Can Engineers and Marketers Work Together?

June 9, 2014

Innovative, consumer-facing companies often do one thing really well: they have their engineers work well with marketers and designers. Apple and Tesla immediately come to mind as two great examples. But what does this actually look like in practice? How do we know this is effective? Two Minnesota researchers decided to find out.

These engineering professors were interested in helping their students complement their technical education with “softer” design skills. They had third-year undergraduate engineers collaborate with groups of marketing students on a product improvement design project. As their report describes, “Each team was required to research the intended improvement to the product, generate numerous possible solutions, select the best solution, then refine and evaluate it based on what information they had.” At the end of the project, students were expected to produce a technical report along with a solution.

They found that engineers actually do listen to marketers, and marketers actually do have useful input for engineers: “Nearly 40% of the engineering projects incorporated very specific design changes” into their products and 87% of teams showed strong evidence of collaboration by seriously considering the other side’s input, according to the report.

Perhaps even more interesting is the ground-level view of the difficulties with encouraging cross-discipline collaboration. One engineering student said that what was perhaps “most frustrating was that [the marketers] did think different from us.”

No kidding.

Another complained that their non-technical teammates were less goal-oriented than they were. Twenty-five percent of the students found communication to be difficult. One team even refused to work together. But in the end, it was the first student I quoted who summed up what happened for most: “We just learned to accept it.”

To get to this point of acceptance requires a great focus on cross-functional skills development and basic collaboration across these sorts of surprisingly complementary departments in higher-ed. That means marketers learning alongside engineers, engineers with designers, and designers with historians.

We can also reflect on the study’s broader takeaways. Collaborative teams using different parts of their brain mean a greater propensity for a company’s products to, say, look good and work well. In other words, collaboration encourages innovation. This is an appropriate response to today’s more complex and diverse projects that require a continually improving workforce, and a marketplace that’s becoming more fragile and fragmented. Having more companies full of cross-functional teams is ultimately critical for America’s broader competitiveness in this changing marketplace.