Canadian Consulting Engineer

At Long Distance

June 1, 2007
By Bronwen Parsons

Every few weeks, senior engineers, architects and project managers with the Ingenium Group gather together to learn from each other and benefit from their experiences. An expert in a certain area from...

Every few weeks, senior engineers, architects and project managers with the Ingenium Group gather together to learn from each other and benefit from their experiences. An expert in a certain area from the company makes a half-hour presentation, and then the floor will be open for questions and discussions.

The floor in this case, though, is as wide and broad as the North American continent. Like other large engineering companies, the Ingenium Group (which includes Giffels and NORR) has begun to use internet meetings for professional development and training. The attendees gather around projectors in meeting rooms in Toronto and Kingston, Ontario, in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Southfield, Michigan. They’re all “present” at the same time. Ileana Dudu, Ingenium’s manager of quality systems and training, operates Powerpoint slides from her laptop, and the whole process is managed through a program such as Bell’s Webex or Microsoft’s NetMeeting. Sound is usually carried via a conference call over a telephone line, although it could also be transmitted over the internet.

Often called “webinars,” the technology is simpler than videoconferencing but it is effective. The participants cannot see the presenter, but they can hear her and see her slides. They can ask questions, and discuss back and forth. It’s just like being at a conference, but without all the time and expense involved in travel. Besides holding the live internet meetings for managers, the Ingenium Group uses the technology for more structured training programs for all employees. In those cases, Dudu even teaches live sessions to groups of employees in places as far away as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

For younger employees who have grown up in a world of YouTube, podcasts, blogs and MP3s, it seems normal to learn your skills at the end of a cable rather than face to face with a live person. But does engineering lend itself to “e-learning”?

Does engineering lend itself to “e-learning”?

According to John Plant, P.Eng., executive director of the Engineering Institute of Canada based in Ottawa, distance learning is not a solution for engineering studies at the university level, although he has heard of it happening in the U.S. “Distance learning is more difficult in engineering than some other fields because most engineering courses also require laboratory work,” he says. “Nobody’s figured out how to do that at a distance that I know of.”

Plant explains that in most engineering courses, “You first listen to a professor tell you about the abstract mathematical models. But most engineers don’t consider you really understand until you’ve actually gone in and seen it [the model] work in real life.”

Consulting engineering firms agree that distance learning is not suitable for all types of engineering training. Reilly Montgomery is general manager of training and development services at AMEC in Vancouver. The company has offices all over the world and runs training programs not just for thousands of employees, but also for its clients.

Montgomery explains that AMEC advocates a “blended” approach that distinguishes between “fundamental” or “foundations” technical training and the type of engineering where much broader aptitudes need to be applied.

An example of foundations-type training, Montgomery explains, would be teaching someone online about using a distillation tower in a refinery. “You can use things like 2- and 3-D animation and illustration to show what’s going on inside, to show chemical reactions and things like that. That’s fairly straightforward — not simple — but straightforward information that you can impart either on paper, in a Powerpoint presentation or online.”

But of the second type of engineering training, Montgomery says: “When you’re getting into more advanced topics — engineering bridges, tunnels, offshore platforms in arctic scenarios — you can’t leave it up to a distance type of education.”

As well, there are licensing issues. “With engineering, it’s a little more difficult because you can’t get away from the fact that in order to be able to assess an engineer, to make sure they are competent — and certainly in Canada to sign them off — you need to be face to face. There’s no getting around that hands-on, initial engineer-in-training phase that people have to go through.”

“People looked at online or distance learning as a kind of silver bullet in the early 90s and early this decade,” Montgomery continues. “But in fact, what people discovered is that there’s no replacing face to face interaction. Again, you can get the knowledge via the distance learning, but you can’t confirm the skills or the attitudes by distance learning.”

Tutorials for teaching corporate procedures

Where engineering firms find long distance learning does have most potential is for teaching broader skills related to corporate policies and procedures. AMEC, the Ingenium Group and UMA all use distance or on-line learning tools to bring staff up to speed on the company’s health and safety procedures and corporate ethics.

Marg Latham, P.Eng., vice president of knowledge management and corporate safety with UMA in Vancouver, says the company developed their first online tutorial in order to teach an internal system of filing and document transmittal procedures. “It worked well for us. It meant we could train people in a more systematic way.” From there they went on to develop a health and safety e-tutorial for all 1,150 employees in Canada. “Every year we run a refresher for people out in the field and leaders, and another one for employees.” It takes about 1 1/2 hours to complete and includes tests. Another more intensive e-tutorial UMA gives is on CAD systems, which takes six hours to complete. The company is currently developing a tutorial for its quality assurance program.

Like Ingenium, UMA uses “webinars” to communicate learning on more managerial topics. For example, “Three months ago we were launching new bid contract documents,” says Latham. “We ran a series of internet meetings [presenting] with our general counsel and outside lawyers where we went through the changes to the documents and changes out there in the bidding landscape.” She explains, “We had meeting rooms full of people across the country, with about 80 people for each of three sessions.”

What is behind the trend?

There are at least five factors encouraging firms to do more electronic training.

First, there’s the simple fact that it is possible. The wonders of the internet, new technologies and increasing computing power make it easy to communicate vast amounts of information over vast distances in short times.

Second there are the savings. The manager who simply has to stroll down the office floor and sit in on a webinar for a couple of hours, is a manager not wasting days on expensive travel to go to another destination to hear the same thing. In a country as vast as Canada and in a globalizing economy, the cost advantages are plain to see.

Third, electronic training can be more effective in some cases. Montgomery of AMEC, for example, sees online teaching as useful for preparing the student with basic information before a one-on-one tutorial. As well, with online training people can study on their own. “If you’re a slow reader, no big deal,” says Montgomery. “You don’t have to keep up with the rest of the class; you can do it at your own pace.”

Fourth, firms are investing more in all staff training programs, whether electronic or traditional, as a way to attract staff and keep them happy. In the booming economy, finding and keeping good employees is perhaps the biggest challenge facing consulting engineers.

Fifth and finally, webinars and e-learning from outside providers are a relatively painless way for engineers to satisfy the demands of their licensing bodies to take continuing professional development courses. Private and professional organizations offer training webinars in technical subjects for a se
rvice fee, and these will count as “continuing education credits.” The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. (APEGBC) for example, provided 23 webinars last year, including on technical subjects such as preventing landslides and seismic design.

So far, only Alberta engineers are obligated by regulation to undertake a personal program of continuing education, but APEGBC is moving fast in the same direction. It has issued a guideline, strongly recommending that licensed practitioners engage in study programs. It will expect them to report their activities for 2007. If those trends spread eastward, more consulting engineering companies will be looking at distance learning as a way for staff to take required the courses without running up exorbitant costs.

With internet tools, engineering companies are able to reach across vast distances to present live training programs for their employees.


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