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Has Terrorism Evolved the Role of Systems Engineers?

The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks prompted a number of memorial services across the country. Many took this time to remember those who lost their lives in the attacks and recognize the heroes who responded to the emergency.

Ten years later, we can also reflect on how the attacks—along with other local, national, and global events—have changed how government organizations have improved responsiveness and merged operations systems that have typically worked independently of one another. These increasing demands for interoperability to address both long-term challenges and short-term crises can be seen in many examples, such as Health and Human Services, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration, and coordinated efforts among the branches of the military.

TheseJon Beard dynamic times, as well as anticipated future mandates, have prompted researchers to examine how this increasingly complex environment has affected efforts to integrate new technologies with already-existing IT infrastructures to ensure better responsiveness

In a recent study, Jon Beard, professor of information systems and operations management at George Mason University School of Business, focused on projects that consolidate and coordinate information sharing and work-related activities among multiple government organizations. Such projects have become increasingly complex. Instead of developing a system focused on a single organization, as in traditional systems engineering, the efforts now encounter enterprise systems engineering projects that span across multiple organizations.

Along with JoAnn M. Brooks from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and John S. Carroll from the MIT Sloan School of Business, Beard also identified the substantial challenges systems engineering projects that support government enterprises face due to demands from diverse stakeholders and rapidly changing technologies. They found that with new challenges, such as working to establish interoperability across preexisting and new technologies and differing priorities between stakeholders, the role of systems engineers has evolved.

“Traditional engineering skills are often no longer sufficient. Systems engineers are trained very well in engineering but not so well in organizational behavioral issues that must now also be managed as part of the design process,” says Beard. “They often no longer deal only with technical engineering, but also with having to help manage the politics across multiple organizations, different agendas of all the stakeholders, and more complex systems which are evolving rather rapidly.”

Looking back 30 or 40 years ago, the systems being built were fairly isolated and self-contained within a particular organization. Today, companies are growing exponentially and often operating internationally. And as we are reminded by the anniversary of 9/11, the government’s military and intelligence agencies are also working more cohesively adding to the need for capacity to communicate quickly and effectively.

Beard’s study found that these collaborations are not always an easy task for systems engineers. Large-scale enterprises are challenging to develop and manage. It can be especially challenging when enterprise consolidation is mandated. It can also create conflict if there is too much or too-quick leadership turnover. Systems engineers find it is increasingly important to be able to leverage their engineering knowledge to help guide emerging organizing processes.

“If you look at the typical engineering curriculum, you’ll rarely see anything about organizations or management in the courses required. We’re turning out technically very proficient, very skilled engineers, but in many cases this is no longer enough for what they will be facing in their jobs and careers.”

These skills, according to the study, include negotiation, persuasion, role taking, relationship building, and back-channel networking across organizational boundaries. Is it necessary future engineers to have these skills as we see more and more large scale projects? “I think that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw,” says Beard.

Jon Beard, associate professor of information systems and operations management, joined George Mason University School of Business in 2009. He previously taught at Purdue University, Webster University, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Texas A&M University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Richmond. He worked as a systems engineer at MITRE Corporation for 5 years.  Beard received his PhD in management and organizational behavior form Texas A&M University. Click here for full bio.


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