by Donald Christiansen
Why is it that engineers and
marketing people so often discount the advantages of talking to
one another? I have observed this in my own career, and
colleagues report similar experiences. Sometimes the
relationship between engineering and marketing becomes downright
adversarial and, no surprise, counterproductive. Social
scientists have earned Ph.D.s studying the phenomenon.
A clash of cultures often seems to be at the root of the problem. It may seem obvious that new
product developments are more likely to be successful if R&D and
marketing people work together. Yet engineers may view marketers
as middlemen who are not technically qualified to interpret
customer needs. A common belief among engineers is that most
marketers are unable to comprehend the technical niceties of the
products engineers develop. Entrepreneur Lawrence Kamm found it
to be typical of a small company that “the entrepreneur is the
principal salesman.” This suggests, perhaps, that we engineers
see the direct engineer-customer interface as the ideal
arrangement — one that cannot last, of course, once a company
experiences significant growth.
For their part, marketers view us
as good analysts, but poor listeners. The Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome limits
our openness to the thinking of others, they add. A common
complaint seems to be that engineers expect customers to abandon
large-scale investments in capital equipment and in-place
systems for an incremental improvement that might accrue from
adopting “our” new product.
But that’s just one symptom.
Traditional corporate structure may foster disharmony.
Engineering is seen as one function. Marketing and sales,
another. Separate charters, goals and budgets. One engineering
manager observed “If the powers-that-be [top management] don’t
worry about good partnering of engineers and marketers, it’ll
never happen.” The result can be that engineers and marketers go
their separate ways. Joint meetings are viewed as unnecessary,
or, at best, as a custom rather than as a need. Infrequent
contact between R&D people and marketing can become the norm,
and newcomers to an organization see no reason to forge bonds
that don’t already exist. On the rare occasion when engineer
meets marketer, differences that could be informative may be
construed as disrespectful, and a cycle of disharmony begins.
Another contributing factor may
be the matter of credit. When management gives sole credit to
engineers for a successful new product introduction, marketers
take umbrage. Likewise, when marketers are lauded to the
exclusion of engineers, the latter are offended. The situation
is made worse when neither party makes an attempt to share
credit with the other. Such “credit theft,” as Professor William
Souder of the University of Alabama Business School bluntly
labels it, results in further diminishment in good
The more sophisticated the
product, the more serious can be the communication gap between
its creators and those who sell it. The more high-tech a product
is, the more likely the engineers and marketers will talk past
The gap is widened for products
that have multiple applications and many potential customers. It
is less severe for single-customer, single-application products,
as might occur in military systems procurement. But breakthrough
products represent the most dangerous threat to good
R&D-marketing communications, because the variety of possible
applications is unknown or speculative. Engineers tend to
discount market research intended to aid in defining markets for
breakthrough products as depending too much on asking customers
what they would like. Customers don’t know, say engineers,
because their foresight is constrained by their familiarity with
existing products. John Workman, a marketing professor at the
University of North Carolina, reported that even the CEO of an
established supplier of computer equipment and software told his
senior managers that “the biggest danger to us is marketing
surveys... Marketers will never come up with a new idea.”
Further discounting customer research, one designer noted that
design cycles are significantly longer than the foresight of
Winners and losers
In a study of nearly 300 new
product development projects involving more than 50 companies,
Professor Souder noted that nearly two thirds experienced some
degree of engineering/marketing disharmony. Nearly 70 percent of
those projects experiencing severe disharmony were failures. But
where R&D/marketing relationships were classified as harmonious,
the new product project failure rate was only 13 percent.
Once formed, disharmonies are
extremely difficult to overcome, the study showed. As in the
case of a disease, prevention is much easier to come by than a cure.
For more about the
engineering/marketing interface, see:
Workman, J. P., “Engineering’s
Interaction with Marketing Groups in an Engineering-Driven
Organization,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management,
Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 129-139, May 1995.
Souder, W. E., “Managing
Relations Between R&D and Marketing in New Product Development
Projects,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol.
5, March 1988.
Gupta, A. K., S. P. Raj, and D.
Wilemon, “The R&D-Marketing Interface in High
Technology Firms,” Journal of Product Innovation Management,
Vol. 2, March
Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of
Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.