An engineer might interact with technology all day, but that doesn't mean he has no interaction with other people. He communicates with other engineers, with team members outside of engineering and often with customers as well. Within engineering, effective communication makes it possible to transform requirements into the best possible working or workable solutions. Outside of engineering, effective communication makes it possible to verify the team is working on all of the right requirements, and to ensure the resulting solution can, in fact, be implemented. While all engineers should have good communication skills, global engineers face additional challenges, making effective communication an imperative.
Communication Barriers for Global Engineers
Engineers are technically-minded by nature. This can put them at a disadvantage when it comes to communicating with people outside of engineering, let alone the technically challenged. Communicating with non-engineers, however, is not the only challenge faced by engineers on global projects. Global engineers can encounter communication barriers even with fellow engineers from other countries due to cultural differences, language barriers and even technical differences. Special attention must be given to developing the skills needed to overcome these barriers.
A 2008 report for NATO shows that communication problems in globally and culturally diverse teams can result in poor team performance and reduced effectiveness. Differences can be encountered with interpreting non-verbal signals such as body language, recognizing when or how to take coffee breaks, or even how fast or slowly the team is expected to work. These differences are compounded when some team members are non-native English speakers. For such members, the simple act of trying to understand communications can use as much as 50 percent of his cognitive capacity. Establishing team norms that include direction on what to communicate, how to communicate and when to communicate is a critical first step that must be taken before moving forward on the project at hand.
Even if all team members are native English speakers, communication barriers can be encountered based on the version of English each member is accustomed to speaking. British-English is subtly different from American-English, as is Canadian-English and even Australian-English. While the differences are mostly seen in spelling, such as colour vs. color, some variations in grammar and slang can compound the communication barriers encountered by non-native English speakers. All team members should keep communications simple, concise and to-the-point to avoid misinterpretations and lost meanings.
Beyond culture and language barriers, global engineers can encounter an even more menacing barrier from a technical standpoint. Not all engineering standards are global. Electrical systems are one example. An American laptop cannot be plugged into an outlet in the British Isles without a power adapter. Another significant example involves units of measure. While most of the world operates based on the metric system, the United States continues to use imperial units. Engineering teams that fail to effectively communicate specifications could encounter serious consequences, as two NASA teams discovered when the Mars orbiter crashed because two different units of measure had been used.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.