David G Sherburne, Independent Consultant, David G Sherburne Consulting

With over 25 years of experience spanning product commercialization, executive level IT and R&D leadership, and independent consulting, David brings an experienced perspective to many transformation initiatives. A consultant, writer and speaker, David is constantly immersed in programs that deepen his knowledge, experience, and perspective on technology driven transformation. David works closely with resources at all levels and across functions to understand the issues and align the necessary people and functions with appropriate technologies to successfully transform a business.


Some of the major challenges that face businesses today are dealing with the rapid change in pace of new technology advancements and the maturing abilities of companies to leverage data. Organizations led by offices like the traditional Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) are taking the brunt of the efforts to deal with these challenges. These organizations are having to manage evaluating new technology, facing a rapid acceleration in new product and service launches, dealing with new sales models (transitioning from selling a thing to selling a service), maintaining compliance, ensuring security across a connected environment, and maturing use of legacy and newly available data sources. To address these challenges CIOs and CTOs should consider the complimentary nature of their respective organizations and join forces in areas where there is overlapped responsibility and functional synergy. However, in many companies this idea is a monumental challenge due to the cultural differences inherent in how these organizations evolved. Joining forces in these areas can help break down barriers. Working towards combining the strengths of both traditional organizations can help companies keep pace in today’s rapidly changing digital world.

Cultural change is always the most challenging aspect of any transformation endeavor. Driving cultural change can be difficult to succeed at because it is a byproduct of executives engaged in leading change. Understanding the reason behind the natural resistance to change can help executives focus on changing the behaviors of the people and not view the people as the root cause of the problems they are facing.

Information Technology (IT) organizations have evolved from a control and cost out function. They were built around managing outcomes and maintaining consistency within the environment to maximize reliability and minimize costs. They were focused on managing the environment and hired people who manage things very well. Research and Development (R&D) on the other hand was predicated on finding new and innovative ways to address emerging needs in the marketplace. Change and absorption of new innovative ideas and technology was the way to out innovate the competition. These organizations were built with people who thrive on change, the next technological advancement, a new market challenge or disrupting the status quo in the market.  As design and engineering technology progressed the most powerful and expensive IT requests usually came from the R&D organization. If there was any resistance from IT then R&D was fully capable of building IT for themselves, usually in a less controlled way. These organizations were never really forced to work together, like manufacturing and R&D which have similar conflicts but must launch products together.

This diagram represents the reality in many companies today. There exists a great divide between R&D and IT. The organizations can’t effectively work together. They have very different strengths as represented by the wide areas of the triangles. Going forward R&D and IT will be forced closer together due to changes in products being caused by connectivity and data availability.

Changing the impression within each organization of the other is the first step. The behavioral nuances of leaders will become the silent driver of change when combining cultures that have strong impressions of one another. A visible partnership at the top is paramount to forming a true partnership across both organizations. Creating a quiet forcing function for change starts with leaders visibly modeling the emerging partnership and providing guidance to middle level managers along the way. CTOs and CIOs must get to know each other intimately and join forces visibly to enable change. Separate IT and R&D organizations that refuse to collaborate will impede true digital transformation efforts in established companies.

The behavioral nuances of leaders will become the silent driver of change when combining cultures that have strong impressions of on another.

Finding the best opportunities for breaking down the resistance to working together is important. Setting the expectation for collaboration starts at the highest levels and trickles down throughout the organizational structures. Starting with highly visible areas like strategic planning, funding and oversight can be a way to bring the senior levels of each organization together and allow them to collaborate by working together, sharing resources and budgets. The best minds can be commingled together during strategy off-sites, planning sessions, business overviews, think tanks, and the like. Creating opportunities for casual interactions after these sessions can go a long way to breaking down barriers because we all have more in common than we sometimes like to admit. Leaders that are funding key activities together and expecting common results from cross functional teams can be a strong incentive for people to be more open to change.

Adopting a common philosophy and methodology for project and program execution early on is important when merging cultures and expecting positive results. Combining Project and Program offices to create a delivery process and IT platform that encompasses the needs of both groups can remove unnecessary baggage associated with completely separated and uncommon methods. Taking the time to understand the oversight needs of both groups can help managers design a common process with appropriate deliverables for each group. It is important to remove excuses for resisting change, and this is an area that often trips up teams when asked to work together for the first time.

There are some key overlapping areas of responsibility that can be exploited to help encourage partnerships and get early wins. These areas leverage the strengths of each organization and if successful can drive success deeper down into the organization. The following areas are opportunities where resources can be combined to help merge cultures and address specific problems.

Overlapping IT and R&D Responsibilities
Ensuring security from the internal infrastructure to the customer edge.
Maintaining compliance, protecting the customer and the company.
Dealing with rapid pace of technology innovations internally and externally.
Enabling the data driven, connected, ever evolving product.

As products become less of an island and more part of a connected ecosystem that streams data back to the company protecting the equipment at the edge from intrusion is an area where R&D and IT can innovate together. There are opportunities for implementing security and network technology and evaluating options where both parties have a stake and can be rewarded for providing solutions to a common problem that every company faces in today’s connected world.

Maintaining compliance and meeting regulatory obligations is becoming more challenging as access to, and storage of, information becomes more sophisticated from a process and technology perspective. Both organizations share this responsibility alongside the compliance and quality arms of the company and can join forces on projects that originate from addressing audit findings together.

Evaluating new technology coming from the marketplace has become a major challenge due to the pace of new advancements. Dealing with the rapid pace of technology change is an issue for both groups. IT has been transitioned from on premises to cloud, computing capacity has become almost infinitely scalable, and access to data is unprecedented. For R&D software development has evolved, products are connected and constantly being transformed. There are so many tools and opportunities that exist today that were almost unimaginable years ago. These rapid changes have caused inside of many established companies a mountain of technical debt as new innovations replace legacy approaches. Teaming on technology evaluations, sharing research services, discussing trends, prototyping together, and cleaning up technical debt can become the foundation to developing an innovative and collaborative culture that solves real world problems.

Products are constantly changing. The pace of change is accelerating. Today “things” are connected and can evolve over time. They can be offered as a service. Products may be the basis for collecting data and providing new data-based functionality. They can call home for help and be repaired remotely. Organizations must be agile and maintain control during an unprecedented time of revolutionary innovation. Built into these challenges is a monumental opportunity for collaboration. The scope here is large, and teams can address together everything from how connectivity augments products and services, investigate new opportunities to analyze data, evaluate novel service approaches, or provide new interfaces to enable better experiences internally and externally.

Capitalizing on and being successful in these overlapping areas of responsibility can truly change the impression of people that in the past have naturally been at odds. Rewarding success in public can encourage more collaboration and integration helping to collapse the barriers that exist deep within these organizations.

In addition to overlapping areas of responsibility there are many technical functional areas where the organizations can interact with one another. These additional areas can be leveraged to transfer knowledge between organizations or allow individuals from one organization to work within the other and gain a new perspective. Leveraging these opportunities can comingle the best and the brightest minds and help the company become more innovative.

Working together on standard architectures for both product and IT is a very common need for both organizations and usually requires very specialized people who think in a very abstract way. Developing and maintaining standard architectures are important for maintaining business effectiveness, security, and compliance as well as for producing high quality products and services. A well architected infrastructure for enabling connectivity and harnessing new data would be a success for both organizations as one example. There are many opportunities to work through processes, tools, and infrastructure options together to analyze the best possible solutions. Success in this area can drive alignment across both functions.

A relatively new opportunity that requires mutual participation is the Internet of Things (IoT). This is an important area to combine forces to determine the best solutions to implement in this early maturity space. Collaboration and agreement on which platforms are best suited for the company and determining what data sets to capture should involve both parties. Working together can lead to standardization in this key area and deliver a platform that is secure and scalable. This platform will become the foundation for many digital transformation activities like selling services, collecting data, evolving product features, providing insights, maintaining security, and updating software. It will enable the company to address many digital challenges rapidly. It also enables within engineering the ability to understand product performance in the field by truly closing the design loop with use data. Businesses like service can benefit from increased exposure to information to become more proactive and efficient when servicing their customers. These are just a few examples of what benefits a collaborative effort in this space can bring to the business. It could be a big win for both organizations.

Internal process improvement projects can also provide an opportunity to work closely together and for people to better understand how the respective organizations work. Senior Executives have the challenge of having to deliver new products and services more rapidly as the marketplace accelerates. Working to streamline the product delivery process lifecycle from concept to customer can benefit the company in measurable ways and allow IT to help enable R&D speed. Working on processes and IT automation systems in the areas of Application Lifecycle Management, Low Code Development, Product Lifecycle Management and Quality Management together can provide opportunities for IT and R&D to make large contributions to the companies’ ability to be agile, fast, and controlled. It will surely bring R&D to the table.

As these efforts begin to succeed, the divide between the organizations will close. Leveraging the strength of both organizations will enable better evaluation and assimilation of new technologies, continuously improve internal systems, drive better internal and external architectures, and speed up the release of new products and services to the marketplace.

As the thinking matures about the current wave of technological change, IT and R&D functions will become more attached than ever before in history. Progressive and forward-looking executives must play a key role in a company’s digital transformation by engaging their respective organizations and creating the collaborative environment that will be necessary for success. Allowing these organizations to behave as separated or as competitive entities will hamper a company’s ability to transform into a more agile digitally mature player in the marketplace.

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