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 April 2005

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Irreconcilable Differences?

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 communication.

Differing situations

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 one another.

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 customers.

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 IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He can be reached at donchristiansen@ieee.org.

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