The bigger picture

When working on cross-functional teams, R&D members can see their work in a whole new context

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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.

 

In order to develop cross-functional skills within the R&D group, expectations need to be set for skills and the level of mastery required. A team member right out of school obviously will have limited skills in many cross-functional areas. More experienced staff naturally would be expected to have a higher degree of understanding in these same areas.  High- performing organizations develop a "Skills Matrix" to articulate and manage technical and cross-functional skills development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A telling correlation

 

There is a strong correlation between project success criteria and the skills required by R&D members to maximize their effectiveness.  For a project to be successful, it must clear hurdles across a range of issues, namely:

 

*Consumer

*Financial

*Quality and supply chain

*Safety/regulatory/legal

* Sales and customer

 

For R&D professionals to be fully effective, they must possess cross-functional skills in the same key areas:

 

Consumer:  The core mission of any food or beverage company is to develop, manufacture and market products that meet consumer needs. The ability to understand consumers and consumer communication vehicles is critical to R&D's partnership role in product development or improvement.

 

R&D professionals should be knowledgeable in topics once considered the sole province of marketing professionals. These include, but are not limited to, a working knowledge of product concepts, product positionings  (consumer target, frame of reference, point of difference), brand equity, marketing and merchandising techniques, as well as drivers of product preference and measures of purchase behavior (i.e. volume, velocity, penetration, trial and repeat).

 

Financial:  It's often said that finance is the language of business.  In order to provide support and make decisions, business leaders must have product benefits, issues and risks translated into financial terms. This language must also be understood by R&D so members can fully appreciate the impact of their work and improve their contribution to the business enterprise. In order to impact business decisions, R&D must be able to speak the language of business and frame R&D information in the appropriate financial context.

 

Most decisions to either proceed with a project or kill it are financial decisions.  The purchase price and product cost, as well as the required ingredients, specifications and equipment, all affect the direction, viability and profitability of the project. The better versed he is in finance, the better the R&D member can proactively identify and resolve related issues and move a project forward. A better grasp of financials also can help R&D determine projects or project paths that aren't financially successful and advocate options or projects that are.

 

Specifically, R&D professionals must be able to read and build product costing models (including ingredient and material costs; supply chain costs; advertising & merchandising costs; overheads, etc.), understand the impact of capital costs on project viability, and work with the concepts and mathematics of wholesale and retail pricing, wholesale and retail margins and profit contribution.

 

Quality & supply chain: All products developed need to be successfully integrated into a steady-state production operation. The more an R&D team understands how plants operate , the ways they measure performance and the practical constraints they face -- the more successful the implementation will be. The also team needs to understand these issues as they apply to procurement/purchasing and distribution/logistics.

 

Quality systems are designed to translate consumer and customer desire into a product proposition that is cost-effective, reliable and reproducible. R&D must understand the   needs of the supply chain and be skilled in developing and operating quality systems to successfully translate product design criteria to ongoing production.

 

Safety, regulatory & legal: Many aspects of safety, regulatory and legal issues , including microbiology, nutrition, chemical and physical hazards and labeling -- are part and parcel of R&D's technical knowledge. These and similar issues are largely driven by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA),  Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and similar regulatory bodies.  However, many of these issues also relate to company practices, preferences, policies and risk profiles.

 

R&D needs to understand aspects of safety, regulatory and legal considerations that are driven by company-specific policies and, when appropriate, influence internal policy change, driving greater or lesser risks based on their informed perspective. This will help ensure the delivery of a product that is safe, legal and profitable.

 

Sales and customer:  Customer needs and requirements must be met for a business proposition to be successful. Because Sales is the primary point of contact for customer organizations (wholesalers, retailers, food service organizations, etc.), it obviously possesses a great deal of knowledge about customers. For effective development of new or improved product propositions, R&D must understand the needs and requirements of customers along with the sales activities required to keep the customer satisfied.   Additionally, R&D should understand the operating /supply chain practices of various customers and how they impact product and package performance.

 

R&D should develop an understanding of numerous corresponding areas, including ACV (a measure of store shelf presence), shelf placement & slotting, pricing & retail margins, store promotions and customer supply chain factors such as warehousing and storage, shelf sets, handling and restocking practices, store stock rotation and package damage experience.

 

With many companies having moved to the cross-functional team model for project work, it is more critical for R&D members to become equal and fully-contributing partners on their teams. As knowledgeable business partners, they help deliver greater business results and enjoy the work a lot more.

 

 

Scott Gantwerker and Paula Manoski are Principals of Quality R&D Partners (QRDP).  They hold advanced degrees in Food Science, Engineering and Business and possess over 50 years' combined experience as R&D leaders and R&D clients at Quaker Oats and Pepsi-Cola.  QRDP works with Technical and Business leaders in the Food & Beverage industry to raise the effectiveness of their R&D teams through assessment, strategic planning, new product process improvement, training, and hands-on coaching.  They also assist Suppliers in understanding the needs and business processes of their customers.  They can be contacted at www.QRDP.com.

 

 

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