Why the communication gap between technical and business teams

by | Sep 24, 2018

I recently spent a few months in San Francisco Bay Area attending conferences, meet-ups, workshops etc. to get a feel for the place. Every time I told people what I did for a living they were surprised and intrigued. Didn’t know such a role existed they said. I am an innovators’ nurturer. They’d ask what does the job entail exactly? I would say: “I help companies improve the effectiveness of their innovators by training them to develop and convey ideas”. Or I said: “I train innovators to see and navigate through the diverse groups of stakeholders required to get their ideas to the market.” Sometimes, I would also say: “you know how technical and business folks speak completely different languages, I train to speak the same language.” The latter explanation resonated mostly with folks. This for me is an oversimplification of what I do but I understand that most people think there is a ‘communication’ gap between technologists and the business. But it is just a manifestation of the underlying issue.

After they’ve heard the explanation of what I do, they would then proceed to tell me of their own experience with this problem. One start-up founder told me that his biggest challenge is getting his technologists to really see their customers and the business. One manager of a multinational biotechnology company said this is a major source of pain for them to get business executives and technologists to understand each other. Over and over I would hear that I was in the right place, Silicon Valley, as there is a massive need for the work I do. I have heard the same wherever in the world I tell people what I do. Yet this is a problem that is rarely addressed, where it is, it is mostly poorly done.

What I mean by innovators

Before I proceed further, let me first explain some of the key terms I will use in this article. Technologists: those whose job is based on technical mastery, e.g. scientists, programmers, and engineers. I also refer to technologists as innovators. Even though people tend to think of iconic founders such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk as innovators, however, innovators are more often technologists who have the expertise to turn the vision of these founders into tangible products and services while come up with their own ideas. For example, Amazon’s most profitable product, AWS (Amazon Web Services), didn’t come from Bezos, it is a creation of a group of innovators inside the company. Innovation enablers are business executives that manage the business side of things, marketing, sales, compliance, finance, legal etc. they support and allow innovation to happen. Stakeholders: groups of people working in and outside an organization with multiple interests and requirements, e.g. consumers, government agencies, and finance.

How did I become a nurturer of innovators? I moved to Beijing, China, to study Mandarin. As well as studying, I got a part-time job teaching business English and ended-up at some of the world’s biggest companies. In one of these, I noticed brilliant scientists and engineers struggling to get their ideas across and lose confidence and managers frustrated that business requirements were unmet. The managers thought it was a language problem as these scientists working language, English, wasn’t their mother tongue. I knew it wasn’t a language problem; these scientists spoke very high level of English. Besides, I had seen this problem elsewhere in my previous life as a technologist working in investment banking and software development in Europe and the US. It was also thought that these technologists were poor communicators and were sent on presentation and communication skills trainings to little to no avail. Seeing among the best of the best technologists in China underperform compelled me to do something about it.

The gap

What is this so-called ‘gap’ that exists between technologists and business executives? It is the disparity in perspective and values: they see the world differently. Technologists are trained to acquire domain knowledge and technical mastery. Though their training is initially broad, for example, a person does a bachelors degree in material science but, to work in this field, will have to specialize in one aspect of it, e.g. polymer or glass, through further academic studies and on-the-job training. Their on job training is narrowly geared towards specific technical tasks. Thus, technologists view the world in specific questions and problems to be methodically resolved. It can take them years of work to resolve or make a particular discovery; therefore, they are unlikely to change roles frequently. They communicate in scientific facts and data. Business executives see the world in profit and loss and market share. They express themselves in money, and share value. They tend to have studied liberal arts or business administration and are trained in a broad skillset – writing, reading, marketing, etc. They change roles more frequently than technologists, thus have a more shorter-term perspective. As an example of how they work, in developing a moisturizer, a chemical engineer wants to create a product using optimal ingredients and techniques, and will take her time to get it right. The business development and marketing executives want the product at a certain price point and date that is most profitable.

Why is this gap a problem? There is a natural gap that has to exist between technologists and business executives so they can do their respective jobs. However, it becomes a problem when it is so wide that both groups are unable to see each other’s perspective. The bigger the company, the wider the gap because companies are set up in silos. Each silo will have its own objectives, resources, offices and even subculture. Within these silos you will have a variety of individuals that form diverse groups of stakeholders. This complexity is compounded by the requirements of operating in both local and global markets. Many companies try to mitigate this by having intermediaries in the form of product and program managers between technologists and the business side. However, these middlemen are primarily focused on managing specific products and are another group of stakeholders to add to the list. Furthermore, this doesn’t bring technologists closer to the business as their point of contact are the intermediaries.

Closing the gap

Why is it so important that both technologists and business executives get closer? In order for technologists to innovate, develop and take ideas to the market they must be able to get them through a plethora of stakeholders whose job is to protect their own interests. These stakeholders can be innovation enablers inside a company or outside groups such as regulatory agencies. In the example of developing a moisturizer, a chemical engineer that came up with a new formulation that she believes would win over the market would have to persuade her manager(s) to give her the resources to take it beyond ideation stage. Next, she’d have to prove to the IP (intellectual property) department that the idea is patentable, demonstrate to the compliance group that the ingredients are safe, and to the product manager that it will delight consumers. Then she would have to enlist support from other technologists with expertise to help manufacture and test it. Unless she has a good understanding of how all these different stakeholders think, she will not succeed. Her ideas wont get past idea stage, will lose confidence and become ineffective. Consequently, the business isn’t maximizing return on investment on its biggest asset and cost, people. It will also impact its next most valuable asset, intellectual property. If business worthy ideas aren’t being developed then a company fails to be competitive.

I came up with a holistic program to train these innovators (and innovation enablers) to understand their stakeholders and apply this knowledge towards developing and conveying their ideas. It’s been almost a decade since I started my company, Nurture to work with innovators. During this period we have trained hundreds of innovators and enablers from age 22 to 60, from new recruits to highly experienced in industries such as fast consumer products, electrical engineering, pharmaceutical and technology. We have worked with clients in China, Japan, Singapore and the US. Those struggling scientists that inspired me to start my company after attending my program went on, like many more after them, to generate significantly greater value for their organisations. They are well equipped with the confidence and tools to develop ideas and products aligned to their business and take them to market. This is the premise of my work: to nurture highly capable people towards excellence in the business of innovation.

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