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Engineering Leadership in a Chinese Industrial Context: An Exploration using the Four Capabilities Model

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Engineering Leadership Development: Theories, Models, Frameworks, and Tools

Tagged Division

Engineering Leadership Development Division

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Paper Authors


Jiabin Zhu Shanghai Jiao Tong University

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Jiabin Zhu is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Her primary research interests relate to the assessment of teaching and learning in engineering, cognitive development of graduate and undergraduate students, and global engineering. She received her Ph.D. from the School of Engineering Education, Purdue University in 2013.

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Hu Yu Shanghai Jiao Tong University

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Yu Hu is a graduate student at the Graduate School of Education in Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She obtained a B.S. in biotechnology from Hebei Normal University. Her current interest focuses on the cognitive development of engineering graduate and undergraduate students, the assessment of teaching and learning in graduate education.

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Tianyi Zheng Shanghai Jiao Tong University

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Future engineers should not only serve as technical experts in their respective fields, but also take the leading roles in the age of knowledge economy by possessing multiple skills and attributes, in particular leadership [1]. In response to the new demands for excellent engineers, a number of universities and engineering colleges in different countries have launched engineering leadership programs. A prior extensive comparison of these programs suggests that Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program appears to have built their program on a comprehensive theoretical framework- the Four Capabilities Model(4-Cap Model) [2], which composes of four dimensions of capabilities, that is, sensemaking, relating, visioning and inventing and a change signature that features leader’s core individual values and characteristics [3]. It was suggested that this framework has allowed for a more systematic understanding of leadership essence and guide the training of their engineering students in varied skills and traits encompassed within the framework [4]. To explore the essence of leadership in an industrial context in a systematic manner, this study applied the 4-Cap Model to understand the core capabilities required for engineers from different industrial contexts in China, including information technology, electronics industry, automotive industry and other industries. Sample organizations include large state-owned corporations, small private companies, and multi-national corporations. Twenty-three practicing engineers with varied working experiences (ranging from two to twenty-four years) were interviewed. Each interview lasted about one hour. Interviews were transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were analyzed in a qualitative manner guided by the 4-Cap Model. Overall, this study identified an exhaustive list of skills or attributes for engineering leadership within the four dimensions of the 4-Cap Model. Sensemaking involves analyzing and articulating current complicated situation through various data, observation and stakeholders [5]. Top capabilities in this category included system thinking, cost and revenue analysis, understanding customers’ needs, conducting risk assessment and management and so on. Relating refers to leaders’ understanding of team members, clarifying their own standpoints, and building a functional relationship [5]. Top capabilities in this category include abilities such as understanding of others’ ideas, encouraging others to express ideas, articulating ideas. Visioning, that is, to set up and articulate inspiring and attainable goals, and to encourage team members to apply feasible methods to achieve common goals [5]. Primary capabilities in this categories include leaders’ abilities to visualizing visions, establishing small goals under vision, building common goals among the group members and so on. Inventing refers to engineering leaders’ abilities to come up with innovative methods, processes and structures to deal with problems and accomplish a vision, and encouraging members to try problem-solving in a creative manner [5]. Primary capabilities in this categories include possessing and updating technical knowledge and skills regularly, conducting progress management, de-constructing a problem and so on. In addition to operationalizing the 4-Cap Model, this work also illustrates practical examples for these skills and attributes. To summarize, we expect that an understanding of engineering leadership within different cultural contexts will deepen our current understanding of engineering leadership across different cultural contexts and further facilitate engineers’ training to be competent leaders in an increasing global context. These findings can also be used to provide feedback to universities and engineering colleges to promote engineering leadership training among students, and provide constructive suggestions to curriculum design.

Bibliography [1] Kumar S., & Hsiao J. K. (2007). Engineers learn ‘soft skills the hard way’: Planting a seed of leadership in engineering classes. Leadership and Management in Engineering, 7(1), 18-23. [2] xx (2016). Removed for blinded review [3] Bernard M. Gordon MIT engineering leadership program developing tomorrow’s engineering leaders. Retrieved from [4] Graham, R., Crawley, E., & Mendelsohn, B, R. (2009). Engineering leadership education: A snapshot review of international good practice. Cambridge, MA: Bernard M. Gordon – MIT Engineering Leadership Program. [5] Ancona D. G. (2005). Leadership in an age of uncertainty. Managing for the future: Organizational behavior and processes. Mason: South-Western College Publishing.

Zhu, J., & Yu, H., & Zheng, T. (2017, June), Engineering Leadership in a Chinese Industrial Context: An Exploration using the Four Capabilities Model Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28257

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