Professional Engineering Competence

Engineering competence

IESIS Model of Professional Engineering Competence

The need for a model of competence

Professional competence cannot be defined with precision due to the wide range of attributes, skills, etc. required by a professional engineer. It is however important to seek to develop ones own competence and to help those whose work you direct to develop theirs. For those who teach engineering, the development of professional competence should be a core objective in their curricula.

To seek to develop competence one has to be explicit about its nature. The purpose of a model of competence is therefore to provide insight into its nature so that a person can adopt strategies for developing it.
The main UK model of engineering competence is that published by the Engineering Council1. In presenting another model here, we do not imply any criticism of that document. We use a complexity principle defined as:
‘For a complex context that is difficult to describe, it may be best to use a number of simpler models rather than try to seek to formulate a precise definition.’

The IESIS Model

For a summary paper that relates to the model see here.

Each of the boxes in Figure 1 represents an attribute of competent engineers. Figure 2 shows core engineering activities. These diagrams and the associated descriptions linked to them represent the IESIS model. These attributes are neither a complete definition of competence nor are they entirely distinct from one another.

The IESIS model covers generic attributes. Other features of competence can be defined in relation to specific engineering disciplines.

Knowledge, attitude and competence


Attitude may be just as important as knowledge for competence. However it tends to be difficult to assess. It may be that every feature of competence has a knowledge component and an attitude component and that both of these components are essential.

Generic attributes for engineering competence

Reliable outcome seeker

Professional engineers adopt a relentless drive to achieve reliable outcomes.

Reliable outcomes

A reliable approach is one where it is sought to reduce the uncertainty about the outcomes being unsatisfactory to as low a level as is practical in the context. Engineering problems tend to be fundamentally non-determinate i.e. unique solutions do not exist. In such a context there is no truth - no correct answer. It is a matter of controlling the uncertainty/risk. The hallmark of the competent professional engineer is to produce satisfactory/reliable outcomes from contexts of complex uncertainty - on a regular basis.

System thinker - Detail thinker

These are complementary attributes. Consider whole systems and how the parts connect; seek to identify interdependencies. Pay no less attention to ensuring that the details will be reliable.

Use all appropriate methods

Methods used include: option analysis; predictive modelling; risk analysis; performance monitoring; statistical analysis, probability; etc;

Seek to improve processes

A main strategy used to achieve better outcomes is to continually seek to improve the processes used.

Reflective thinker

Professional engineers exhibit a healthy scepticism about received and generated information. Seeking answers to questions such as: ‘Is that right?’, ‘Had the evidence for that been assessed?’, or saying ‘That does not look right because…’ is a key to reliable outcomes.

Flexible thinker

Accept that other people may have better ideas than yours. Seek widely for support for your work including from other disciplines if appropriate. Accept that despite all efforts, outcomes that you have achieved may not be fully fit for purpose and that amendments may be needed. Seek/welcome independent scrutiny of what you are doing or have done. Adopt a philosophical approach Doing philosophy involves thinking about things in a certain (rigorous, questioning) way, offering arguments for one's ideas, meeting arguments against them, and being prepared to change one's mind.“ (P J King

Numerate thinker

A core feature of engineering competence is motivation to apply scientific methods to solve problems. Where numerical predictions or measurements can help to achieve reliable outcomes, they are used.


This is the complement of humility. Since professional engineers work in contexts of complex uncertainty it can take courage to make decisions when all the issues have not been fully resolved. Confidence comes from knowing that you have sought to achieve reliable outcomes.

Environment thinker

Consideration of the natural environment, the social environment, sustainability, etc. now tends to be pervasive in engineering activities.


Safety, risk control thinker

Adopt a relentless drive to address safety and risk issues.

Ethical thinker

Ethical behaviour is a fundamental feature of professional engineering. Good collaboration is dependent on trust. The consideration of sustainability is an ethical issue. more.

Work with standards - Innovate

In order to seek to repeat success and not to repeat failures, engineers develop codes of practice that can be international, national, industry sector standards or in-house procedures. It is normal to adhere quite strictly to such standards.

Sometimes however there are no standards for what needs to be done or ideas emerge that may give better results than using the standards. Innovation may be defined as developing creative ideas to successful conclusions. Different mind-sets are needed for working with standards and generating new approaches. The generation of creative ideas may need free thinking where being wrong is not a fault, whereas in implementing the ideas a focused approach is needed so that the outcomes will be, as far is practical, fit for purpose.

Knowledge/competence seeker

Professional engineers should constantly seek to improve their knowledge and competence within their areas of expertise, widely in the engineering domain and beyond. They should also seek to ensure that those for whose work they are responsible are also developing competence.

Business thinker

Business issues are integral to professional engineering practice. Consideration needs to be given to the principles of client focus, costing, cost control and finance, developing contracts and working with contracts, negotiation, entrepreneurship, selling services or products, etc.


The success of projects is heavily dependent on the quality of collaboration and of leadership. Team working is the norm.

While major roles in leadership tend to be assumed later in careers, this is an important issue at all levels. Young engineers working in a shop floor or on site often need leadership skills. It is important to understand the principles of good leadership from an early age.

Engineering projects increasingly require major collaborations across disciplines. Learning to work with other disciplines from the earliest practical age should be sought. While deep knowledge of other disciplines is not required, appreciation of the general principles is advantageous. Attitudes are very important being motivated to bring in other disciplines, respecting the stances taken by people from other disciplines and keeping an open mind about their contributions.



In education the dominant purpose of writing is to demonstrate knowledge whereas in professional practice the dominant context is to respond to a brief, to write technical reports.
Engineers should learn the principles of writing in different styles but the writing of technical reports to a professional standard is a core activity in relation to professional competence.

Graphics user

Engineers need to be competent in working with graphics in a range of styles including: hand sketching, 2D drawing, 3D graphics.


Engineers need to able to present information verbally, to make appropriate contributions at meetings, to make presentations to a professional standard.

Core engineering activites

The dominant (but not exclusive) activity in engineernig is the creation of physical objects - to causing changes to the physical world.. Managing proceses and carrying out investigations can be separate activities but they are also integral components in the creation of physical objects. Figure 2 shows how these activities interact with the Design process


Create physical objects


A general definition of design is: 'the creation of information about future entities'. The word 'design' normally relates to physical objects but is also used for the development of processes. For example, computer programmers often 'design' their programmes before coding them. Here design is used in relation to information about physical objects. but the Design process is also used in planning and in in investigations.


Make is used here to represent the physical work of creating an object. Types of making are: manufacturing - e.g. of machines; construction - of infrastructure objects, e.g. buildings, bridges, roads.
In manufacturing, design and making may be parallel processes. An initial design may be converted into a prototype which is tested. New design ideas are introduced and further manufacturing and testing can occur until the product is deemed to be satisfactory. In some cases the product continues to be developed after it has gone into production.
In the construction industry it is normal to seek to fully design the object prior to the construction phase. The reason for this is that the products tend to be large and expensive and the cost of a prototype cannot be justified.


Management can be defined as planning and administering a process. A process is a means by which an objective may be achieved.


Planning is the activity of defining a process. The plan is the statement of the process. The planning process can be characterised as being the same as the Design process. Careful planning of work at all levels is one of the key features of successful engineering practice.


Administration is the implementation of a process. Project administration tasks include: assigning people to tasks, instructing people about tasks, ensuring that resources are available, ensuring that tasks are satisfactorily completed, keeping records, etc.

Process Control

A main feature of process control is to be motivated to ask a range of questions about the process and its implementation.
Important questions include:

ariane four


To investigate is to consider the condition of existing entities. A plan for carrying out the investigation is defined using the Design process. The investigation is then carried out..

Design process

When people talk about ‘problem solving’ they generally refer to the solution of non-determinate problems i.e. those for which there is no unique solution e.g. as for design.
When people seek to describe the design process they express it in different ways but there tends to be a core that is invariant. Here is one way of describing this core:

This is what is referred to here as the the Design process.
The design process represents a template for the solution of non-determinate problems in general (with suitable changes to the wording from the above). In particular the activities used to create a plan are the same as listed above (with 'design' replaced by 'plan or planning')- as shown diagramatically in Figure 2.
Expressing the design process as having three components, as above, can give the impression that it is a fairly simple process but this is often/normally not so.  Its implentation can be complex since there tends to be many interactions and loops. Also the process may be applied to the overall situation and to the details.

The term option analysis is used here to denote the combination of inception and conception. A reliable option analysis needs to incorporate:

Use of option analysis is one of the most important strategies for achieving reliable outcomes - sometimes referred to as 'optioneering'. In some cases a very large number of options may be considered.

At the production phase the decisions that result from the option analysis are implemented.