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Insights Mike McNicholas champions networks not hierarchies

In our fast-paced, chaotic world, there isn't as much time for learning. Engineers need to master vast, varied subjects that progress faster than we can say, "training and development." So, is staying on top of knowledge an impossible task? No, says Mike McNicholas, MD of Infrastructure, as long as we don't approach it like we used to:

image of Mike smiling

Why shouldn't we feel daunted by this new reality?

It begs the question, "Do we need a deep understanding of every aspect of engineering, or just an awareness?" The answer is no-longer hierarchies of Subject Matter Experts and Managing Directors like myself, but networks pooling knowledge across different disciplines, industries and generations. It means we don't have to learn everything ourselves anymore. Instead, we can think of ourselves as part of a system of experts. When we connect people with "awareness" to a network of those with "expertise," it opens doors and innovations no one in the team could reach by themselves. It's critical to delivering the transformation our industry needs!

How have things changed in the industry, from your experience?

A decade ago, the most senior person in the room was considered the most knowledgeable. That isn't the case now. Often, if we are talking about a digital solution, the data analyst or GIS specialist is the expert in the room.

How are your teams approaching business in a more networked way?

Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis Group, has set up technical networks across the organization, outside the boundaries of internal divisions and management hierarchies. These networks exist to bring the best technical solutions and innovations to projects and clients. Crucially, they go outside traditional engineering knowledge domains, into the realms of data and technology.

How is that different from the way things used to work?

Expertise can move through the organization much more freely. The networks create inter-connected systems that allow skills to move laterally and vertically through our organization rather than hierarchically. They connect our business's skills through the technical area, rather than via geography, business group or "grade."

How has knowledge sharing changed for you?

As a Managing Director in the "old world," I would get my information and "learning" from middle management. Reverse-mentoring has turned that concept on its head. I've had a traditional career route to leadership. So, I wanted to engage more with people from diverse backgrounds who have faced different issues and come into the industry at a very different time to me. I wanted to hear from employees from other genders, ethnicities and economic backgrounds to me.

How has reverse-mentoring helped broaden your knowledge?

My three reverse mentors have fundamentally changed the way I view our business and industry. They've encouraged me to look at things in fresh ways and try new ways of doing things. For example, I quickly discovered that some of the values that drove me — "work hard, and the results will come" — are off-putting to the new generation.

So, we've learnt to do things differently at Atkins, enabling the channels that allow information, knowledge and experience to flow downwards and upwards in our organization.

How would Atkins bring knowledge to a specific problem quickly?

I like to say it's a sprint, not a thesis. It's where agile and lean thinking comes in, and what we, at Atkins, call "100-day sprints." We form temporary teams from across the organization to tackle a set problem in the fastest and most innovative way possible. 

It's like bringing a 'scrum mentality' into the world of design and engineering. We share ideas from all different viewpoints, testing and scrutinizing them, and testing them again until we find the one that works best. 

What was your inspiration for this way of working?

It's a method more aligned with software development than traditional engineering. It makes engineering a more democratic process, where we choose the best solution, regardless of the seniority or discipline of the person who put it forward. The results are a more inclusive and dynamic workplace and more holistic and sustainable solutions for clients and end-users.

What has been the most meaningful change at Atkins for engineers of your generation?

We're learning to use other peoples' skills rather than developing all the skills ourselves. It's a subtle shift but a significant one. We must accept that we can't succeed without being brilliant integrators. We need a much broader perspective, in addition to in-depth technical knowledge in our chosen subjects. Soft skills, like stakeholder management and influencing, will only become more valuable as time goes on.

What legacy are you hoping to leave for the next generation?

The fact that problems aren't solved in hierarchies anymore should attract more people to our profession. It opens up opportunities for people with different backgrounds and perspectives to be involved in creating change.

This concept of curating ideas and nurturing solutions rather than imposing our own is something we can bring into our STEM engagement. Inspiring the next generation isn't about showing them what experts we are but helping them see the ideas they already have and how we can bring them to life through engineering.

What do you enjoy most about this new way of working?

It's the democratization of knowledge in its truest sense. Knowledge is no longer power. It's a resource for everyone and something to be shared for the greater good. And while senior people may have more experiential knowledge, it is more often than not the younger engineers with the ideas, theories and blue-sky thinking. If we can put these together, it's a powerful combination that can truly change how we do things for the better.

How about working in an environment where your skills, expertise and knowledge mean a lot? Find out more about a career with Atkins.

“This article first appeared in the RICS Construction Journal.”