Jablokow awarded NSF grant to study optimal design team performance

Kathryn Jablokow seated in Penn State Great Valley's Innovation Suite

Kathryn Jablokow will study professional teams of engineers working together to design and deliver products thanks to a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

Credit: Elizabeth Palmer

MALVERN, Pa. — Kathryn Jablokow, associate professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering at Penn State Great Valley, has had a passion for design engineering her whole life. As a college student at Ohio State, she designed walking machines to carry heavy payloads across difficult terrain and helped her father develop new biomedical devices.

Since joining Penn State’s faculty in 1990, Jablokow has authored four graduate-level engineering courses focused on problem solving and creativity. She is one of three engineering faculty members who developed and teach a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on creativity, innovation, and change, which has attracted over 250,000 learners since 2013. Additionally, she played a key role in developing the multidisciplinary engineering design option of Penn State’s undergraduate general engineering degree, which she directs today.

Now Jablokow is shifting her research focus to the corporate world, thanks to a recent grant from the National Science Foundation. This past August, Jablokow and her colleague, Neeraj Sonalkar, a research engineer at Stanford University, received a two-year $300,000 grant to examine professional teams of engineers working together to design and deliver products. Their study, “Mapping the High Performance Design Team Genome,” will determine the interactions and combinations of individual characteristics that make teams of engineers most successful.

Their research will evaluate teams in three different areas:

1. Team interaction behavior — Jablokow and Sonalkar will use the Interaction Dynamics Notation (IDN) to depict communication patterns, including questions, blocks, supports, deflections, etc.

2. Individual characteristics — participants will be assessed using the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) and the Engineering ABAKAS (Assessment of Behaviors, Attributes, Knowledge, Attitudes, and Skills) to evaluate style of creativity and other traits.

3. Design performance outcomes — team outcomes/products will be analyzed based on their relevance, novelty, technical feasibility, and elaboration, among other metrics.

While there are previous studies on student performance in design, this is some of the first research solely dedicated toward industry professionals. Jablokow and Sonalkar’s research will take a holistic approach to the functionality of real-life design teams.

“Existing research tends to focus almost entirely on designers’ behavior or on their design solutions, without connecting the two,” said Jablokow. “Previous studies also do not link either one of these elements to who the designers are as individuals. Our aim in this research is to put all three pieces together — who the designers are, how they behave, and what they create — and look for key relationships among them that lead to the best design performance.”

Jablokow met Sonalkar during her sabbatical at Stanford University in 2012.  While working together at Stanford’s Center for Design Research, the two discovered a shared interest in design teams and how they operate.

They will each contribute something unique to the collaboration. Jablokow’s background focuses on designers’ individual characteristics and how they vary in cognition, while Sonalkar is an expert in design team interaction dynamics. He invented IDN, the notation they will use to depict group communication.

Group shot of including Jablokow and Sonalkar at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Jablokow (bottom row, second from right) and Sonalkar (bottom row, third from right) recently led a workshop with industry teams at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Credit: Kathryn Jablokow

Volunteer teams will be observed by Jablokow and Sonalkar in half- or full-day workshops — either on-site at the company’s location or in the Knowledge Commons on Penn State Great Valley’s campus in Malvern. Groups can work on an existing project, or a sample design task can be provided.

In exchange for their participation, companies will receive specific feedback related to the team. Analyzing both individual characteristics and group behavior, Jablokow and Sonalkar will build a profile for each team. This detailed consultation will provide managers and team members with insight into how to harness their strengths for better performance and outcomes.

“Our engineering design teams are an integral part of our business and part of our competitive advantage,” said Karen Norheim, executive vice president of American Crane and Equipment Corporation, and industry adviser to the grant. “We are excited to learn more about our own practices and the best practice findings of the study overall. “

For Jablokow, who has spent years modeling the diversity of human creativity, the NSF grant allows her to advance the scope of her research. She will be able to analyze collaborations within existing professional teams to determine the ideal scenarios, projects, and personalities for maximum performance.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process, and nowhere is that process more evident in engineering than in design,” Jablokow said. “I am intrigued by the study of the human mind and how it performs as the ultimate ‘engine’ in our search for solutions to complex problems. The fact that each human is a unique creative individual — an intellectual minority of one — makes research in this domain incredibly challenging and exciting.”

Organizations interested in participating in “Mapping the High Performance Design Team Genome” should visit the Penn State Great Valley website or contact Kathryn Jablokow at [email protected] for more information.