Communications in Industry

Doug Aldrich
SD Mines Alumnus (BS ChE62, MS ChE68, PhD Humane Letters (Hon) 2001)
Dow Corning Corporation, Midland, Michigan

Technical communications are both necessary and complex. They are necessary in that ideas and inventions bring trial applications and commercial successes, which (in turn) spawn new and greater needs. People communications are inherent in every step of this process, and the interactions required for R&D, production, sales, and engineering are complex. To be effective requires planning and practice in communications, with results that are both interesting and frustrating.

In general, English and Tech. Comm. provide the basics. Your job experiences and "seasoning" help you to apply those basics to situations that confront you in industry. Feedback from your leader is also important. It is essential to continue learning new approaches and techniques in writing, presenting, discussing, and listening. When you leave the classroom and go to industry, you are a raw material, not a finished product.

What interdisciplinary studies classes, other than Tech. Comm., do you recommend for students wishing to increase their communications skills?
Any course which requires writing for interpretation is useful. This could be literature, logic, history, or social studies. A foreign language is always good for personal growth, but the international language of business and technology is English. Learning to express yourself with a good vocabulary and proper semantics enhances your ability to communicate. Reading to "broaden your horizons" is an essential activity to make your output more interesting, particularly in our global world.

Does Tech. Comm. provide enough preparation for writing and speaking in an industrial setting?
It is much better now than it was in the 1960s mainly because the course has been altered to bring it up-to-date with the current needs of students and industry. Continued change in the course content is always required, as new demands are put upon the students when they go to work. (These can be communicated by alumni and co-op or summer students to the professors.) We need to continue this evolution, particularly with the integration of oral and written skills. New topics could include the dynamics of group decision making, coaching, conferencing, discussion leadership, and problem-solving techniques. Many dollars are spent by industry in training their people to communicate better. This expense will continue as long as time is wasted in poorly organized meetings, inadequate presentations, and unclear discussions or reports. There is never enough college preparation, but Tech. Comm. is an excellent start.

How do you feel about your own preparation of the types of communications skills that you are now using in your job?
For written communications, I had excellent preparation from high school English and college technical writing. I believe that Tech. Comm. is a much improved program over the one of my vintage. There was little emphasis on oral communications when I was here, except in extra-curricular activities (forensics and seminars). I have learned much on the job. 

Should technical writing and communication skills be introduced earlier in the education system, that is, at the high school level rather than at the college level?
Fundamental skills should continue to be taught in grade school and high school, but more rigorously. College should be emphasizing communications in every facet of the coursework taken. The key is a healthy implementation of the programs that will make the student an outstanding communicator as well as technical person. That implementation is often hard to achieve within a reasonable time-frame, at an acceptable cost, and with existing demands on professors. There are many people at SD Mines who are concerned with improving the communications content of their courses.

What are some of the communication skills that employers are looking for in prospective employees? How does your company look for these skills when interviewing for engineering jobs?
Recruiters look for people who can organize their thoughts, express them precisely, and know when to expand or to stop. We want employees who understand that writing for "history" is different than writing for "this month," and know how to effectively interact in oral presentations. (Global communications are introducing new challenges too.) To assess prospective employees is often difficult; I use the interview (oral) and reference checks (written) to do so.

What is expected from a first-year engineer in terms of communication? How often will I be required to do a technical report?
The first-year engineer may be expected to prepare monthly reports, spreadsheets, graphics, memos which outline problems and recommend solutions, laboratory reports and notebooks, and a major R&D or engineering report each year. Companies have various philosophies; some start you out slowly, while others bring you "on-stream" quickly. Sooner than you think, however, you will be required to give presentations, interact on the telephone, have one-on-one conferences, and prepare brief reports as requested by your supervisor. Of course, computers are there to stay, and they are a key tool for the above.

How much technical writing does an industrial engineer do?
This depends on three factors: job level, experience and responsibility, and technical/supervisory roles. If a person is not technically writing, he/she will be technically speaking. As a job becomes less technical, communications will shift from written to oral. As a person becomes more experienced, or progresses up the ladder, more oral communications will be expected. The challenge is how well people can integrate and blend the skills needed for written and oral communications to do the total job. This is probably 70-90 percent of a person's industrial life.

Do you find yourself sticking to a strict outline and layout for your technical writing forms (memorandums and reports)?
We use a standard format for our formal R&D reports; memos and letters have open format. The question should be "What format is effective to achieve the purpose for the intended audience?" All of these are used in e-mail, which is rapidly supplanting hard copy communications.

In preparing a report for management, should a person use technical jargon or keep it in layman terms?
To begin your report, it is absolutely essential to analyze your purpose, target audience, the need of timeliness, and format. As communications go up the chain-of-command, details should decrease and technical jargon should be reduced. Management does not need to know all of the details; they need to know only what the details mean. Many managers are technical in background, but for those who aren't, written (as well as oral) communications should use simplicity and brevity. If the audience has a mixed background, use an appendix to contain extensive technical details.

How much time on the job do you spend writing reports?
You should understand that I am a management person with a department responsibility. About 20% of my time is involved in written communications: memos, e-mail, preparing presentations or special reports. Around 50-60% is spent in oral communications, conferences or one-on-one discussions. I do not write extensive reports, which I would do if my position were technical.

How many technical writers are employed by the average chemical company; what does their job involve; and what is their usual educational background?
Technical writers are sometimes employed to prepare data sheets, brochures, and manuals. Backgrounds are quite varied, they can be journalism, marketing, or chemistry. I have no idea how many are employed by an average company.

How valuable are telephone conversations as a form of communication with clients?
The telephone is a highly underrated device of communication. Telephones can be used for sales calls, problem-solving nationally and globally, and discussions in teleconference calls. It's worthwhile to learn good telephone skills. The dollars you can save by solving a customer's problem over the telephone (versus visiting the plant) are overwhelming

What part of technical communications do you use most in industry (speech or writing)?
Both! The blend may be 80/20 in one job or 30/70 in another. People always want to pin down which is more important, more useful, and the one which they should study. I would ask the question, "Which is more important; your right leg or your left one?" Both of them get you where you want to be; they have to go together in a rhythm; and neither one can be ignored or abandoned. This is analogous to oral versus written communications> 

Do you use much of the knowledge you obtained in school?
In your first five years of industry, you use many of the fundamentals that you've learned in school, but you apply them to new situations. Gradually, you will learn more and more about your company's technologies, and move up the ladder into either technical or leadership responsibilities. Then you will find growing demands for new skills. In five years, your knowledge may become obsolete, so you must remain current in your field. But there's no question what when you start working, you draw heavily on what you've learned in the classroom.

How many trips do you make to speak such as this one?
This talk was a part of my interviewing trip to the School of Mines. I feel strongly about the role of technical communications in industry and in the classroom. It was nice to be invited and provided with so many questions. You might also view the 2000 videotape of the Dow communications series, in which four alumni talk about the need for and practice of this science/art in our companies and careers> 

What do you feel is your most important vital communication skill? Why?
Currently, my more important skill is oral communication; that's what is required most in my particular job. If I had continued as a technologist, my writing skills would have been more important to cultivate. Both skill sets have been developed intensively, since they are an integral part of my career. Both types of communications are important as my position has expanded into international activities.

What can be done about the poor spelling and grammar of engineers?
There are remedial courses available if the basics are poor, and seminars or workshops can fine-tune skills. Coaching by a supervisor is important; I personally have no hesitation in asking someone to do something over. There is incentive to improve if writing and spelling habits cause poor performance and less pay. Once you learn the basics, polishing skills and developing style will come only with practice, practice, practice. . .

What faults in people's communication skills do you notice as an executive?
In written reports or memos, faults are usually in organization, too many details, mechanics, semantics, and clear purpose. In oral communications, problems usually arise from not understanding the principles of speaking, preparation, and visual aids. Both skills are required in today's industrial meetings, an environment many students are not prepared to cope with.

What is the greatest pitfall in communication systems in industry?
Poor communications may lead to wrong or costly decisions, but even more critical is the loss of people's time and productivity. This is becoming even more evident with globalization, which demands excellence in communications across many boundaries: language, culture, behaviors, time, laws, and competition 

How has technical communications helped you on the job?
Immeasurably! I have used the principles of communications to coordinate efforts of R&D, manufacturing, and marketing. I have used them to define the problem, not the symptoms, and to ensure that the proper actions are taken. I have used technical communications to obtain decisions that I favor by clearly presenting what I want, the costs of doing it, and the benefits to be achieved. Finally, I have worked with my people to build communications skills and improve my department's performance

Who makes it to the top the fastest: The leader, manager or gamesman?
You read the same book I did! All of those types can make it to the top, provided they perform and contribute to the company's goals and successes. Anyone who can get good results, whether on the technical or leadership ladder, will advance to the height of his/her competence (and hopefully not beyond). Making it to the top involves preparation, success, luck, image, communications, right decisions, risk-taking, politics, hard work, vision, innovation, and the list goes on.

What was the most important part of your college life?
I believe it was the balanced education that I received at the School of Mines. Part of this came from the interest and involvement of my professors in me as a person, my classwork, and my growth/maturing as an individual. When this attention was coupled with the school's philosophy of hard work and persistent thinking, and then blended with extracurricular activities and the people interactions that went with them, you have my answer. I am personally amazed that our small school delivers such quality graduates who achieve so much during their professional careers. There is no question that SD Mines  made much of what I am today, and my years on campus were indeed significant forces in preparing me for life. I am most grateful for that.