Supporting R&D Support Groups: Social Network Analysis Can Help Managers Build Better Connections between Support Groups and Their Customers

Article excerpt

Every R&D organization has its centers of glory--the departments that are credited with driving innovation forward and producing new drugs, electronic gadgets or product inventions. Less celebrated are the departments that comprise the second line of innovation, that support new product development with services such as analytical testing or experimental product supply. These R&D support groups make essential contributions to the process of innovation and can help speed time-to-market, yet the role they play is often accorded secondary status.

We propose that R&D organizations take a closer look at the relationships between support groups and their customers, to detect where status differentials may be interfering with knowledge flow and impairing smooth and efficient interactions on shared work processes. Organizations can do so by applying the methods of social network analysis (SNA).

In the social network view, performance is the result of not just individual capabilities but of the relationships among people and the ways in which they bring their collective resources to bear upon the organization's goals. The techniques of social network analysis provide a window on working relationships by measuring and displaying the interpersonal connections that exist within and across various groups.

An SNA can identify where information is flowing freely among co-workers, and where it is bottled up behind organizational lines. It can show where people go for advice, whom they trust, and whether or not they are aware of the diversity of knowledge that lies beyond their immediate circle of colleagues. Importantly for our understanding of support groups and their customers, SNA can reveal whether relationships are characterized by one-way transactions or more collaborative, two-way partnerships. By detecting where the flow of knowledge between support groups and their customers is inadequate or imbalanced, an SNA can form the basis for interventions to build more effective working relationships.

Support Groups and Why They Matter

Support groups are an integral part of R&D in a range of industries, from pharmaceuticals to automotive, to the food industry and beyond. Although they use a variety of industry-specific technologies and may deliver different types of services to their customers, support groups nonetheless have certain features in common. Typically, they consist of specialized professionals who provide the testing, data and/or samples necessary to validate product designs.

These activities are critical because they help ensure that the product design is on target to meet functional and customer specifications. For example, in the life sciences, support groups perform analyses of product samples for characteristics such as composition, dissolution rates or stability. Their tools are advanced analytical devices such as HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) or GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry). In the mechanical world, the tools they use can range from sophisticated modeling techniques such as finite element analysis to structural testing of materials and prototypes.

Support groups can also serve as R&D's voice of the customer. For instance, in the food industry, a sensory analysis group provides human data on taste and texture preferences. Support groups may also provide the design group with customer insights gathered from focus groups or ethnographic research.

The role of a support group is defined not by academic degree or credential but by perceptions of the group's position in the product value chain. People performing core value chain activities tend to be the customers, while those providing more peripheral services would be considered support groups. The support group role is also relative: a department may be a support group for one unit and a customer of another. For example, in pharmaceutical R&D, the Clinical Supplies group may be a support group for Clinical Research, but a customer for the analytical laboratory. …

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