Expertise, disagreement, and bad things: Turbulent knowledge amidst organizational stress in engineering R&D

Date of Completion

January 2007


Black Studies|Business Administration, Management|Engineering, Industrial|Sociology, Organizational




Having established control over the material world of manufacturing hardware, process improvement architects are now addressing a separate domain called "culture." Yet there is a growing recognition that this dichotomy between cultural and material worlds is false. Emphasizing design is not about clarifying a purpose that can be combined with a tool to produce an object. Rather, it is about understanding how structured properties of sociotechnical systems emerge in contexts where process improvement initiatives address behavioral complexity, loosely coupled systems, and folk knowledge. Exploring how technical innovations are coupled to social values and symbols thus provides empirical value to process improvement architects and business anthropologists, as well as theoretical value to scholars in both disciplines seeking a better understanding how sociotechnical systems operate.^ Contemporary quality initiatives depend on successfully identifying measurable, well-known, repeatable processes for targeted improvement. Understanding knowledge flow can be difficult in research and development contexts, where design knowledge is rapidly changing and often poorly documented. In this context it is important to rigorously understand how design knowledge is defined and verified, how engineers are initiated into the relevant knowledge space, and how they use this knowledge to reach consensus on key decisions.^ This dissertation uses anthropological research methods to explore knowledge flow at a small engineering company (Smallcomp). The projects in this dissertation study the general theme of knowledge flow within three general areas. The first explores how cultural consensus and expertise is defined and distributed within Smallcomp's Engineering and Operations departments. The second identifies underlying, multidimensional constructs relevant to knowledge flow, effective integrated product development teams, and product development risk. The third develops new methods for managing organizational change initiatives and monitoring information flow among a group of interacting product development tasks. These projects represent a unique opportunity to combine the academic domains of cultural anthropology, systems engineering, and organizational behavior in the empirical context of product development during significant organizational stress.^