By Eleanor Shelton

    Product development is never an easy task. Developing and marketing a product takes research, expertise and creativity. It is hard enough to sell to the American market; imagine the endless issues to selling a similar product in Brazil, China or South Africa.

    In some tropical climates babies can‘t wear disposable diapers all day because they will develop diaper rash. The Japanese don‘t like heavy perfume in their hygiene products. In India, where bright white is prized, it is almost impossible to keep clothes vivid because of the impurities in the water.

    The Globalization, Technology and Culture initiative (GTC) at the University of Michigan began in Fall 2002 to bring together an interdisciplinary group interested in researching, cataloging best practices and developing new concepts on how global companies can create products that succeed in world markets. Through the congregation of graduate and undergraduate students, faculty from liberal arts, engineering, business and multinational corporate representatives, ideas, challenges and barriers to effective product development are discussed. The core purpose of the initiative is to seek a fundamental understanding of the interaction between society and culture, and the engineering and manufacturing aspects of project development.

    “Global corporations today have to keep an open mind and need to bend over backwards to try to involve people from diverse cultures into the product development process,” said Debashish Dutta, director of the Globalization, Technology and Culture Initiative.

    Participating in this cross-disciplinary initiative are faculty from engineering, economics, business, sociology, anthropology and psychology.

    “What is special about this initiative is the incorporation of business as well as non-business faculty and students,” said Linda Y.C. Lim, professor of corporate strategy and international business and associate director of the International Institute. “While it is common place for business students and faculty to interact with corporations, by including those from engineering and liberal arts it takes the discussions to another level.”

    Senior executives from corporations such as Proctor and Gamble, Ford, General Motors, Hewlett Packard and Whirlpool have participated in the GTC Roundtable held bi-weekly at the International Institute. Royal Dutch Shell had confirmed participation for next semester. Each corporate participant is key within their global development divisions and was able to address key issues and challenges that they face trying to manufacture and market products around the world (see box below). Researchers from U-M and outside (e.g., Institute of Design at Chicago, Michigan State University) have also addressed the Roundtable.

    “The issues brought up at the GTC were insightful and made me think about being a global corporation. For sure there are challenges to being global, but Whirlpool sees the value in it and I couldn‘t even think about going back,” said Brian Christian, vice president, Global Product Development for Cleaning Products at Whirlpool.

    Whirlpool at a glance:

    • 2001 revenues: $11 billion
    • Manufacturing base: 14 countries on five continents
    • Marketing presence: 170+ countries
    • Employees: 60,000
    • Products: Home appliances such as washers, dryers, refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers

    Whirlpool‘s eight questions related to successful globalization:

    • Is it a homogenous global market or heterogeneous collection of local markets?
    • What are the commonalities that exist across local markets?
    • What challenges do we face in trying to serve local markets?
    • How does globalization impact our business in ways that are non-obvious?
    • What are some of the non-obvious challenges for global companies?
    • Do products have to be culturally appropriate to succeed?
    • Are there drivers of innovation that can be found in the local markets?
    • What is the future of global companies trying to succeed in local markets?

    “The issues brought up at the GTC were insightful and made me think about being a global corporation. For sure there are challenges to being global, but Whirlpool sees the value in it and I couldn‘t even think about going back,” said Brian Christian, vice president, Global Product Development for Cleaning Products at Whirlpool.

    The importance of succeeding in the global market was a thread in all the industry presentations. The corporate representatives also stressed the importance and promise of the developing world market with over 5 billion people. This environment offers unique opportunities for companies to innovate in produce design, materials and manufacturing to create profitable products that they can sell as affordable prices. This market share has yet to be fully developed and only those companies that demonstrate an innovative approach to product development will be rewarded within this fertile ground. Stripping away functionality of existing product lines to reduce cost is not the approach. Corporations today cannot back away from the globalization of local markets.

    “The laws of physics and engineering principles apply to products as much in the U.S. as in China,” said Dutta. “It‘s the formulation of the problem itself that is different when considering the two markets. This is where the engineers, business and liberal arts students working together will excel.”

    The cross-disciplinary approach to product development is the vanguard to new thinking and teaching methods. The GTC at the U-M is one of the very few programs of its kind in the country focusing on innovative ways to make better, more culturally appropriate products for global markets.

    “I especially appreciated one meeting in which we discussed the need for safer water. The engineers proposed to develop a new community-level, solar-powered system to increase water purity at low cost, to which the social scientists, in turn, asked about how communities themselves might influence the system‘s function,” said Michael Kennedy, vice provost for international affairs, director of the International Institute and sociology professor.

    Dutta likes an HSBC ad when stressing the cultural context in global product development. It says “Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge” and shows how a simple cup of tea is appropriately served in different countries. Knowing what shape of cup will sell can mean the difference between a successful product or one that goes the way of the Vega in Mexico. “We must make our next generation of engineers broad thinkers. They need to understand the problem,” said Dutta.

    “Globalization doesn‘t necessarily mean American,” said Lim. “We need to find what‘s different about people, not what‘s the same.”

    In the end, Kennedy has found GTC among the most promising, but challenging, of the projects one might associate with a “university of the world,” the theme of President Mary Sue Coleman‘s inauguration symposium. “Globalization is not only about the compression of time and space and increasing connectivity, but also about the generation of new problems for which the twentieth-century organization, and division of knowledge prepares us poorly. Connecting the technological expertise of our engineers with our business experts is the first stage, and GTC suggests the second, where we not only consider how the university can help companies market existing products to new cultures, but how we might develop new ways to bring the expertise of the university and the resources of our colleagues in the private sector into the service of a wider array of publics across the world.”

    Errata: The print version of this issue was incorrectly designated as Vol. 10, No. 4.

    Eleanor Shelton is editor of the Journal of the International Institute.