Perspectives of a people engineer

Monday, 25 August 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I am delighted to write my 200th column on Humane Results. It was indeed a challenging task to write on a weekly basis despite my personal and professional commitments. I must confess that I never felt writing was a torture, but always considered it a treasure. Being here or overseas, being well or ill, did not deter me and I did not quit my column. I have in fact published two books so far as collections of my regular Monday columns. Today, the focus is on my journey so far as a ‘people engineer’. Me as an Engineer I studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Moratuwa. I also obtained my Chartered in Electrical Engineering. Of course, I walked along a ‘road less travelled’. Having done production-related engineering for a few years in a leading multinational, I started my rotation to get exposed to other managerial functions and ended up settling in the area of Human Resources. Before joining the academia eight years ago, my last job was the Head of HR in the technical division (consisting of two factories) of another leading multinational. Many people asked me why I gave up pure engineering. The answer is simple. I wanted to diversify myself, in utilising my potential in serving humankind better. That is why I like to identify myself as one who has transitioned from being an ‘engineer of electrical’ to an ‘engineer of hearts and minds’. Essence of engineering My intention today is to draw some parallels between tested and proven ‘electrical engineering’ and upcoming and emerging ‘people engineering’. Let’s discuss what engineering is all about as a starting point. According to my favourite, engineering is the science, skill, and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and also build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. Moving further, the American Engineers’ Council for Professional Development (ECPD, the predecessor of ABET defines ‘engineering’ as: The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilising them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognisance of their design; or to forecast their behaviour under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation or safety to life and property. As we all know, one who practices engineering is called an engineer, and those licensed to do so may have more formal designations such as Professional Engineer, Chartered Engineer, Incorporated Engineer, Ingenieur or European Engineer. The broad discipline of engineering encompasses a range of more specialised sub disciplines, each with a more specific emphasis on certain fields of application and particular areas of technology. Electrical engineering is one such key sub-discipline of engineering. It involves the design and study of various electrical and electronic systems, such as electrical circuits, generators, motors, electromagnetic/electromechanical devices, electronic devices, electronic circuits, optical fibres, optoelectronic devices, computer systems, telecommunications, instrumentation, controls, and electronics. What made me to get attracted to electrical engineering is the wave of Mahaweli construction that took place during my schooling times, including reservoirs such as Victoria and Kotmale, that stood tall as nation’s pride. Watching the accelerated construction of power stations gave me the motivation to study something in that direction. Electrical engineering in focus In order to draw some parallels between people engineering vs. electrical engineering, we should know the essential features of electrical engineering. Electrical engineering is a field of engineering that generally deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism. The field first became an identifiable occupation in the late 19th century after commercialisation of the electric telegraph and electrical power supply. It now covers a range of subtopics including power, electronics, control systems, signal processing and telecommunications. The central core to electrical engineering is electricity. Electricity has been a subject of scientific interest since at least the early 17th century. The first electrical engineer was probably William Gilbert who designed the versorium: a device that detected the presence of statically charged objects. He was also the first to draw a clear distinction between magnetism and static electricity and is credited with establishing the term electricity. In 1775 Alessandro Volta’s scientific experimentations devised the electrophorus, a device that produced a static electric charge, and by 1800 Volta developed the voltaic pile, a forerunner of the electric battery. According to Occupational Outlook Handbook, from the Global Positioning System to electric power generation, electrical engineers have contributed to the development of a wide range of technologies. They design, develop, test and supervise the deployment of electrical systems and electronic devices. For example, they may work on the design of telecommunication systems, the operation of electric power stations, the lighting and wiring of buildings, the design of household appliances or the electrical control of industrial machinery. My view of people engineering People engineering is what I proposed to include engineering elements to people-related initiatives. It is essentially building people. To be precise, in line with the traditional definition of engineering, let me propose the following definition for ‘People Engineering’: The creative application of scientific principles and artistic practices to design or develop policies, practices and processes to acquire, develop, motivate, maintain and separate, people in order to achieve organisational objectives whilst fulfilling people aspirations, in turn contributing to economic growth in a sustainable manner. You may wonder why I brought the phrase ‘artistic practices’ into my proposed definition. It reminds me what I wrote in my very first ‘Humane Results’ column on 25 October 2010. Managing people has its promises and pitfalls. Humans have potential and unleashing it has to happen in the organisational setting in order to obtain the desired results. That is the promise. The other side of the coin is the fact that humans are neither rational nor irrational; they are natural, or ‘a-rational,’ if I am to coin a term. There is a high degree of unpredictability in human behaviour. There can be swinging between emotional extremes, be it glad, sad or mad. Managing people is an art and science in that respect. It needs an appeal to head, with structure, direction and control. That is being scientific. It also needs an appeal to the heart, with purpose, passion and positivity. That is being artistic. Hence, a carefully-planned set of ‘head’ and ‘heart’ strategies should be on offer. In essence, ‘people engineering’ requires both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aspects with artistic rhythm and scientific rigour. I showed this as yin and yang in one of my previous columns. The hard and soft aspects of people engineering are separated, indicating a distinct duality. Such a duality highlights the art and science of managing people. The soft aspects are more into relationship building, which requires an artistic approach. In contrast, the hard aspects represent more the structural, analytical and rational elements highlighting the need for a scientific approach. The beauty of people engineering is the meaningful co-existence of such a complex yet coherent whole. It is not only HR professionals but all other managers should be aware of such a harmony in order to maintain proper balance between achieving results and maintain relationships. Way forward As I wrote in my very first column, Humane Results (HR) can be the distinct dimension of human resource management (HRM). People engineering is way to make it happen. I had opportunities to explore and threats to mitigate in coming so far in becoming a people engineer. My current leadership position is a testing ground to prove as to how I would demonstrate my people engineering on a different and perhaps a more complex scale. Let me take this opportunity to thank my family (Ruklanthi, Navodi and Nadeepa), who missed me during my writing engagements, my teachers (Prof. Uditha Liyanage in particular), my friends who gave many constructive feedback, and all of you, my treasured readers.  May ‘people engineering’ herald a new era of enhanced people development towards economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is the Acting Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Management and Entrepreneurship, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA.)