I created the image above to look like a quality cover page of a technical report students would typically submit in my ME 406: Experimental Design course. The hand is included to make a point — when is the last time you were submitted a paper report you had to open by hand? Many of us in academia can quickly cite multiple examples. While many of us have remained reticent to digital trends enabled by the internet, times are quickly changing. The percentage of Americans using electronic-readers for pleasure reading is predicted to approach 30% by 2020. The question becomes when, not if, submitting a traditional paper report is considered as cumbersome and rude as bringing transparencies in for a lecture — the time won’t be long and, depending on your work community, may have already passed.
Current Industry Practice
When I was an undergraduate student we were required to maintain hand-written engineering logbooks of our work, as was common industry practice at the time. I was resistant and frustrated by this practice. The logbook stayed on my physical person, along with the information within, and was not useful to any of my team-mates working on our projects — the very people needing to know what I was doing. So what was the point? Minimizing legal risk. I try to focus on quality engineering to minimize legal risk. It was 2005 and I looked for file sharing systems that would enable this information sharing future and help us to quickly adapt the information and file structure for others to use. But tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack had not yet emerged. Wikipedia was a fad trend.
Fast forward 10 years and things are very different. It’s very common for leading technology companies to have internal wiki-style reporting procedures. Why? Here’s a short list:
- Most type faster than they can write by hand.
- There is a search bar that finds any document in the org on a specific topic.
- Ctrl+F allows me to find and skip ahead to whatever I am looking for in a document.
- I can use hyperlinks and to provide more information or specific definitions I am applying. Wiki-systems can automatically hyperlink documents to other references to a word or phrase in your org-structure.
- I can use Digital Object Identifiers to improve the credibility of a file and minimize risk of counterfeiting.
- I can embed videos and other forms of dynamic media.
- I, and my team-members, can quickly modify and correct issues with documents.
- I can quickly change the public versus private settings of a document to share with the world.
- The information is backed up in robust cloud-based server systems that I can access from just about anywhere.
- It’s cheaper, ADA accessible (which is often required by law), and more sustainable for the planet.
So why would you not do this? May’be a different question: when will you become legally forced to?
Academia’s Struggle to Adapt
There is an old adage — “Those who were abused tend to continue the cycle of abuse.” I use this in specific reference to the stubbornly common use of engineering paper and the TI-80+ graphing calculators, which are directly analogous to typewriters in undergraduate engineering curricula. These practices are already turning forward thinking students away from the discipline and our university. Let me be clear that I am not advocating for a ban on these approaches; in some niche applications and approaches they can be incredibly powerful. However, requiring these techniques ubiquitously across curricula as much as they are currently used is a detriment to the students.
Why is academia, and specifically engineering, slow to adapt? There are many reasons. Engineers tend towards autism — abilities for highly sophisticated and laborious rule following that would cause most to revolt. Engineering is so challenging that a little bit of autism can help. But the downfall of being able to follow highly sophisticated rules and procedures is struggling to adapt to change with those rules. I struggle with change, but not as badly as my family members with official autism spectrum diagnoses.
Compounding the tendency of those in the discipline towards sophisticated rule following is a program’s needs for ABET accreditation. ABET, no longer an acronym, is an organization of peers that review programs and their processes for continuous improvement to fulfill the needs of their constituents. ABET conducts reviews every 6 years and provides simply a pass-fail (with various levels of warning in between) to ensure that a program is regularly gathering data indicative of your constituent needs and whether the program is continuing to improve towards those needs. It’s really fairly straight forward. But I’m always surprised by the number of people that don’t understand continuous improvement. A faculty member I knew once said to me, “We had a flawless ABET review, changed NOTHING, and the next time around they found issues. It’s clearly a flawed and inconsistent process.” But what’s clear from this is a fundamental misconception; fields are continually changing and programs MUST continue to adapt and improve in order to remain relevant to their constituents. Change is inevitable.
However, there are broader concerns from the field about ABET. Macroscale studies have pointed to a stagnation in curriculum innovation and advancement since the implementation of ABET review. Generally, the more critically changes are evaluated, and the more evidence required to implement change, the more difficult it is to enact that change. Departments have typically not allocated significant resources or effort towards continuous improvement of teaching practices as these tend not to pay the bills or substantially improve peer-to-peer rankings. It could be a universal truth that any topic or area that is not currently valued or respected is likely to become valued and respected at some point in the coming years. But are there general rules for communication and report writing that are likely to withstand the changing times and communication mediums?
Theory for Report Writing
The same rules for engineering communication still apply:
- Relevance (to your audience)
- Credibility (to your audience)
- Efficiency (to your audience)
The points I’ve made for adapting reporting for the digitization and the internet primarily address rule 3: it’s simply a much more efficient way to disseminate your already relevant and credible story. The problem is, I’m stuck on those three rules and am having a hard time envisioning how they will be superseded going into the future. So let’s work through some applications to see if we can spot trends for how things will improve.
The most common mistake young engineers make when writing technical reports is waiting until you’ve done all of the work to write the report. Write the report as the story is happening, when it is fresh in your mind. It’s this story of the struggle that is most relevant and empathetic for your audience who are experiencing your story for the first time.
The second reason I tell my students: “Report writing is a lot of work; analogous to running a marathon. But nobody else cares if you run the marathon in little bits over the course of an extended period of time or all in one shot — you are the only one that will end up caring.” Imagine if I waited until the end of the semester to write all of these communication posts for my class? Think I would have the time, patience, or memory to get it right? By drafting the post shortly before the lecture I’m able to go in to class with it fresh in my mind and I’m able to monologue or improvise off of my earlier thoughts with a straighter story.
What you’ll also notice is that this very document demonstrates the techniques I’m advocating students to apply for their report writing. One of the classic sayings for teaching by Lao Tze — “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” We jump right into showing and involving.
A Future of Project Reports
The need to tell the story of a project will never go away. However, how we deliver the story will change dramatically. As long is the relevance, credibility, and efficiency improves, you can imagine more dynamic interaction with reports. I fully anticipate a future where I will be able to use a report like this as a presentation because the media will be dynamic and embedded. A recording of me presenting the content will likely be posted to the end. People will be able to comment and add questions throughout, which I can quickly go back and adapt to resolve.
MME is already moving towards one such future with the Industry 4.0 manufacturing revolution. Industry 4.0 has four key principles:
- Interconnection: you already see how I’ve interconnected multiple media streams in this document.
- Information Transparency: you can imagine links to all of my report data and figures embed in this report for download.
- Technical Assistance: I’ve embedded links throughout to help you find more information if needed. You can also imagine an AI following along with your reading to assist you in more dynamic and powerful ways.
- Decentralized Decisions: Anybody within my lab system has access to this post and can change it if they spot a mistake. Anybody within the department can read this information and decide to make a change based on this content.
It’s tough to predict the future. It’s tough to think about what will come after Industry 4.0. It’s tough to think about what will supersede the internet. It’s tough to think about how fast information and technology is advancing. But what I do know is this — the future is happening, whether you’re participating in it’s realization or if it’s happening to you.
“Those who blaze the trail ultimately shape it’s outcome.” Ryan Holiday – Ego is the Enemy