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Knowledge Management, the Missing Link for Innovation in Systems Engineering

Position Paper,  EUSEC 2010 by Paola Di Maio

At a panel of the European Systems Conference  EUSEC 2010, experts are asked to address the following question: "Systems Engineering in a project can be seen as limiting the creativity of engineers in inventing new products, pointing at the disciplined and methodical character of Systems Engineering. Is this is a paradox, what can or must be done to prevent that Systems Engineering hampers innovation, or whether Systems Engineering may even stimulate innovation".

The question itself can be viewed as a symptom of an issue probably more related to the perception and the view of 'what is systems engineering', rather than to a problem with systems engineering (SE) itself.  The kind of  symptom that can be exciting for researchers to diagnose. One of the useful definitions in explaining what is systems engineering is the following, excerpted from the Nasa Handbook of SE [1]: “The value added by the system as a whole, beyond that contributed independently by the parts, is primarily created by the relationship among the parts; that is, how they are interconnected. It is a way of looking at the “big picture” when making technical decisions. It is a way of achieving stakeholder functional, physical, and operational performance requirements in the intended use environment over the planned life of the systems”.

There is nothing in there (nor in any other reference that I know of) to suggest that the systematic nature of SE is 'limiting creativity'. I agree however that the way SE is often practiced in industry and taught in academia (especially in Europe) may be missing the point, and one of the reasons perhaps why SE suffers injustly from such a poor reputation. Not addressing sufficiently the  difference between ‘systems’ and ‘system components’ is a typical example, which I tentatively resolve using congnitive artefact such as the diagram below by INCOSE (Image)

'Grasping the whole picture' is knowing what the whole picture is about, however when the visibility of a ‘whole system’ becomes strategic, especially in traditional strictly hierarchical organisations, it automatically becomes restrected to a few members of a knowledge community. 

This fragmentary view of systems will definitely contribute to generate hydiosynchrasies, and possibly even foster the notion that systems engineering does not support innovation.

Another critical  gap exists  between the systems engineering and the knowledge management practices.   Knowledge exchange is fundamental to produce innovation [2], yet in SE today there is little appreciation for Knowledge Management, an issue 

Focus of Systems vs Components Engineering (source: Incose)

which I address in related research. [3]
Even 'innovation' is a broad term often used too generically to be meaningful. Innovation can be seen from many different perspectives:
"There are many different theories of innovation: breakthrough, incremental, open source to name but a few. There are arguments stating innovations have to be disruptive to qualify; others argue that any change—as long as it is measurable—qualifies as innovation. Some people want innovations to be open and available to all as a means of challenging even more growth and ingenuity; others believe that new discoveries and paths need to be developed privately and secretly." [4]

We should constantly re-evaluate what we 'know' , because especially in these days of networked communications, knowledge, and its underlying assumptions, change increasingly rapidly.

What we know (about most things including innovation) is not 'static', even innovation is changing all the time.
One of the most exciting recent shifts along these lines can be found in  'Open Innovation', which is  defined by Henry Chesbrough, a professor at Berkley and director of the Open Innovation Center as “the organization’s ability to use purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation”.

In the study “Implementation of the Open Innovation Paradigm” [5] the authors cite J.G. March to explain open innovation in terms of a company’s ability to develop, access, integrate and deploy knowledge. They write "To succeed, firms need both, exploitation and exploration. Exploitation refers to strengthen the existing knowledge and the technology base of a company. Exploration, on the other hand, searches new technological and business opportunities. In a new knowledge landscape, the R&D personnel have a new role. Besides just knowledge generation by internal research and  development, knowledge brokering has become an essential part of an innovation process. The success of this brokering depends on firm’s absorptive capacity, ability to understand and apply external knowledge inside the company". Erich Ruetsche , in charge of Business Development & Relations, IBM Zurich Research Laboratory describes how innovation within IBM evolved from a closed to an open system, and more recently to an ecosystem with important cross organisational innovations In the report from the “Business Symposium On Open Innovation In Global Networks”. Ruetsche tells how IBM, which operates research facilities across the world and has a culture of corporate collaboration that includes customers and suppliers, considers both external partners and internal employees as important sources of new ideas.

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I therefore conclude that the interdependence between systems engineering, innovation and KM should be better understood and addressed, not only in thory and in academic literature, but also where SE is taught and practiced. For SE to become a systematic instrument to promote and sustain innovation, SE learning and practice should:

- ensure that sufficient (and correct) knowledge about the exciting nature of SE is available, used, taught, and practiced

- allow stakeholders (users, but also customers, suppliers etc) to set their own boundaries

- understand that nothing is exempt from evolution, and that there are important interdependencies that need to be captured between various factors

- appreciate that 'open innovation'  can only take place if socio-technical evolution of organisations and society support it accordingly

- accept that knowledge (sharing, exchanging etc) is the basis for all innovation and progress

[1] NASA Handbook on SE, page 4.
 Knowledge Reuse For Innovation – The Missing Focus In Knowledge Management: Results Of A Case Analysis At The Jet Propulsion Laboratory Ann Majchrzak
[3] 'Knowledge Reuse for SE', P. Di Maio IEEE/DEST 2010 Proceedings

Paola Di Maio is Programme Director of the Institute for Socio-Technical Complex Systems, UK, and an INCOSE member