Wärtsilä has long been recognised as a company with expertise at its core, as demonstrated by the constant flow of industry experts the company produces, its status as an innovation powerhouse and the consistently high quality of its products and services. Here, three of our most experienced experts explore how developing our own technology, prioritising innovation and nurturing talent gives Wärtsilä its edge and discuss what they’ve learned during their long careers.
Expertise is a familiar word, and most people know that an expert is someone who has a high level of knowledge and skill in their chosen field. But what does it take to attain expert status, and how can an organisation create an environment where expertise can flourish?
Wärtsilä is well known as an ‘expert incubator’, but to find out what makes it a hub of expertise we turned to the people who know best – the experts themselves. We asked Magnus Kronholm, Director, Global Expert Operations; Ove Lassus, Director, Global Technical Services; and Ulf Åstrand, Director for Product Development Programmes to share their thoughts on what it takes to become an expert and how expertise can be effectively developed within an organisation.
In the early 20th century Wärtsilä’s first sawmill was converted into an ironworks, starting a long history of predicting trends and staying ahead of the curve. This spirit of innovation remains to this day, with the company at the forefront of decarbonisation and sustainability in the marine and energy sectors. Developing new technology in house ensures that Wärtsilä is home to the people who understand it best. “Whereas many of our competitors operate more as integrators of others’ technology, we design and develop our own products,” says Lassus. “This has allowed our technical expertise to grow organically alongside the company, and we can leverage this expertise to grow into new markets – just like when we expanded from marine engines into the land-based power market.”
Kronholm highlights how Wärtsilä’s pioneering position benefits customers. “Being the go-to expert for a product means that we know its limits, which allows us to venture into unfamiliar areas and fully support our customers’ needs without fear of the unknown – that’s something a company without this level of expertise is simply unable to do.”
The benefits of having a network of experts with knowledge in a variety of fields are not limited to supporting customers – it also furthers the development of expertise within the company. “You can’t know everything about everything, so you need your own personal network of experts who know more about particular areas – then you can put this varied knowledge together to achieve your goal,” Lassus explains. Kronholm adds that this also allows individuals to develop beyond their main area of expertise: “It’s good to have people you can call on for support, but it’s about having an awareness of the bigger picture too – understanding what’s going on outside your own area allows you to develop broader expertise over time.”
Åstrand feels that experts are pushed to keep learning by ongoing technological advancements as well: “These days we need to learn about new things like different fuel types or decarbonisation; we also need a broad enough overview of different areas to be able to communicate effectively with other experts. I can’t afford to sit back and rely on my existing knowledge.”
Åstrand has been with Wärtsilä for around three decades and he says the company has a longstanding tradition of pushing the boundaries to remain at the forefront of technology: “We’ve always been a technical leader because we push the limits, which drives us forward by forcing us to face the unknown. I suppose you could say it’s a ‘jump first then try to land on your feet’ mentality!” Kronholm agrees, adding, “We’re constantly on the lookout for new opportunities – for example we’ll often notice something unexpected in the lab that we can develop further. At Wärtsilä we are given lots of freedom, time and encouragement to innovate.”
According to Åstrand, having a clear company culture is also an important part of developing expertise: “When new people come in, they adapt to this culture of innovation and keep it going. The decarbonisation drive is a great example of how we are always moving forward as a company, leveraging our existing expertise to explore new opportunities like ammonia, methanol and hydrogen-powered engines.”
Of course, technical knowledge is a vital element of being an expert, but it’s not all that is required. “You need to have a passion for finding solutions – without it, you won’t succeed as an engineer. When hiring new people, we look for that personality profile above technical ability, which can always be developed over time,” Åstrand explains. Lassus believes curiosity is just as important as it naturally leads to new learning: “In this role you always want to know more – most of us strive for new learning as we’re curious about how things work. We also share and discuss what we’ve learned with colleagues, and so the cycle continues.”
The environment at Wärtsilä is ideal for developing young talent, as Lassus explains: “Real expertise comes from experience, not the classroom. The learning curve is steep, but you’re never left completely alone. Maintaining dialogue and observing more experienced colleagues is highly valuable, and it is very much part of our company culture,” Kronholm agrees. “It’s challenging, but you’re allowed to make mistakes. It’s a good way to learn.” Another way of motivating young talent to develop is through positive internal competition. “When a success story is shared within the company and someone gains recognition, it inspires everyone to do their best and make their colleagues proud by finding similar ways to help our customers,” says Åstrand.
Åstrand goes on to highlight the importance of offering ways for experts to grow in their careers rather than restricting these opportunities to management. “A good expert doesn’t always have the leadership or other skills needed to be a good manager, so it’s important that we offer them a clear development pathway too.”
It’s clear that bringing talented individuals through in the right way is vitally important, and Kronholm says that this requires young experts to be offered the chance to shine. “We need to allow people to stand in the spotlight. The manager is not the expert, so put the expert in the room. They will grow that way, with that respect and appreciation of their value. You could say that respect is the food that helps our experts grow.”
Lassus adds that expertise is highly valued at Wärtsilä: “You don’t need a hierarchical position to be able to speak up here – you’re treated as a recognised expert based on your knowledge.” According to Åstrand, it’s also important to give young technicians the time and space they need to develop: “If you overbook young workers they won’t have time to innovate, to try and fail, and if this kind of development isn’t enabled by their managers they’ll never take that next step up as they’ll always be focused on firefighting.”
Åstrand believes that working closely with customers helps Wärtsilä reach solutions quicker, and this is something that has changed during his time at the company. “Previously we developed products by ourselves and then pushed them out, but these days we tend to collaborate more with our customers to meet their needs or work on things that we realise we can help them improve on.” He explains how this openness has also furthered technological developments more broadly: “Knowledge is power, but sharing our expertise is a way for us to really maximise that power, rather than keeping the knowledge to ourselves and limiting its effectiveness.”
Another change that Åstrand has seen in his time at Wärtsilä is the approach to working with competitors: “They have their own expertise, and we sometimes work with them because competition can be a good thing when it comes to developing something new.” This approach helps Wärtsilä to develop technology that genuinely meets the needs of industry.
It’s clear that a successful drive to develop expertise within an organisation requires numerous factors to be in place, including a clear culture and a firm commitment to collaboration and continuous development. Most of all though, it’s about cultivating a mindset of innovation and a willingness to share knowledge.
Meet some of the professionals who have followed Wärtsilä’s path to expertise as they share some personal experiences and insights and watch the video.