Thursday, 10 June 2010

Engineers are from Mars, Marketers are from Venus, Designers are from Jupiter.

Why traditional, isolationist approaches to marketing, engineering and design are not effective approaches to growing online businesses.

Engineers consider design to be ‘packaging’ and marketing to be ‘headaches with pictures’ (I know this as I was/am an engineer!).

Designers consider design to be the process where the product of engineering is made less ugly.

Marketers consider design and engineering to be servants to capitalism - of their making.

These essential groups of business functions seem destined to be at odds. Historically the functions of engineering, design and marketing are discretely serialised and compartmentalised. As will be demonstrated, there are clear historical precedents that should be heeded lest we all make the same mistakes again and not realise that the best engineering/marketing/designing is a accomplished through a single cohesive entity.

To sell all you can make or to make all you can sell?

Product design, engineering and marketing are all influenced by economics, politics, consumerism and social upheaval. We can see now the degree of influence and significance of change the industrial revolution had on the process and science of design and engineering in the 18th and 19th centuries. So, consider the innovation and disruption being caused right now by a contemporary revolution sparked by the iPad -1 million units sold in 28 days after launch and analysts predicting double digit millions to be sold by year end.

Consumerism can be defined as the buying, selling and recycling of products: a major catalyst for change. We should take note of change like this. We ignore the powerful effects of consumerism during ‘iPad style’ social upheaval at our peril...Henry Ford learnt the hard way:

Fighting to reduce unit costs through maximising volume, the model T production line reduced the time and therefore price to build a product from 12 hours down to 93 minutes. An incredible accomplishment but this economic scalability came at the price of aesthetic appeal notable by his most famous quote - ‘Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black’. Ford’s achievements and failings don’t necessarily reflect his original and noteworthy intentions:

"I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces."

Had Ford met his goals as stated, this would have been a sustainable commercial success for much longer but the execution of the strategy had shortcomings. Where mass production gave economic scalability, the over-specialisation and in-built lack of business agility rendered the Ford production machine unable to respond quickly or accurately enough to the consumer’s new-found fickleness. Where standardised parts and specialised tools can be combined with relatively little skill to achieve mass production, the over-reduction of the skill element and the over-specialisation of tools are symptomatic of engineers ignoring the design and marketing aspects of building businesses. Ford confessed that the design of the model T was secondary to the engineering brilliance that enabled mass-production.

Are you a Roundhead or a Cavalier?

It has been suggested that two schools of design can be considered:

Roundhead - focussed on function
Cavalier - focussed on form and aesthetics

Some aspects of each school will be appealing to engineers, some to marketers where one might suggest that traditional design is cemented in the Cavalier camp.

Japanese design considers simplicity (both aesthetic and functional) to be a virtue in terms of economics and design. One might suggest this also applies to business solutions.

There are myriad advantages to such a philosophy. Aspiring to fewer moving parts reduces complexity and eases comprehension. Simple and elegant solutions generally pose fewer risks and present a smaller cost. The simple solution is inherently flexible and agile. Let us avoid the confusion between over-complex and sophistication. One can achieve sophistication whilst retaining the qualities of simplicity and elegance.

Now, Ford was a hard-core roundhead, de-skilling is labour force and specialising his tool set for mass production and aligning his output for mass use rather than mass appeal. Barely an after-thought nod to the neglected Cavaliers.

Putting this history lesson into context, let’s think about online businesses...Clearly, we can see merit in functional (Roundhead) and aesthetic (Cavalier) philosophies. Can we honour both approaches and in essence harmonise the functions of design, marketing and engineering to capitalise and the respective strengths without rendering our solution overly complex and unwieldy?

The question is how do we effectively re-skill resources and be agile enough in our respective disciplines in order to deliver an online business that has both mass appeal (Cavalier) and mass use (Roundhead)?

Catering for the market of one

First of all we need to be aware of the combination of relevant skills that are to be employed. I’ll pick a few out of a hat...

  • Commerciality

  • Engineering/Technical

  • Statistical modeling

  • Qualitative, quantitative and competitive intelligence analysis

  • Communication

  • Design

  • Strategic leadership

  • Rigour

  • Discipline

In isolation these are all really strong, marketable skills. They are all relevant and are used to deliver solid, sustainable growth to online businesses.

I recently migrated from a hands on technical leadership role that combined a number of the ‘roundhead’ skills and qualities above to an online marketing leadership role that would have been thought of as a ‘Cavalier’ mindset by my previous peer group. I am met by some perplexed enquiries as to what drove me to be a turn-coat:

‘CTO to Head of Marketing? Chalk and cheese surely?‘

No - I’m not a turn-coat and there isn’t a huge difference in terms of the skill sets that need application. The big change is in terms of mindset regarding how to apply the skills and why.

Recognising that the skills are present (throughout the team) and that they need simple, cohesive application to extract maximum value (for the clients) was somewhat of a House/CSI style epiphany. It’s really obvious but a formulaic approach of broadening and strengthening the skills of existing assets enables the roles of design, engineering and marketing to be combined into fewer resources (ideally one individual).

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