Behold The Evolving Engineer

June 25, 2012
Innovation, broader expertise and a global perspective are increasingly important.

Apple has demonstrated something that helped set the path for modern electronics. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company's leaders realized products must be engineered to fulfill more than just their intended function. They must fit users' evolving needs while being cost-effective, easy to use and attractive.

Apple's concept applies to engineering each component in everything from nanotechnology for lifesaving medical devices to food and construction supplies to new fuel sources. Engineers today are deeply involved in identifying new market needs and then developing technologies to fill them, playing important roles all the way to sales and back again to research and development.

The evolving role of engineers poses a big challenge to manufacturers. We must reskill many of our current engineers or hire new ones — most companies rely on a combination of training and adding people. This involves dramatic changes: new training programs and methods as well as updating corporate processes and management practices. At the same time, companies should collaborate with universities around the world to redesign engineering programs for the future.

Today, engineers need a full toolkit of international business, leadership, as well as engineering and technology skills to succeed in our global marketplace. They require six main skills to remain relevant and at the forefront of their fields:

1. Innovativeness. More than ever, engineers must couple creativity with innovation. Collaboration among engineers and application of each's unique set of skills result in innovation. Engineers must use a carefully orchestrated combination of business, technical and scientific skills — and a large dose of ingenuity — to help set company strategy and how products will evolve.

[sidebar id="ID"] To illustrate the point, an engineer with eight years at Celanese worked closely with an electronics industry customer starting at the ideation stage but then revised the product using technologies that came with an acquisition. This engineer guided the product through its development, working closely with teams companywide and applying ingenuity, discipline and drive along the way. The result: the team delivered the product in one-fifth the time it normally would take.

2. Three-dimensional expertise. Engineers need deep vertical knowledge (of their industry) and horizontal understanding (of their customers' industries). In addition, they must have capabilities in a third dimension — i.e., hands-on experience delivering results since knowing isn't the same as doing. These skills are necessary because problems and opportunities lie in many places.

Engineers must appreciate vertical industry trends and end-user needs as well as global economics, finance and advances in science and technology that affect various industries. Each feeds into the successful R&D processes engineers follow to develop compelling products that are practical and safe, as well as on budget and ahead of the competition.

One way we help our engineers add three-dimensional skills is by identifying employees with high potential early in their careers and devising a career development path. This path includes moving those engineers around to various roles where they contribute to multiple teams and businesses and create new technology, allowing them to gather the bulk of their critical global industry and leadership experiences on the job. This approach has benefited numerous engineers.

For example, a chemical engineer in our Advanced Engineered Materials division worked in various markets on several new projects that became commercial in his first two-to-three years. Some products he helped develop generated multi-million dollar revenue, and each contributed to creating a rich depth and breadth of experiences. This success led to two promotions. Now, he leads a full project team, where he shares his experiences and coaches others.

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.

We drive the core technical depth engineers depend upon for their future success in three ways. First, we rotate some engineers through a wide variety of technical roles — from new chemistry to analytical to product development. Second, as highlighted in previous examples, engineers work on and lead programs from ideation to execution wherever possible. And third, we do technical exchanges at a variety of technology, industry and customer levels.

Companies must remember everyone doesn't learn in the same way. For those who prefer building their depth for longer time periods, we encourage principal engineer roles and paths where they add value with their depth.

Manufacturers must create an environment that enables engineers to add these six vital skills. At Celanese, we envision the combination of these skills and experiences will equip our engineers to do things in different and innovative ways. We know it's a critical part of improving our ability to compete globally.

Helping engineers gain valuable skills isn't enough, though. Many companies over the years have gone through enormous changes but haven't altered their standard way of doing things. Processes become disjointed and irrelevant. An environment that welcomes new ideas gets squashed between reorganizations and the race to meet other goals. And then projects fail.

Today, companies need an environment — a culture of innovation — that will allow engineers to use these valuable skills to ensure we are prepared for any scenario.

At Celanese, we are building a culture driven by knowledge-based innovation. Roles and responsibilities created within the organization and company-driven projects and process support the culture. It values learning and, when appropriate, includes education we provide and encourage — whether MBA programs or on-the-job training on project development and management.

People feel rewarded when they're contributing to something and see results. And working on a project from conception to commercialization is the ultimate reward.

We've used this approach to re-educate our engineers and create exciting roles across the Advanced Engineered Materials business since mid 2010. Many of our engineers like the changes, others don't, and some still are undecided. Nevertheless, Advanced Engineered Materials has enjoyed very low turnover — less than 2% within its technology organization. People do move to other jobs or roles but rarely leave the company.

With these exciting changes, the business has increased its innovation pipeline four-fold. Driven by innovation, profitability projections for the next five years have more than doubled.

These are exciting times for engineers. We hope this approach for adding new skills to our engineers' toolkits will make us an even more appealing place to remain — and attract even more top engineering graduates. The innovation culture has made employees more enthusiastic about the company and their work, which catches prospective hires' attention.

Companies also should play a role in helping engineering students learn the skills and competencies future employers need. For instance, while CEO of Celanese, Dave Weidman invested $10 million to build The Weidman Center for Global Leadership at Brigham Young University's College of Engineering & Technology, Provo, Utah. The program is intended to develop students' leadership capabilities and help them lead in a global environment. The company also contributes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs in schools around the world where it does business. Celanese employees volunteer their time and knowledge to improve students' skills.

We're also watching with great interest the emerging concept of universities giving students "merit badges" for their skills and experience rather than degrees. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has set up a $2-million grant program, in coordination with the Mozilla Foundation, in support of digital badges. Companies can use these badges to track their employees' training. Top engineering schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., are experimenting with similar programs.

By creating the right environment, setting up opportunities for engineers to learn and grow, and rewarding their efforts, we will set the path for dynamic, innovative teams that will continue to design products that make the world a better place.

ASHISH KULKARNI is vice president, research and development for Celanese, Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]

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