Why is Simple Digital Collaboration a Challenge for Engineering Teams?

CoLab Team

May 3, 2023


min read

It’s not unreasonable to assume sophisticated engineering teams have access to highly sophisticated tools. 

But while it may not be an unreasonable assumption—it’s not necessarily an accurate one. When you talk to the engineers building today’s top innovations, you might be surprised by the basic systems that get used to manage complex design work. (Like aerospace engineers needing to  debate whether to use a pink or yellow highlighter for reviews!)

So what’s going on? Why is it so challenging for engineering design teams to find simple ways to collaborate virtually? It’s a complicated question, but our team talks to engineers about this on a daily basis.

Here are three broad themes we consistently hear from design teams trying to solve their digital collaboration challenges.

Hardware is Hard

Let’s face it. Designing hardware, designing physical products—it’s just not the same as other types of collaborative work. While the phrase “hardware is hard” gets used to mean lots of different things, it does help to explain why collaborating virtually on complex design can be more complicated when compared to other fields.

Digital collaboration is difficult for product design teams because:

  • Form and function overlap, making it tricky to take a modular approach to design
  • Changing hardware is expensive; oftentimes, it can’t be redesigned or refactored easily
  • Hardware design begets more design — tooling, assembly lines, etc.

It’s no secret that engineers aren’t afraid of hard work. But we all know there’s a difference between working harder and working smarter. The unique challenges of virtual engineering collaboration aren’t insurmountable, and the pandemic has brought them to the forefront of the industry. There are solutions for teams who want to change. Yet that brings up the next point...

Resistance to Change

Long before 2020 forced massive, widespread changes to accelerate in every industry, the fourth industrial revolution was well underway. No matter what you call it—Industry 4.0, digital transformation, future of work—these concepts are no longer “trends.” They’re reality. And even though it’s foolish to deny reality, the impulse to resist change can be a strong human instinct.

This graph from 2015 shows the results of a World Economic Forum survey of 800 technology executives and experts:

If watches count as “clothes,” then we’ve already blown past the first technology tipping point on the list in half the timeframe. As of 2020, one in five Americans wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker. In fact: the fact that spellcheck already knew smartwatch is one word (versus two) is further proof that the future is definitely here.

The world of work is no exception. Engineering teams have been using software for decades: it would be unthinkable for a design team to operate without CAD. But the term computer-aided design dates back at least as far as 1960. PLM and ERP have been around since the ‘80s. And even though the world around the engineering industry has shifted to the cloud, the tools for engineers haven’t kept pace with the times. Cloud collaboration can’t be ignored (or feared) anymore. Yet the industry is still held back by old ideas about the risks and difficulties of new tech solutions—when, actually, the risks and difficulties of not changing are much heftier.

Change feels risky, which can lead to resistance. Or it simply leads to procrastination, which is possibly just as damaging. But putting off change doesn’t make it go away. Besides, once your team is ready to embrace change, the next hurdle comes along: figuring out where to start.

Option Overwhelm

Decision paralysis is a real threat to your goals. When there is expertise in anything, just a Google search away, it should make life easier. Right? Yet choice overwhelm causes many organizations to hesitate instead of taking action.

Part of the problem comes from those big, broad terms mentioned earlier in the post. How do you implement “Industry 4.0” or “digital transformation”? You don’t.

You don’t need a digital strategy anymore, so much as you simply need a business strategy for a digital world. Getting hung up on the buzzwords is a blocker for many leaders and teams today, because there’s so much dialogue from thought leaders on these big-picture, big-ticket concepts. But realistically, those concepts come from the accumulation of many, many smaller changes and transformations.

To combat the overwhelming volume of options when you’re looking at digital collaboration tools and technologies, the simplest strategy is to nail down the problem you want to solve—and just take it one step at a time from there.

Digital Collaboration for Engineers (But Simpler)

If you want more insight on what taking that next step could look like for your engineering team, you’re in the right place.

After hearing countless teams talk about the frustration of catching mistakes too late, our team at CoLab decided to share some of the lessons we’ve learned from working with industry leaders to update their design review process.

Want some inspiration on where to start? You can watch the recorded webinar right now. Find out how other engineering teams are making digital collaboration simpler—and building better products, faster, because of it.

April 8, 2021

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