Research has shown that a close collaboration among the marketing, design, engineering, and communications sectors of a company offers great benefit in the product development and design process, and many books and articles extol the virtues of using cross-functional teams in an integrated development process (IDP). It's an approach that better leverages the experience and expertise of an organization's human resources, and it tends to generate creative solutions.
Only problem is, how do you train people for IDP teamwork? Paul Rothstein, of Arizona State University, points out that many companies find the transition to teams quite slow and painful; they often underestimate the attitudinal changes, not to mention the organizational restructuring, necessary for teams to work together in a multidisciplinary group.
For the most part, says Rothstein, educational institutions do little to address these problems. However, for the past two years, Rothstein has been able to introduce students from ASU's college of business and its school of design to the world of integrated development, and at the same time use his classroom as a laboratory in which to study the problems and promise of the IDP approach. The classes are made up of around 16 students, evenly divided among the business and design disciplines. The theme varies: the first year, for instance, Rothstein focused on Recreating the Shopping Experience. Students were charged with exploring the values and behaviors of consumers and then developing business/design solutions to support them. At the same time, in a separate but related project, a group of graduate research assistants were studying the students enrolled in the class. Conducted as an ethnographic case study, the project probed student attitudes and reactions both before and after their exposure to IDP, with a special interest in changes in the students' attitudes toward leadership, cross-functional team dynamics, and creativity.
It became clear, says Rothstein, that "business and design students possessed very different ideas about basic development methodologies, the history of design and development, and the functions of business and design within the broader development structure." The course was meant to convey the ambiguities of product development in the "real world" in that it did not include overly detailed goals or instructions. Instead, students were presented with a general objective ("recreate the shopping experience") and a development timetable, consisting of specific phases, deadlines, and loosely defined deliverables. Although the teams came up with several interesting products, most of the students felt they had underestimated the huge time demands of cross-functional work and found IDP to be a "messy" process. Many of them agreed that the course had forced them to reexamine their ideas about leadership and creativity. Moreover, most of the students agreed, by the end of the course, that cross-functional teams were in fact a "powerful creative force"-in spite of the difficulties and frustrations they presented.
"It is highly probable," concludes Rothstein, "that upon graduation, these students will soon encounter development processes and teams that bear an uncanny resemblance to what they experienced in the class, since integrated processes and cross-functional teamwork have become more commonplace in business and design." More power to them: They'll have a head start.
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