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Interdisciplinary Interactions During R&D and Early Design of Large Engineered SystemsDesigning Large-Scale Complex Engineered Systems (LaCES) such as aircraft and submarines requires the input of thousands of engineers and scientists whose work is proximate in neither time nor space. Comprehensive knowledge of the system is dispersed among specialists whose expertise is in typically one system component or discipline. This study examined the interactive work practices among such specialists seeking to improve engineering practice through a rigorous and theoretical understanding of current practice. This research explored current interdisciplinary practices and perspectives during R&D and early LaCES design and identified why these practices and perspectives prevail and persist. The research design consisted of a three-fold, integrative approach that combined an open-ended survey, semi-structured interviews, and ethnography. Significant empirical data from experienced engineers and scientists in a large engineering organization were obtained and integrated with theories from organization science and engineering. Qualitative analysis was used to obtain a holistic, contextualized understanding. The over-arching finding is that issues related to cognition, organization, and social interrelations mostly dominate interactions across disciplines. Engineering issues, such as the integration of hardware or physics-based models, are not as significant. For example, organization culture is an important underlying factor that guided researchers more toward individual sovereignty over cross-disciplinarity. The organization structure and the engineered system architecture also serve as constraints to the engineering work. Many differences in work practices were observed, including frequency and depth of interactions, definition or co-construction of requirements, clarity or creation of the system architecture, work group proximity, and cognitive challenges. Practitioners are often unaware of these differences resulting in confusion and incorrect assumptions regarding work expectations. Cognitively, the enactment and coconstruction of knowledge are the fundamental tasks of the interdisciplinary interactions. Distributed and collective cognition represent most of the efforts. Argument, ignorance, learning, and creativity are interrelated aspects of the interactions that cause discomfort but yield benefits such as problem mitigation, broader understanding, and improved system design and performance. The quality and quantity of social interrelations are central to all work across disciplines with reciprocity, respectful engagement, and heedful interrelations being significant to the effectiveness of the engineering and scientific work.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Langley Research Center
Document Type
McGowan, Anna-Maria Rivas
(NASA Langley Research Center Hampton, VA, United States)
Date Acquired
May 2, 2014
Publication Date
January 1, 2014
Subject Category
Aeronautics (General)
Engineering (General)
Report/Patent Number
Funding Number(s)
WBS: WBS 794072.
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.
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