'Holistic Engineers' Observed through the Practice Looking-Glass

Anders Buch

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Many observers, policy makers, educationalists and industry representatives have called for reforms of engineering education that stress more ‘holistic’ and less disciplinary approaches to engineering problem solving (Buch 2012). And some reform initiatives within engineering education in Denmark have indeed perused these ambitions. Problem based learning (PBL) has been implemented in engineering education at Aalborg University (Graff & Kolmos 2003) and a progressive ‘Design and Innovation’ engineering programme have been launched at the Technical University of Denmark (Jørgensen & Valderrama 2012).

But how do these new ‘breeds’ of ‘holistic engineers’ fare in more traditional engineering practices? Through ethnographies of engineering practices within a Danish engineering consultancy company this paper observes how the new ‘holistic engineers’ meet the traditional engineering practices within the corporate world. Inspired by practice theoretical approaches (e.g. Reckwitz 2002, Hager et al. 2012, Gherardi 2012, Nicolini 2013) the paper examine how the new ‘holistic engineers’ negotiate and coordinate their professional being and knowing with the prevalent engineering practices found within the two workplaces. The paper highlights how the ‘practice lens’ (Corradi et al. 2010) provides a productive platform for investigating strategies for professional development, learning, transformation and resistance.

The etnography
SARIX is an engineering consultancy company that provides consulting services regarding environmental and energy issues, planning and construction of infrastructures and developmental cooperation in relation to the third world. Around 1,300 professionals – mainly engineers – are employed at SARIX. The head quarters of SARIX is situated in the vicinity of Copenhagen in Denmark, but SARIX also have local offices in other cities in Denmark and many employees are assigned to projects all over the world.

Copenhagen was the hosting city of the international climate summit COP15 in 2009. This event spurred a lot of public and political attention about climate changes due to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Until this event the conservative Danish government had given little focus to climate problems. In fact the Danish government sponsored the prominent ‘climate change denier’ Bjørn Lomborg and had made dramatic cuts in the public environmental initiatives. But in the preparation faze of the summit in Copenhagen this all changed. Suddenly the Danish government withdrew its sponsorship to Lomborgs research and recognized the severe climate challenges we are facing. This change of policy towards the climate problems was accompanied by new visions about clean-tech and environmental services as drivers for economic growth and employment in Denmark. These vision and the high expectations in relation to achieving global agreements on climate issues raised an atmosphere of optimism and encouraged the companies within the environmental service sector to launch new initiatives. This is the backdrop for the initiatives taken by SARIN in 2008. The company decided to establish a new division with a focus on climate change. Previously the company had been supplying services that were ‘reactive’ in relation to climate change – e.g. planning and dimensioning infrastructure facilities that could deal with flooding. Now, a new division should develop ‘proactive’ climate solutions – solutions that could monitor and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and document the ‘carbon footprint’ of consumers, households, products, companies, regions, etc. A dedicated COO was put in charge of this new division and he recruited a team of ‘holistically minded’ engineers that should develop new types of accounts that could specify business units’ total ‘carbon footprint’ by measuring the direct and indirect emissions due to the unit’s activities. He was struck by the fact that heating and transportation could only account for a fraction of the total carbon emission. Other components integral to companies manufacturing processes have a considerable impact that is not accounted for. The account should thus develop procedures that can measure the quantities of carbon emission due to a company’s totality of activities. A law-enforced regulation of companies’ carbon emissions would surely introduce emissions as an economic parameter. If climate quotas come to play an increasing role in the pursuit of emission reductions more accurate climate accounts should be developed in order for companies to monitor their footprints.

However, the climate summit turned out to be a disappointment. No global agreement was established and many criticized the Danish governments’ handling of the negotiations taken place at the summit. The enthusiasm and optimism about the prospects of clean-tech industry and environmental service sector as drivers for economic growth fated. No prospects of regulation of companies’ carbon emissions were in sight. SARIX’s ‘proactive’ strategy was put on hold and the enthusiastic COO in charge of the strategy left the company in favor of a position within an environmental NGO. When I entered SARIX in 2011 the climate division was abolished and only a small group of four employees were engaged in developing and selling climate accounts. Although SARIX had given up the ambitious ‘proactive’ plan the group insisted on upholding the status of a team that was dedicated to develop climate accounts. Their insistence was tolerated, but it was made clear to the team members that their activities should be profitable – otherwise their jobs were in jeopardy. Each and every employee in SARIX (except employees in management positions and administration) should be able to refer 75 to 80 % of his or her work hours to customer financed projects. Time spend on other activities were considered ‘unproductive’ time. On a weekly basis the employees at SARIX had to fill out an electronic time sheet and refer work hours to projects. It was evident to all that the four members of the team were not able to fulfill this requirement. An insufficient number of customers were interested in SARIN’s climate accounts. So, to uphold the ‘efficiency standard’ and account for their individual fulfillment of the 75 % profitable workload the team members had to sign up for work in other ‘reactive’ projects within SARIX.

The resilience of engineering practices
How did the ‘holistic’ and ‘innovative’ engineering approach manifest itself? It was, in fact, difficult to trace the holistic and innovative approach in the situation – except for the team members’ rhetoric’s! The developments of the climate accounts were construed in strictly instrumental ways. Figures in economic accounts were linked to emission tables and the fit between the categories of the accounts and the emission tables were refined, nuanced and optimized to give precession. During team meetings it was discussed how to find new markets for the climate accounts and how to market the product more effectively. But no general reflections about the product or the relevance and added value of the climate accounts for the costumers were entertained. Their apparent difficulties with selling their services to private companies were contributed to the lacking legislative regulation of carbon emissions and the team put their trust in the new socialist government to take initiatives. Although the rhetoric was all about ‘holistic’ and ‘innovative’ engineering the engineering practice remained instrumental and narrowly technical. Taking into account that some of the team members were trained in the proclaimed ‘holistic’ oriented engineering programs of innovation and sustainability this could seem to be a paradox.

It is, however, important to take the general features of the situation into account. The requirements of the invoicing system limited the horizons of the engineers to short-term projects that responded directly to customers needs. Every week 75-80 % of the work hours had to be invoiced. One of the team members faced the consequences of the invoicing system and slowly drifted away from the team. He engaged in more ‘reactive’ engineering projects in other divisions of SARIX in order to satisfy the invoicing requirements. Another team member was more ‘faithful’ to his holistic engineering professionalism, but he had to start working part time and supplement his job with teaching activities. The last two team members kept their full time positions but ‘shopped around’ in other divisions of SARIX in order to fulfill their work norms. Thus the general structure of work organization embodied in the invoicing system encouraged an individualistic, non-reflective and instrumental approach to engineering work and tampered ‘holistic’ and ‘innovative’ approaches. At team meetings the participants only had time to divide assignments among themselves and to reflect on potential costumers to whom they could sell their existing services and concepts.

The resilience of traditional instrumental engineering work practices and the prefiguration and structuration of work through organizing, standardization and infrastructures thus made it difficult for the engineers to uphold their ‘holistic’ approaches. Their innovative and collaborative work practices were gradually transformed into more traditional ways of working. Where team meetings were intended to be a innovative and collaborative work space it turned out to be a forum for reactive and coordinative problem solving.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication4S 2013 Society for Socal Studies of Science
Publication date2013
Commissioning bodySociety for Social Studies of Science
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventSociety for Social Studies of Science - San Diego, United States
Duration: 9 Oct 201312 Oct 2013


ConferenceSociety for Social Studies of Science
CountryUnited States
CitySan Diego

Cite this

Buch, A. (2013). 'Holistic Engineers' Observed through the Practice Looking-Glass. In 4S 2013 Society for Socal Studies of Science