In the past few years, engineering leaders have had to increasingly focus on the contribution of engineering to the strategy of the organization. They have spent years trying to come to terms with and eventually solve the engineering paradox - the contradiction between the benefits that the engineering function is expected to bring to the business, and the increasing need to commit lesser investments in it.
Today, there is a paradigm shift in how engineering functions operate, a transformation from “engineering as a function that drives strategy” to that of “engineering itself as a strategy”. The latter has come to be known as “Strategic Engineering”.
So what is “Strategic Engineering”?
Strategic engineering is at a level higher than operational engineering, and is best explained using a continuum represented in the image. An evolution in the engineering function moves through these phases, usually starting from basic product engineering that finally culminates in strategic engineering.
Product Engineering or Engineering for the Product: The focus here is on getting the best product out in the market. The thinking is mostly about “How do I make this work?”, “How would this product experience be,” and so on.
Strategy for Engineering: As an organization evolves, the focus in this phase is more operational engineering and to operate effectively (to adequately accomplish a purpose, producing the intended or expected result). This phase is about defining an operational engineering function to deliver what is required for the business. The typical thinking in this phase would be “How do I organize the team to deliver what my customers (read manufacturing, production, sales) want?”, “How do I continuously improve my product?” and so on.
Engineering as a Strategy or Strategic Engineering: At the highest level, the focus is to operate efficiently and it is at this phase where questions like “How do I take engineering to the next level?”, “How do I optimize my engineering?”, “How do I introduce efficiency into this function to do more with less?”, “How do I make life easier for my customers (read manufacturing, production, sales, supply chain)?”, start to appear in the minds of the engineering leadership. This phase is about redefining the engineering function to drive the business.
On analysis, most companies find themselves operating at the second level of the continuum for many years before they realize the need to move upwards.
I kind of understand what you are talking about, but how do I know if I am operating at a Strategic Engineering level?
There is no clear line of demarcation for movement within the phases depicted in the figure above and most often we could be operating across different phases. However, there are a few questions that that could be asked to judge if you are truly operating at a strategic engineering level.