Enterprise Software

Is e-engineering the answer?

E-engineering offers new ways to manage complex problems, but enterprises should also be aware of the unique issues this virtual work process brings to the table. Bob Weinstein discusses the pros and cons of e-engineering in this week's TechWatch.

Although the term “e-engineering” has been around for a while, its definition has been broadened as of late to encompass entirely new job roles and ways of working. Initially, “e-engineering” simply referred to electronic engineers working collaboratively from different locations, according to Win Phillips, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

But now that the “e-engineer” label has grown to include software developers and other techies, some companies are defining the term in what I think is somewhat incomprehensible language. Take, for example, the following definition from U.S. firm Visionary Design Systems: “E-engineering is the creation of a dynamic integrated product development and realization process that has the necessary agility and deftness to respond to the demands of an e-commerce world.”

For our purposes, let’s think of e-engineering as the process involved in pulling together a virtual IT team from several different locations to provide complex technical solutions. In this article, I’ll discuss the benefits and drawbacks associated with this virtual workplace process.

What can e-engineering do for your organization?
Practically speaking, e-engineering can drastically cut technology costs for U.S. companies. By choosing to e-engineer a project instead of utilizing an in-house project team, companies can take advantage of lower-salaried programming talent from elsewhere in the world.

PeopleSupport, a Los Angeles company that provides outsourced customer care, has been following an e-engineering model for years. According to CEO Abby Hossein, PeopleSupport has involved IT talent from the Philippines and India in the development of their proprietary CRM system, and Hossein adds that programmers in Manila, for example, are paid only about one-third as much as their U.S. counterparts.

E-engineering can also boost profits and increase productivity. Because the virtual team employs talent from several different locations, it makes 24-hour-a-day operations possible because a member of the team, in theory, should be available at all times. This may help U.S. workers, for example, work less grueling hours, and thus avoid the burnout common among American techies, according to Hossein. E-engineering also provides enterprises with a broader base of eligible workers: “It’s a lot easier finding technical talent because we’re working with an international labor pool,” Hossein adds.

E-engineering obstacles
But for all its perks, there are some issues with e-engineering that enterprises need to consider. First of all, although a business that is able to function around-the-clock is advantageous, it does require that time adjustments be made when working with colleagues in another time zone. Establishing clear lines of communication among programmers in different locations can be tricky when there is a 10-plus hour time difference.

Ion Badulescu, a software engineer at HydraWEB Technologies, Inc., a New York City company that makes load balancers for Web servers, has encountered such problems when working with developers in other parts of the world. Today, Badulescu works from his home in Irvine, CA, but prior to that, he worked for HydraWEB from his home country of Romania. “Conference calls with three or four people are difficult,” he says. “Phone contact with a foreign country is chancy at best. The best way to communicate is via e-mail.”

Another drawback of virtual working relationships is the cultural adjustments workers will face. American work styles, in particular, are not universal. “In the [United States], managers tell you what to do and the best way to accomplish a task,” says Hossein. “But that arrangement doesn’t fly in the Philippines. A techie in Manila resents being told how to do something. They’d rather figure it out themselves.” American workers also regard deadlines as sacred and believe they have to be met at any cost—even if it means working around the clock. But South Americans, for example, don’t share this attitude. Their work style lends more to getting the project done properly, even if it means that the project’s completion date must be moved back significantly.

But for Badulescu, the hardest thing to adjust to in a virtual work world is the absence of human contact. “It’s great working through the night if you want to, but eventually you miss feedback and conversation with other human beings,” he says.

Badulescu questions whether there is a big difference between e-engineering and telecommuting. “Both terms mean you’re working from a remote location,” he says. University of Florida’s Phillips, however, insists that e-engineering is very different than telecommuting because the technical projects associated with e-engineering are so complex. “It’s no simple feat pooling the efforts of engineering talent in three or more locations,” says Phillips. “E-engineering is not new, but high-speed communication has taken it to a new plateau.”
Have you employed a virtual team at your organization? If so, let us know what you thought about the e-engineering experience. Send us an e-mail or start a discussion below.

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