarily at a “nuts and bolts” level of technical detail. In such an environment, leadership provides a safe space for engineers to tackle the technological challenges.
From this viewpoint, it is disheartening to compare the ideal world to reality. On the national stage, last winter a group of our potential future leaders debated whose genitals were bigger. Among (many) other concerns associated with such a debate, one cannot envision great or even adequate technical leadership emerging from this discussion. This one story is anecdotal evidence of the overall problem. It is enough and sometimes even too much for engineers to know everything they need to know, and to be skilled in applications. But in a vacuum of leadership lacking modest technical competence, success depends on engineers be able to steer the boat while simultaneously rowing it.