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Culture Wars

Marie Alice Dibon
  • Building an open, working collaboration between marketing and R&D is not necessarily very comfortable at first, but it always helps the company function better.
  • Marketing and R&D both must be considered profit and expense centers.
  • During the elaboration of concepts, when the focus of both R&D and marketing are in sync and on the consumer, it is essential to concentrate all energies on the project, as it is a unique opportunity for both teams to unite.

Much has been written in GCI magazine about the ability of organizations to foster innovation, to open up, to bring in new ideas and to allow those ideas to grow with the people who carry them. And yes, it is the responsibility of corporations to learn to do those things, to identify those who can do them and let them do their jobs, with a necessary level of freedom—even when it costs. And it will cost—financially and, sometimes, even culturally. Face it, culture is the hardest element for companies to change. A company’s culture is as important as its structure, if not more. It runs through the entire organization, and is not always spelled out—which often makes it a much more intrinsic force. It affects the way people relate to one another inside an organization and the way they relate to the outside world. It can be both an incredibly positive force and, at times, a negative one.

Allowing culture to change—or to simply evolve—takes tremendous effort and patience. This effort does not lie solely on the shoulders of the executive staff, it also requires the efforts of employees company-wide. Everyone has to stick to the project. It is a long haul and it is hard.

And there is another cultural war waging inside companies, networks, and the industry—one that is evident and tolerated—and most don’t venture to think this war and its outcomes can change. In fact, most of the time, the extraordinary damages it does to the organizations and to the industry as a whole is acknowledged.

What is this war?

It is the fight between technology and marketing. The never-ending feud between two sides of a business coin—each thinking it knows the answers. It is the war between science and finance, between facts and concepts, between rationality and creativity—or so you would like to think.

It’s not a new battle, but what’s been done to make it better?

Understanding the dynamics of the struggle between these apparent dichotomies—these cultural differences—can allow them to be leveraged in a positive way. The energy they carry with them can be harnessed, and the way in which society and the nature of business are evolving may very well open doors for a positive change.

If unaddressed, too, the struggle costs time, efficiency, energy and, ultimately, profits. But there are opportunities to turn these struggles into profit generators. There is an incredible, often untapped potential in most companies. Yet today, many companies are unable to manage that potential.

Why? Because it is best managed by people who have been hanging around on both sides of the fence and those people are rare. There also seem to be a lot of very deeply ingrained power and ego issues rotting at the core of technology vs. marketing struggles, and those are not easy to debunk. For most, maintaining a crabby peace is often more comfortable than addressing the problem up front. Again, solving these problems and breaking the status quo always means taking a risk. And few are willing to take it. It is, however, a very costly compromise.

Measure Performance; Incentivize Creativity

Within any given company, there are often walls between profit centers and expense centers. By treating them differently, they become divided. And dividing two lobes of the same brain—these centers are responsible for most of what happens downstream—is never a good idea.

These centers, as a whole, plan and trigger execution of product concepts and launches. Therefore, the more the two lobes talk to one another, the better the whole works and the better the final outcome. In addition, the better both sides communicate (left and right, rational and creative), the more flexible the thinking and the more adaptive the behavior.

Consider, too, R&D and marketing both work for the same end result. They are both key to the good functioning of the same entity. The goal is always to make the company more profitable, and that happens by developing and selling well.

So why do they tend to be segregated?

First, the labels created make the segregation almost inherent—calling one an expense center and the other a profit center.

So a lab costs money, and a marketing department makes money? What about the lab’s achievements and its ability to produce beautiful, efficient, stable products that fit marketing’s requirements?

Both must be considered equally, profit and expense centers. Look for a way to bring the value back where it belongs—in the semantics and in the incentives.

Acknowledge that objectives should not be just for people who sell and understand that marketing, too, needs its quality control. Rigor and controls can be applied at all levels, as can rewards and incentive.

It is the split vision of these two lobes that influences you to apply different standards and treat people within these lobes differently—even while overseeing essential management aspects in each of them.

Incentivizing creativity at the technological level is not an impossible pursuit. But it takes some thinking and some willingness on both sides to work together. Only a lab will be able to determine what it can or cannot do, but only a functioning lab will do so in good faith. Productivity, as it’s understood in commercial operations, is not always very high on a researcher’s agenda, and for good historical and cultural reasons. You can’t measure it in the same fashion as marketing measures its own productivity.

But it is still doable. For instance, if a lab has significant means and spends time on research projects that are not product-related, it is not outrageous to demand that it publishes in order to assess the number of publications and citations.

Not all labs do advanced biological research. Most focus on applications and delivering prototypes to marketing. But applications do not mean that creativity is not required. There is room for research and, thus, productivity in a creative pursuit of applications, and publishing—at any level—is a worthwhile measure of a lab’s creativity. To achieve balance between creativity in the lab and measurable output, first, set realistic goals for sample batches per day, for example, in order to leave some room for creativity. Allow a creative exploration of processes, formulation, new ingredients sourcing, etc. The findings from this creative exploration will, quite possibly, proffer results that justify the time expense. Moreover, time allows for creative exploration—and the identification of those who excel in the creative space and those who prefer a more structured environment. Roles can then be redistributed, and people find their niche inside the lab. This offers further benefits—happy employees are productive employees.

Assessment of how on target a lab is on delivering prototypes—in terms of time and specifications—is a good way to look at its productivity, but it is important to keep an eye on the creativity of this unit. And it is everyone’s business. This assessment is a team’s assessment, not an individual’s. The final goals should be determined by the group, and the group should be responsible for them.

At the same time, expense and process controls should also apply to marketing, and there may be ways to incentivize those controls.

On the expense side, how many innovative, money-saving tools has the marketing team brought for evaluation in the last year? How many on the team have tried to get away from business as usual and have actually taken risks on new technologies, new sources and smaller yet more agile vendors? Question those efforts and that team, and reward those behaviors.

For large companies, this evaluation is at very low cost, relatively speaking. For billion dollars companies, taking a risk of a few hundred thousand dollars is nothing, and not taking that risk is irresponsible. Without some risk-taking, good companies are in danger of losing their edge. Ignoring innovation or simply not encouraging innovation can also kill them, and they realize innovation is not limited to technical staff.

However, small companies often get trumped by larger players, even on commodity like products or on small projects where it would be easy to take a chance in a marketing strategy or positioning effort—and it happens again and again. The mind-set sanctioning marketing people and ideas when they bet on a risk must be changed. Reward the risk. It may have the potential to earn you a buck or two and make you more competitive.

That is not to say that there should be no controls in the marketing lobe of the brain. Process control is often an overlooked aspect of marketing departments. How many times have you seen a scenario in which marketing copy hasn’t gone to the right people and a legal department vetoes something the day before it is supposed to print, as one example? Things like this happen because there are, often, no procedures. Written procedures are for the nerds in the lab, right? Yet, beyond their incredible creative contribution, marketing department team members do have to perform certain tasks—always in the same order, always for the same reason. There is a work and a paperwork flow associated with any launch, any new product, any new version. It is always the same, and it often lacks the normal checks associated with the lab half of the brain. Using project management programs, collaborative intranets and the growing number of like tools often isn’t enough. It is important to have road maps and written checklists. It is also essential to get together often and brainstorm on the organizational aspects of the work, try to find solutions that can bind together processes and tools so projects/tasks/ideas are kept track of in a centralized, transparent and open fashion.

Building communities around projects—preferably hybrid communities where, again, both sides of the brain can talk to each other on a regular basis and follow each other’s work—is always good. It’s not necessarily very comfortable at first, but it always helps the company function better.

Thinking Differently

Beyond the divide that often exists between marketing and R&D, there is another that is self-generated. Though scientists and marketers need to be equally creative, and thankfully often are, they think differently and they are treated differently, trained differently, compensated and managed differently. Because they tend not to approach problems in the same fashion, the difference in treatment can often be justified, but, sometimes, it tends to keep certain myths alive or to just widen preexisting gaps.

The trick is really to understand those differences, to know where people are coming from and respect that background—keeping an open mind and remembering that to each rule there is an exception, and that those exceptions are what create the contacts points for better relations. When the ideas of marketing and R&D intersect, clashes can be transformed into true discoveries.

Different Time Lines, Different Time?

The concept of time can painfully divide those in R&D from those in marketing. Time just doesn’t have the same meaning on both sides of that fence. It stretches differently. For a researcher, time is most often counted in years. For a developer of formulas, a project takes months, at a minimum; never less than five or six. Just basic stability of a formula takes a minimum of three months—when that work is successful. To create new tools or develop new findings that can be used to develop the products takes years (real technological changes in this case—those that make a difference; not a moderately tweaked ingredient with dubious claims and poor substantiation). So with trial and error and packaging lead times, it takes a lot of time to go from idea to production, and that time cannot be compressed.

For a marketing department, when time is discussed for executing a product, it is never in terms of years—unless the discussion is in an overall strategic context. Marketing plans ahead, but executes quickly. Marketing will deploy, train and sell within months. Data will be assessed on a weekly basis.

Actions take place as a succession of operations. They are hardly ever contingent on the coming of age of a new technology. Even the technologies used to enhance those departments’ productivity are developed quickly. The markets’ demands change too quickly for anything much greater than an immediate response and action.

This is a phenomenon that is becoming even more obvious in today’s fast-changing landscape where social media brings about near-instant successes and failures and a wealth of very fast changing information.

Marketing must act quickly to be doing a good job, and R&D must allow time for its projects to be perfected.

Both have to deal with the other’s contingencies. R&D has to learn to accommodate marketing’s often changing specifications in order to allow perfect market positioning and strategy, and marketing has to respect R&D’s need for minimal time spans in order to avoid technical problems down the line.

Again, understanding each other’s context by frequent contact and shared work responsibilities is the only way to overcome these barriers.

It is worth noting, however, that the real market shifts—those that profoundly affect a company, the market and business overall—do not happen overnight. It pays to keep your noses to the wind long enough to feel changes coming from afar, and the idea that quick change is lucrative is not one often demonstrated to be true.

Inward Versus Outward

Another common divider, but one that may be less obvious, is the fact that, in their relation with the corporate structure, technical departments and marketing work in different directions. To illustrate: essentially, R&D gets ideas and experimental raw materials from outside. It will process these ideas and materials so as to design new products. These will then be manufactured, again by assembling parts coming inward from the outside world to the heart of the company. There is centripetal movement of goods and ideas, all converging to produce prototypes and products. Centripetal and product-focused.

Once these are made, it is marketing’s job to get them out, sell and distribute, make sure that they are indeed accepted, used, purchased and praised.

This centrifugal movement is the necessary balance for the company’s survival. It is also the natural movement of these personnel. Centrifugal and market-focused.

The common denominator here is the consumer, with a jar in her hand. That is where the magic can happen. The only time R&D and marketing work in the same direction is during the elaboration of concepts. This is only time that marketing works inward.

During that time, it is, again, essential to concentrate all the energies on the project, as it is a unique opportunity for both teams to unite around the project. It is the point where technology is reconciled with its end use—the consumer with a jar in her hand. Yet, this is often where there is the most clashes—when R&D and marketing must work together.

These naturally opposite movements should teach everyone to appreciate, all the more, the opportunity to gather a common goal, for that precious development time where teams are all focused on the very reason why they are there: the consumer.

Einstein said, “In difficulty lies opportunity,” and the difficulty of the differences between marketing and R&D is what makes learning from each side or finding common ground all the more precious.

The Myth of Creativity Versus Rigor

Myths also divide R&D and marketing. Scientists are thought to be rigorous and stringent, organized and somewhat tough on rules.

Marketing is supposed to be the cradle of creativity. In France, there is the term, “the creatives,” used when talking about the people who come up with concepts in ad agencies. It is never used for researchers. Yet, the best researchers are creative minds. There is no good development without scientific method and a lot of creativity. Despite appearances, researchers are fun. But it takes some understanding of science to be able to seize the beauty of a scientific concept, or what it took to get there. For those in marketing, who tend to think that labs are really too rigorous, pause for a moment. Understand the scientific constraints, and then learn about the science and its marvels. You will surely better see, then, the beauty of what technical teams achieve.

In the same fashion, as creative as marketing’s work may be, without method and a plan, there is no successful product design, launch and commercialization. Though R&D may get frustrated by the appearance of constant buzzing, agitation, the fun of quick-off meetings and press conferences, it, too, needs to understand that behind all the hype lies a lot of very hard, sometimes tedious, work.

The Knowledge Gap

Often in the beauty industry, there is no cross talk in terms of skills between science and marketing—there is, simply, a knowledge gap. Scientists hardly ever hold MBAs or have any marketing experience, and marketers almost never have a technical degree or have spent time in a technical department. If you have any hybrid profiles in your company, cherish them. Technical people with communications skills can be key players in a high-level team.

There is a dire need for both sides to get educated on what the other experiences, through the acquisition of basic knowledge of their operations. Knowledge is power. It levels the playing field, allowing each side to receive, understand and execute the other one’s demands better.

The tools to address that gap are many. It isn’t necessary for a lab person to obtain an MBA to better understand what a marketing department is going through on a daily basis. Marketing personnel are educated on scientific concepts all the time, and it is feasible to craft similar presentations and courses for R&D.

Having people placed at the interface between those teams helps, but interaction between marketing and R&D and allowing employees to educate each other on their respective processes also breaks down barriers. Why not pair technical people with marketing people? At one time, in order to learn a foreign language, having a foreign pen pal was encouraged. Why not find a version of the pen pal to cross cultural lines in the corporation?

There is a lot to be done. And there are many ways to get it done—but one thing is for sure—good will and smart attitudes help a lot. None of the solutions you can envision will work unless there is a will to change. And again, though a lot of things happen from the bottom up, cultural change is not one of them. In a company, there has to be a clear signal from upper management that both sides of the company are valuable and that they will be supported in their efforts to work better together.

It is in the company’s best interest to foster positive initiatives and to push for a more collaborative work environment—one in which different departments learn about each other and join forces rather than compete. It is also much easier today—as people are used to form, join and enhance communities through the magic tool that is called Web 3.0.

Marie Alice Dibon, PharmD, is the principal at Alice Communications, Inc., helping companies in the life science sector to develop innovative technologies.

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