Global engineering teams take advantage of diversity

To create a winning sports team, one must have players with superior talent. Since one player in a complex sport cannot master all of the skills necessary, a group of players with complementary skills are necessary. In engineering, it increasingly requires a team made up of members from different countries, cultures, and languages.


To create a winning sports team, one must have players with superior talent. Since one player in a complex sport cannot master all of the skills necessary, a group of players with complementary skills are necessary. In engineering, it increasingly requires a team made up of members from different countries, cultures, and languages.

Until the 1980s, most companies developed products using engineering groups that were in one place, doing everything from the simplest drawing to the most complex hardware or software design. It was an efficient approach; engineers became familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, because they shared culture, proximity, and language.

In the 1990s, for many industries, products started to get integrated into larger systems. An aircraft cockpit which used to consist of dozens, even hundreds of separate instruments and modules, was one large integrated system because of advancements in standard software and hardware techniques. These trends forced engineering development teams to start working with other engineers who were not collocated.

Today, companies are finding a global approach to engineering development vital in order to stay competitive, become more efficient in product development, and improve overall effectiveness. They have gradually recognized that a company’s group of engineers cannot be superior in all disciplines and activities necessary to create new products or systems.

So how do you develop an effective global design and engineering team? Here are five tips.

1. Foster a spirit of cooperation among different groups. An unfortunate leftover in many Western OEM product development groups is a spirit of competition. It was often easier to team with a different company than with a different engineering group within the same company. The challenge is to take disparate groups and mold them into effective teams.

Cross cultural cooperation has its own challenges and benefits. Solectron has design groups around the globe, and with these locations come cultural differences. For example, an Asian engineer is very reluctant to openly contradict a Western engineer. Swedish and German cultures encourage a lot of structure. Engineers in Shanghai can be very entrepreneurial. Such differences can be to the team’s overall advantage.

2. Time zone differences provide both opportunities and barriers. Splitting printed circuit board capture between Mexico and China allows almost a continuous operation to be performed. Calling team meetings, though, can be logistically difficult. We call many meetings in the afternoon, European time, resulting in early morning hours for the U.S., and late evening hours in Asia, which then requires long days for some engineers. The Internet has facilitated distribution of materials, but verbal communication is difficult in large meetings.

3. Use the same tools, practices, and processes. Airbus recently experienced significant delays for its new A380 because the French and German design teams were using different versions of the same tool. The expense of converting everyone to the same tool worldwide can often be daunting. Achieving commonality is important, however, and methods need to be developed to accommodate it.

4. Provide well documented work specifications. If teams need to continuously interpret or ask questions, there is a greater chance for error. There is also a need for very structured review processes. Finally, there needs to be very strong and effective program management.

5. Utilize cost-effective centers of excellence. Modern communication and infrastructure tools allow centers in multiple locations to be integrated into one overall development activity. This allows one to create sites that specialize in disciplines that are cost effective for that location.

Companies that can effectively take advantage of goegraphically diverse skills can be successful.

Author Information

Dave Purvis, executive vice president and chief technical officer at Solectron, leads the global design and engineering organization.

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