Value is a frequently used term within engineering colleges these days. It might show up on your webpages or even within your faculty handbook. But whether as a researcher or educator, what does value mean? Every engineer aims to be an impactful value creator, but let’s first talk about value, a precursor to impact and a term that is a storehouse of a complex collection of ideas.
By S. Balakrishna Pai, Director of Instructional Laboratories, Georgia Institute of Technology
Creating value is not simply relegated to the business interests of each subject of the questions to the left. Rather, it’s the fundamental work of engineering. With that recognition, how you might address each of those questions with a student, even if briefly?
The questions are not easy because the answers involve more than merely production costs. There’s an obvious dependency upon context, competing solutions, and connections to individual interests and needs. The answers are also more nuanced than assessments of the market value. It’s not the Price Is Right. In fact, answers are difficult even after defining “Value to whom and when?” The list doesn’t even include software, services, meeting basic needs, or technical breakthroughs. The topic is worth undertaking with students because it is the underpinning motivation for learning technical skills. What a great way to start a class discussion!
Creating and delivering value is perhaps the ultimate expression of an entrepreneurially minded engineer. An entrepreneurial mindset has been characterized as habits of mind around the 3C’s, one of them being Creating Value. The other two of the 3C’s (Curiosity and Connections) form the supporting cast that promote a creation’s discovery and relevance.
The (non)Definitive Dictionary
Some words have a well-accepted narrow definition. “Value” does not. Lexicographers, the researchers and writers of dictionaries, don’t even agree on first definitions for “value.” They offer the following:
measure of importance or benefits (Cambridge Dictionary)
monetary worth (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
relative worth (dictionary.com)
a deserved regard (Oxford Dictionary)
a quality that renders desirability (wiktionary.org)
Their differences are significant and reflect a variety of viewpoints. For a lexical joyride, try variations of “value” in Princeton University’s famous WordNet database, such as, “values,” valued,” and “value systems.” WordVis.com is a great tool to access the database and get a dynamic view of value’s complexity.
Perspectives on Personal, Economic, and Societal Value
Since antiquity, value has underpinned the human endeavor – and is pivotal to branches of philosophy, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, and the work pursued by engineers. Research of all types has identified human values across cultures, vocations, and people groups. Some studies reveal how personal choice and preference are connected to perceived ends — terminal or intrinsic values. A well-known study identifies and ranks 18 personal values including happiness, a comfortable life, freedom, equality, wisdom, sense of accomplishment, and self-respect.1 While educational programs often aim to help students develop a self-awareness, a consideration of value in its broadest sense helps students identify their personal and professional passions through their work. This is a goal within the character portion of the framework2 used by the universities and colleges that are partners of KEEN.3
Graduates of programs that highlight value are better equipped to create economic value, critical to the sustainability of any endeavor within an economic context – whether as an individual, organization, or country. Exchange value, a broader idea, is central in engineering because it focuses upon a mutually agreed exchange of resources such as time, information talent, and future possibility as well as monetary value. Engineering programs that emphasize entrepreneurial mindset do not simply relegate the treatment of value to a collection of time-value-of-money calculations within in an engineering economics course. Rather, faculty and staff design programs that build a habit of mind within students to habitually consider exchange value, always ready to answer one of the questions that former DARPA director, George Heilmeier, famously asked of proposers, “Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?”4 The good news is that others are recognizing that economic value theory should be integral to engineering and part of classroom discussions.5
In an effort to help graduates become responsible citizens of society, their understanding of economic value can be accompanied with a developed understanding of societal value. Some great resources simultaneously highlight both economic and societal value. For example, podcasts like those from “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”6 by Tim Hartford provide a balanced view of personal, economic, and societal value. 6 Episode #44 is about the plumbing S-bend, the essential shape under every lavatory. It’s a terrific example of value with positive externality. Videos about what really happens to your recycled electronics challenge students to consider the tension between societal good and strong economic forces.7 The visuals within “Strategy and Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility”help frame discussions of a value chain that includes a societal component. 8
“Senior Value Creation” instead of “Senior Design?”
Are engineers first designers or value creators? In most engineering education programs, there is a conspicuous focus on design. After all, senior design serves as the curricular conclusion, the capstone experience. The language signals to students and faculty alike that design is the final target of four years of study. Certainly, synthesis is a laudable educational goal and can be an underrepresented element of Bloom’s taxonomy in a many engineering education programs. But when compared with the reality of much engineering work, indicators that suggest design as the pinnacle of engineering education are misdirected. The majority of engineers are not regularly performing design. But importantly, all have the ability to create value through their work. Value creation, in all its forms and definitions, is a better target.
Enter The Disobedient Engineer
As faculty and institutions aim to develop a mindset alongside a skillset, they are doing things differently. In aggregate, their approach is called entrepreneurially minded learning (EML). Through their EML-based educational experiences, they develop a graduate’s ability to identify and act upon opportunity and aim for impact through work that has significance and scale. Across the country, faculty are developing students’ abilities to create and assess a value proposition. Under the umbrella of EML, value propositions, designs, analyses, and processes are all useful tools. The result has been graduates affectionally referred to as disobedient engineers. A disobedient engineer focuses on value first. As a result, they often choose the road seldom taken.
A Disobedient Engineer’s Story
It was the snowy part of a Michigan winter — which is nearly all of it. Ben was an electrical engineering student and was disillusioned with both engineering and higher education. He had disappeared from his program of study for more than a year, but now showed up outside my office, seated outside the door. An athletic, bearded outdoorsy young man wearing layers of flannel shirts under a canvas jacket, he was interested in talking about his future.
Ben is a determined individual. One academic year, he had decided to give up fossil fuel and committed to bicycling only. When you live 10 miles from campus in a Michigan winter, that commute is a serious commitment. He was a good student. But a year before this reappearance on campus, he had put his bicycle in his truck and headed to California. There, he biked long distances, taking the hiatus to re-center his academic, career, and life goals.
He had returned to snowy Michigan and was determined to complete his program of study. He told me, “Engineering helps produce a lot of stuff. And for the most part, it’s stuff we don’t really need. But I know I want to finish my degree.” He looked at me for answers.
I had just participated in an on-campus workshop that focused on developing an entrepreneurial mindset in undergraduate engineering students. The workshop’s focus on creating value influenced my advice — and prompted me to ask a question I had never asked students.
“Ben, forget about electrical engineering. How do you want to create value for others?”
It didn’t take long for Ben to describe his interest in hydroponic and organic farming. He was passionate about the idea of sustainability. My first reaction was concern. I’d opened Pandora’s box. Where was the focus on electrical engineering? But my second reaction was to contact a chemistry colleague, sending Ben to see her. She was working on the chemistry associated with aerobic digestion, part of the process used to convert waste to usable methane fuels.
Ben met with her, and it was a perfect pairing. To further her work, she needed new sensors, data acquisition systems, and controls. These were skills that Ben either had or determined to develop. His motivation peaked.
A surprising sequence of events followed that includes international travel, state representatives, and royalty. The story was shared at TEDxWichitaState.9 In short, because of a focus on creating value, Ben connected to a passion and to people that he might not have. A focus on value creates unexpected adventures. Ben graduated and now works with energy systems. He’s pursuing valuable, impactful work. But regardless of his degrees, the positions he’s held or his own pursuits, Ben’s C.V. is all about Creating Value. And that is any engineers most important credential.