Behold The Evolving Engineer

Innovation, broader expertise and a global perspective are increasingly important.

By Ashish Kulkarni, Celanese

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Another chemical engineer worked his way into a leadership role in our ethylene vinyl acetate performance polymers business by serving in three different job functions in four business lines over five years. Now, he and his team evaluate ideas for feasibility and profit potential and guide them all the way through commercialization. This is a good example of how internal transfers can enrich an engineer's knowledge.

3. Ability to deal with ambiguity. Most engineers are taught to always seek the best solution to a problem. However, today the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity is important. It's equally essential to have multiple answers. The hard part is knowing when to probe more and when to settle for the solution at hand — or none at all. It's also difficult to grasp when a perfect answer is necessary or when "good enough" is okay. This is especially true when it comes to working globally and across various markets where perfection sometimes can conflict with the business need. So, despite typically being trained to strive for perfection, engineers sometimes must be comfortable with good enough.

In one such situation at Celanese, we assumed a certain grade of our material would work in an automotive fuel application. However, testing proved this wrong and the engineer had to adjust the course.

In many situations like this, engineers may not know the exact solution. Hypothesis-based thinking is one of the best ways for them to deal with ambiguity — especially when partnering with a customer to experiment. Every step of the way, they must listen to customer requirements to know what to design now, and also follow it through the entire supply chain — no matter how much or little information is provided.

4. A perspective on how business is done in other parts of the world. Engineers must learn not to assume one solution works everywhere. The ability to understand what solution is relevant for which part of the world is important and increases an organization's speed and effectiveness.

We have engineers from China spend time in the U.S. and Europe; likewise, experienced engineers from the U.S. and Europe work rotations in China and India (Figure 1). This helps transfer relevant knowledge from one place to another. For example, when an engineer who grew up in Korea applied to his work the technical depth he gathered after years in the U.S., he helped us commercialize a product in record time.

5. Core business skills. Engineers should thoroughly grasp how their company makes money and the value the company contributes to its industry as well as the vertical markets it serves. Engineers should understand a product's full value chain as well as what influences this value chain. They must comprehend finance and marketing as well as how they fit into the economics of the company, industry and world at large. To help engineers learn these business skills on the job, manufacturers must provide them opportunities to work across functions on projects with strategic business value.

Our engineers explore new spaces where Celanese can grow, possibly through a merger or acquisition. Then they serve on the teams seeing the projects through. Engineers also identify companies with which we potentially can partner to develop new technologies. Encouraging employees to learn and grow beyond their engineering focus helps them soak up every aspect of the business.

Every project our engineers work on links to the bottom line — another valuable addition to their business knowledge. The team fully appreciates the financial impact their work could have on the company. This level of involvement and accountability creates an interesting dynamic — especially when we interview prospective employees. Each candidate walks away understanding that innovation isn't a strategy of the month at Celanese. They know their work will make a difference.

6. Deeper technical expertise. This is necessary to keep up with the rapid rate of change in a company's and its customers' industries. Engineers can enhance their knowledge on their own; working in a wide variety of technical roles — in all stages of the value chain — can help give them a fuller view of technology.

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