…part of the Diamond Dozen series
Phil Edwards, Weald Technology talks about
collaboration . networking . purpose
Elaine… I remember when we first met and you told me about the electric motorcycle. I’m still as impressed today as I was then by the way. Developing and commercialising new technology often involves cross-organisational collaboration. What advice would you give to emerging leaders about successfully working collaboratively across different organisations?
Phil… A collaboration, unlike a customer/supplier relationship, pre-supposes that both parties have a much greater stake in the end-goal and a much more flexible approach towards reaching it. They are often over a longer time frame during which priorities change, new ideas surface, other partners may need to be identified, workloads vary, and many misunderstandings come to light.
There are two types of collaboration. What I would call natural collaborations develop over time and you will already know your partners and have experience of what they do, how they work, and how well you share ideas and visions (or if you don’t know that then it doesn’t fall into my category of a ‘natural’ collaboration).
The other, far trickier, collaboration is when you need to put together a team for a specific project and have to call on outside assistance; people you haven’t worked with previously, or only know from hearsay, who bring skills you don’t have. Often, these teams are put together at fairly short notice.
Here, you’re up against a time limit yet you really need to answer a number of fundamental questions if the experience, and end result, are to be worth the time and effort you’ll be putting in. We’ll assume your partner is competent, so they’ve passed the first test. Next, do the partners have the same interest as you in the project, the same level of commitment to it, and do they work in a style you are comfortable with? For example, if you like detail and everything planned to the last degree, and one partner has a far more “yeah, it’ll be OK on the day” attitude that’s going to get on your nerves pretty quickly.
It’s very easy, in the enthusiasm to get an exciting project off the ground, to convince yourself “it’ll be OK, I can work with it/change them” but believe me that’s unlikely. Fortunately, if you are putting a joint funding bid together you’ll soon get a feel for their style as everyone needs to contribute to the application process. If you’re struggling to get them on-board at this stage, and forever chasing information, take that as a warning. They might just happen to be under pressure on another contract right now, or maybe they never respond in time. How can you find out?
It’s wise to do some due diligence – this is likely to be a long-term partnership and its success or failure will come down to everyone delivering their piece (otherwise why are they involved?). You might be committing hundreds of man-hours and thousands of pounds to do your bit, and you’ll be pretty fed-up if you invest that time and money yet don’t have a product because your partner doesn’t deliver. So check them out, ask about similar size/scope projects they’ve worked on, particularly if they were collaborative. Speak to partners from that project (if it was Government funded R&D all of that information is public). Check their accounts, do whatever else you’d do with any large customer or supplier. Just because you’re collaborating, and “all in it together” don’t be fooled into thinking it’s less of a risk, or that as “everyone has a common interest in the success, what could possibly go wrong?”. Expect the other partners to do the same to you.
Sometimes, other factors dictate you can’t find the perfect partner and you then have to take a long look at the feasibility of going ahead. By all means go for it, if the end goal is worth it; at least you’ll be prepared for any headaches along the way!
It’s not all doom and gloom though; collaborations that do work are brilliant, and will definitely help you achieve things you simply couldn’t do on your own. Just make sure you know your partners.
Elaine… You actively use your experiences and the motorcycle to help showcase the exciting world of STEM to a range of young people. Why is doing this important personally and commercially?
Phil… From a personal perspective it’s important because I love engineering so much, and we are so good at it in the UK, that I just have to shout about it. I always enjoyed helping youngsters see the value and excitement of STEM careers – I actually started working with after-school technology clubs in 1992 so it’s no recent conversion, although I took a long break as my career developed.
To put a bit more meat on that – engineering, manufacturing, the sciences… that’s where value is created by a nation. Taking ‘small bits’ and making ‘big stuff’ that does something extra is adding value; it’s what sets the human race apart. We, in Britain are very fortunate in that we are extremely good at it. It’s something within the British spirit that we are a nation that likes to tinker, to make things, to improve and to find out “what if…”. We used to do it in massive factories, and still do in some parts of the country, but actually we do an awful lot more now in small units tucked away in converted farm buildings or gleaming new research parks.
Those that don’t get their fill during the working day are to be found in sheds and garages late into the night making ‘stuff’. It’s just what we do on this little island; we punch well above our weight on the global technology stage, and we do it extremely well. I really, really, love that, and, as mentioned above feel we should tell more people, because one thing we don’t do is brag about it (or even mention it in some cases). That’s why I love to promote STEM to youngsters as they deserve to know about it.
Commercially, it took me a long time to pin down how this shapes my business. Focusing on the commercial relevance came from a book that was recommend to me a while ago, which switched the light on. I had always struggled with the “what’s your USP?” question, arguing that it’s nonsense as no company is unique. I realised, on reading this, that my focus had always been on what we do, and yes, in that respect we aren’t unique; other companies can do the same. The trigger was understanding the importance of WHY we do it – and that’s where you can be truly unique. For us, that’s about using our skill and experience to delivering STEM programmes and school-based activities.
Elaine… Over the years you have created an extensive network of supporters and advocates of both Weald Technology and the electric motorcycle project. What 3 top tips would you give to scientists and engineers in the early stages of their career wishing to build their professional networks?
Phil… It’s important to actively look for opportunities and make the best use of them. So…
Tip 1. Step one is to look for as many as you can, and take every chance that comes.
In the early stages of my career you never left the site, in some cases not even the office you worked in! It wasn’t quite that bad, but the engineers were people who should be at the desk to be earning their money. You might occasionally go to a design trade show, but all that led to was lots of designers talking to lots of other designers about the minutiae of the IPX7645-Ver04-series 14 interface-module. OK, that’s a bit of a caricature, but not without some truth. I didn’t have a business card until quite a number of years into working life, there clearly being no earthly reason why anyone should need to know who I was or how to get in touch.
Until I became self-employed, at the age of 42, I never realised a whole world of breakfast meetings existed. In fairness, most of those meetings don’t seem to know that engineers exist either, so I’m not sure who’s at fault.
It’s not like that now (I hope not) but networking is incredibly valuable to you and your employer. Opportunities can be limited in some companies, but you can get noticed online, with sites like LinkedIn allowing you to connect with other professionals from your industry. Of the big social media platforms, I think Facebook is mostly personal accounts, with the only business interest coming from marketing departments using it as another advertising channel. My own perspective is that Twitter is far more interesting for ‘tech’ people. Your employer might not let you tweet at (or about) work, but start a personal account where you follow people with similar interests – work or hobby related. Tweet about what you do and what interests you – it is full of businesses that will follow interesting people. I use it every day. Please show you’re a human as much as a whizz at what you do. The saying ‘people buy from people’ is very true, so make sure you show what interests and motivates you.
Tip 2. Look out for evening talks and events that interest you.
The engineering institutes run lots of them on all sorts of topics – go along and talk to other people in the room over coffee before or after the talk. I said before that engineers are hopeless at telling people what they do, but let people know about your job and interests, whilst giving them space to tell their story. You’ll meet some fascinating people who might, one day, need someone like you.
Tip 3. Any chance you get to make a presentation should be welcomed.
You might not get many opportunities but you can create them – why not ask to do one in-house? At a previous employer of mine we built scientific instruments. They were incredibly complex, and very tightly toleranced, and required specific coatings or other processes applied to exactly the right areas. The staff building them in the clean-room were perfectly capable, but they asked if someone would explain exactly what the instrument did, how it was used, what customers did with it, and why some of the assembly was so critical. In some respects, you would say that’s not important – they had build-instructions and test-procedures and the units worked fine. But they wanted to understand what they we’re building, and could then offer suggestions for improvements with greater knowledge of whether it was feasible. So we put on lunch-time ‘how it works’ lectures with engineers and scientists tasked with delivering a presentation. A few were quite happy presenting a paper to an eminent audience at a global conference found catering to people who hadn’t studied physics or chemistry was quite a challenge. It was a great series though, and everyone enjoyed it and learnt something. We even had staff from accounts, admin, production planning, fabrication – all areas of the company who wanted to know a bit more about what we actually did. If you’re in the early stage of your career what better way to practice pitching your story to a ‘friendly’ audience, and educating them at the same time? Show your ability to do this and you may be asked to speak on behalf of your company at external events, which will quickly raise your profile.