There was a time when R&D was expected to have skills in R&D and only R&D.
But this is the era of cross-functional teams. "Speed to market" and "do it right the first time" are standard calls to action for these teams and, as such, individual members must not only expand their skill sets , the true mark of a cross-functional team member, but do so with an eye toward understanding the larger business context. R&D is no exception.
In the past, R&D managers often were judged in terms of numbers, namely the number of people they had working for them. Likewise, R&D scientists were measured by the depths of their technical knowledge. This is how so-called "functional silos" began to develop and grow. The new success model for R&D doesn't depend solely on technical knowledge or on the amount of authority a given title confers, but on R&D's influence across a greater spectrum of functions. The cross-functional model presents R&D members with a huge opportunity to grow, develop and become more valuable to the company. Improved and expanded skills are also highly valued in the job market and, accordingly, help to ensure long-term employability.
By increasing their cross-functional knowledge and understanding, R&D members will not necessarily become experts in other fields. They will, however, develop sufficient understanding to frame specific issues in a larger context; push back or challenge when needed; and engage more freely in exchanges about particular ideas and solutions. R&D groups with greater cross-functional skills do not detract from others on their team. By fostering team dialogue, they raise the cross-functional understanding of all team members, resulting in a better performance by everyone.
Training, coaching, experience
There are three general ways for R&D to develop cross-functional skills within an R&D organization -- training, coaching and experiential learning. All are important and best used in combination.
Training is a formal activity in which R&D students are exposed to a range of knowledge in a classroom-like setting. However, timing is critical in order to convert knowledge to true understanding. Hence, training should be provided when it likely will be used and practiced.
Coaching can be used as a supplement to formal training or a substitute for it. In either case, it provides a means for managers or senior technical staff members to share knowledge with more junior R&D members. It is typically practiced on a one-on-one basis and in the course of everyday work. Because it is timely, it reinforces the conversion of knowledge to understanding. Coaching relationships may be formal (as in a manager/subordinate relationship) or they can be spontaneous. Unfortunately, coaching is often overlooked as a result of time and workload pressures.
Hands-on experience is highly effective in developing new skills. While all R&D members eventually learn new functions and tasks, they can accelerate the process by crossing functional boundaries. An R&D member, for instance, may be assigned to marketing, manufacturing, quality assurance or sales. These developmental assignments provide a first-hand understanding of the roles and requirements of other disciplines. Employees also gain a fresh perspective of R&D work, sometimes from the vantage point of the client.