I was recently asked a very thoughtful question: Once somebody becomes a member of INCOSE, and in fact maybe even volunteers to support various efforts of the chapter, how does one stay excited and engaged in our chapter’s activities? I think I have two answers for that and the first part of the answer requires me to explain why I joined INCOSE.
I joined INCOSE-LA in 2004. I was in a situation like many of our newer members, which is that I had been doing systems engineering for almost 10 years but I simply didn’t know that’s what I was doing was called, nor did I know there was an established discipline that would teach me how to do it better and yield greater value for my employer and myself as a professional. I joined INCOSE initially to obtain this discipline knowledge and decided that for me, my best route would be to immediately focus on becoming a Certified Systems Engineering Professional. I made that decision because I felt, and still do feel, that focusing on certification allows a professional to quickly identify all of their respective knowledge gaps versus the discipline baseline.
When I sat down and read through the Systems Engineering Handbook, I used little stickers on each page to identify SE activities I was already doing. But I also recognized that I was executing the practice at a very surface level and not leveraging the underlying data, science, and methodology to really drive the value for my program. After completing this initial run-through of the handbook, I realized that I had a lot to learn.
To gain the skills I needed, I realized that the true answers and knowledge would not simply come from the handbook. I would need to reach out to seasoned professionals, perhaps in multiple domains, to truly understand how these processes, procedures, methodologies, and tool revealed themselves in practice. At the time, I did not have an extensive network of systems engineering professionals. However, by joining the preeminent systems engineering technical society, I had a place from where to start.
I began attending chapter meetings in order that I might meet people, learn and understand their background, let them get to know me and understand my background, and thereby have a foundation for engaging in professional conversations. That would help me resolve my answers about the practice. In doing this, I also found I was able to help enlighten some aspects of systems engineering based on my previous experience as well. So a truly win-win situation developed.
After achieving obtaining my certification, I continued to be involved in the chapter and INCOSE in general because I realized something that all know now to be true: the discipline of systems engineering never stops evolving. When I joined INCOSE, the implementation concepts surrounding model based systems engineering (MBSE), the value proposition, and the underlying toolsets were much more amorphous than they are today (and yet the debates continue!) Being active in the chapter and active in the INCOSE at large allows me to be an active participant in the development of these processes tools, and techniques. It allows me to have a “seat at the table,” albeit in a small way, on what the future can look like. Additionally, it puts me in a position of speaking authoritatively within my own organization in terms of our strategies and tactics for how we plan to implement systems engineering in future projects.
This type of interaction continues to yield a positive impact on my career. Today I continue to be deeply involved in the chapter on many fronts: chapter strategy and operations, communications, and two topics that will always be near and dear to my heart: how we can help the neophyte systems engineers make the transition into a seasoned veteran and how we can help the seasoned veteran stay up to date on our evolving discipline.
So that’s how I got involved and that's why I stay involved.
In figuring out how to keep members involved in the chapter, there must be a bilateral understanding. This is to say the member not only needs to know why they are a member of INCOSE or why they originally joined INCOSE, but what is it that they want to get out their membership now and in the future? I emphasize that this is an evergreen process. As my story illustrates, the reasons I originally got into INCOSE are not necessarily the reasons that keep me involved today. Nor do I think any professional should have a staid rationale for their membership. As we grow professionally, our desires and interests change. And correspondingly, our involvement in the chapter could and possibly should change as well.
The other part of this bilateral understanding is that the chapter needs to continually provide connection points and opportunities for our membership to stay engaged. We must continually reevaluate our portfolio of offerings. We need to ensure that we are speaking to the seasoned professional , the mid-career professional, and the neophyte at the same time. We need to support professional growth along the various Systems Engineering career progression paths. We need to communicate with our membership where they are and how they communicate. And most importantly, we must never ever rest on our laurels.
This process of continuous renewal of our personal and professional goals combined with the chapter’s continually evolving strategy and operations should create a synergistic environment. Correspondingly, as the chapter continues to evolve, it will help the individual member identify new interests which then has the potential to increase member involvement.
Make no mistake, there are some limitations to this vision. Let me be blunt: there are members who join INCOSE simply so that they can say “I’m a member of INCOSE” for professional reasons. Let’s take this as an accepted truth. That member is doing themselves a great disservice because in essence, what they are doing is contributing to a long term denigration of their professional competency. As they profess to wave the banner of being a systems engineer, they will find over time that they have become less competent in the current practices of the discipline, which in turn may lead to them being less relevant in their professional organizations. Yes, this is their loss, but as an organization, we lose as well.
Additionally, we have members in INCOSE who are brand new to the professional world. As such, they may be overwhelmed with the responsibilities that accompany the beginning of a post-collegiate life. They may be still getting their “sea legs” as they establish themselves in their new professional environments. Based on their constraints, although they may feel the desire to become more involved in chapter operations, they may simply not have the capacity to do so. They may also suffer from “intellectual shyness” and feel that since they are new to the discipline that they have little to offer. It is our responsibility to disabuse these new professional of both notions.
From a chapter standpoint, we need to ensure that these new colleagues are clear on what they want to get out of INCOSE and provide senior mentorship to help them understand how they can achieve their goals with their limited time while also providing value to the chapter and the society. If they are questioning their intellectual competence, vis-a-vis systems engineering, it may prove extremely useful to point out to them that everyone who considers themselves either an intermediate or expert level systems engineer, was at one time a rank novice. By sharing our stories we empower them to begin building their story.
These are just a few ideas on how to keep members active and involved in our chapter. But I think they all point back to one of my core beliefs: one of the things that keeps people involved in any kind of relationship whether personal or professional, is communication. We need to continually communicate with our members and acknowledge a priori that sometimes we may fall short in this effort. Conversely, our members must continually communicate with their colleagues within the chapter on what they want from the chapter and what they need professionally. If both of these lines of communication remain open and active, I am convinced that our membership will remain strong, committed, and will continue to succeed as systems engineers, and thereby ensuring the success of our chapter and as a technical society.