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Cross-Cultural Anthropology
R & D and Marketing

by Aaron Kleiner

In a course I took at MlT's Sloan School about 20 years ago, I received a handout entitled something like "Cross-Cultural Anthropology." I could not imagine the relevance of methods used to study New Guinea tribesmen to my future career in the U.S. high tech industry. Now, I do.

For a company to succeed its culture must evolve so as to effectively integrate its many departmentally based subcultures. Most high tech companies begin with the "visionary dreamer" or entrepreneur and his or her "great dream." He or she gathers together the band of intrepid adventurers who will make the dream come true. Their first goals are to raise money and build the prototype. During this phase, the engineers, working around-the-clock to do the impossible, create the company's first culture.

Visualize an "R&D type." What comes to mind for most people is a creative, introverted, did-not-attend-his-or-her-high-school-senior-prom hacker who is very smart and dedicated but lacking in certain social skills. These engineers are the heroes of phase one of the company and dictate a culture that supports inventiveness and hard work (not the 9 to 5 mind-set) and scorns conventional thinking.

Once the prototype is in sight a new group, who bring with them their own cultural imperatives, must be added -- marketing and sales. Visualize the "marketing and sales types." Words like aggressive, socially skilled, influential, extroverted, business like, even "slick" come to mind. Two very different subcultures are created that need to be effectively integrated for the company to succeed.

An early challenge comes with the preparation of the first press release. Marketing and R&D can have very different views of what needs to be accomplished by it. Engineers, being very precise, want to avoid unproven claims as anything that smacks of hype is anathema to them. Marketeers need to generate leads. They, of necessity, must put the best light on the product, its features and benefits. In order to reach a successful conclusion, this process must be carefully managed with a real understanding and sympathy for the issues of each subculture.

In general, the integration and transition of corporate cultures must be managed, and not "just allowed to happen." The key to this successful process is the constant attention of the CEO and/or COO to promoting mutual understanding by educating one another, explaining in detail why each needs and, in fact, depends on the other. Sometimes this may require forcing new forums for interaction between departments. This process cannot be successfully managed by a product manager and a procedure. It requires inspired leadership from the very top of the organization and it requires time, energy and commitment as well as a basic understanding of cross-cultural anthropology.

Reprinted with permission from The MIT Enterprise Forum, Inc. of Cambridge. The article first appeared in the "Forum Reporter," Volume 7, No. 4, December 1988.

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