Culture and Technology: How Cultural Factors Impact Engineering Decisions

There is a persistent myth that engineering is some sort of universal truth that is unaffected by national, regional or company cultures. This is something I have heard when I am doing intercultural workshops -- comments like "all this stuff about cultural differences is interesting but it doesn't apply to me because I am an engineer, I work with other engineers and we all think the same way".  No, they don't. While there are universal technical laws and some shared aspects of engineering culture, the approach to solving engineering problems is strongly influenced by culture.

I have seen many examples where this has happened, in the design of trucks, airliner control systems and even silicon chips, but one case in particular shows how culture can play a surprising role in the design of a successful solution, France's TGV high-speed rail network.  Anyone who has worked in France or worked with French engineers has probably noticed the difference between the "pragmatic" approach popular in some cultures compared to the more "philosophical" approach favored by their French colleagues.

To an American or British engineer a great solution is one that works in practice and nobody minds if it is not conceptually "pure". Most would probably laugh at such an idea. In France they take a different approach -- a consequence of the education system -- and people start with basic principles and develop solutions in a way that outsiders consider abstract. People sometimes call this approach "philosophical" though it resembles more the mentality of mathematicians. Yet sometimes this approach leads to a better product, as the TGV example illustrates.

In many countries the approach to high-speed rail was one of pragmatic compromise and simply finding a solution that could work around issues like the difficulty of building new tracks.  In France the problem was approached in a characteristically philosophical way and the first decision was to build a high-speed line, not a high speed train. To many this seems a ridiculous waste of time -- you may have sat through similar discussions yourself -- but when you look more closely this decision is one of the key factors behind the success of the network.

Making a fast train is relatively easy, but if it runs on old tracks it cannot run so fast, and if it shares rails with slow trains then you have to compromise on track design. Once that you have decided that you will build a high-speed line then the trains are less important. If you decide that all trains will be fast this means that you need less separation and, more importantly, you can also use steeper grades, exploiting the roller coaster effect to climb grades that would stall a slow train. The decision to focus on the track meant that there was a dedicated track, optimized for fast traffic and with stations located on the main routes and not downtown. The simple, pragmatic approach preferred in other countries might have brought the service to market quicker, while the more theoretical approach may be slower but can often make a better product.

Neither approach is always the "best", and this teaches a valuable lesson: that it is important to understand that engineers do not always think alike, to be open to consider all possible alternatives and to create design teams with people who are not culturally identical and open to learn from each other. Once you understand that there are differences you will understand that your colleagues from other cultures are maybe smarter than you think, and also you can learn a few interesting new ways to approach a problem.

Lecture on this Topic

This post is based on content from the lecture The Myth of the Best Solution: How Culture Impacts Technology and Innovation. For more details see http://andrewhennigan.com/lectures.htm, email conseil@andrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81


Related posts about intercultural issues:
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  



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