Marketers and Engineers: Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

Anyone who's ever read a Dilbert comic strip knows that engineers and marketers mix like oil and water. That's a shame because incorporating key marketing information into research and development is essential to optimizing a company's product mix to address customer needs. Fortunately, according to a study published in April, there are reliable ways senior managers can get the two groups working together.

The study's authors collected data from 718 respondents at 256 high-technology organizations (with manufacturing, R&D and finance managers represented in equal numbers). The data reveal that internal competition for funding is a key factor in reducing R&D's use of marketing information.

Rivalry between the two functions, the researchers point out, has long been common in technological organizations because engineers accustomed to having a lot of clout fear sharing their power with marketers — and often mistrust the quality of the marketing information they receive. The study looked at the effects of four common management strategies designed to reduce the rivalry:

  1. Foment opportunities for engineering and marketing employees to meet socially across departmental boundaries (for example, sponsor beer bashes and Nerf battles).
  2. Co-locate the R&D and marketing departments (make engineers and marketers sit next to one another).
  3. Create cross-functional teams (consisting of both engineers and marketers).
  4. Send R&D personnel out into the field to meet customers (either with or without marketing representatives).

Among those approaches, creating cross-functional teams and sending teams of engineers and marketers out to meet customers are the clear winners. Success seems to lie in getting the two sides to work together, as opposed to just being together, explains Harry C. Triandis, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Everyone has a flexible way of defining what groups they belong to. In a cross-functional work arrangement, the ‘group’ becomes engineers plus marketers. When you work with them over a long period of time, you stop thinking of them as ‘marketers,’ and you start thinking of them as part of your team. When you [just] put them next to each other, you don't necessarily create a group.”

Thus, if you want to combine oil and water, you need to shake the concoction a bit. Putting them side by side won't accomplish much. But when the technical expertise of R&D personnel interacts with the deep customer knowledge of marketers, companies can enjoy improved products and higher customer satisfaction. The creation is greater than the sum of its parts.

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