Whenever I spend a lot of time in lab, I inevitably run into some bizarre equipment-related challenge, and can’t help but think of how Hayek’s knowledge problem manifests itself in engineering land.

The knowledge problem isn’t unique to engineering – there is distributed, circumstantial knowledge that can’t be easily transferred everywhere. However, I find it especially frustrating in the engineering domain because of engineering’s normally excellent breadth, spanning the spectrum from theoretical to practical.

The problem is that theory is like a zoomed out map, smoothing out the details and giving you a broad overview of how to get somewhere. It doesn’t tell you anything about potholes or deer crossing the street.  So while a lot of my colleagues ‘know’ how to do a task, that knowledge is like knowing which turns to make from looking at a map, when I actually need advice on when to swerve to avoid deer and potholes.

Programming is an interesting example where I think a technical field has managed to combat the knowledge problem. Many problems you encounter while programming give you an error message that you can literally copy and paste into Google. You can also post your exact code.  This allows others to know that they have the same problem and for the problem to be very specifically defined for someone giving an answer.

Other aspects of engineering don’t have that luxury. How do you describe the problem with your sensor where it gives the correct signal on average, but randomly shoots low or high every couple of microseconds? Or that you need to figure out how to get a specifically shaped piece of plastic out of a tight hole (and you think the material is Delran, but aren’t certain and the material properties actually matter in terms of not breaking anything.) It’s a question that really needs a conversation to transmit, let alone get a good answer to.

In many situations, I know there’s someone who would know how to deal with the problem immediately but I have no idea how to find that person. It seems like this doesn’t have to be the case.

As engineering, like everything, gets more complicated, I see two possible solutions to the knowledge problem: improved networking - connecting specialists with others more efficiently and changes in documentation paradigms.