More and more, companies are realizing that silo-busting talents like Eloi Baudoux are key to an innovative future
Eloi Baudoux was on the fast track in 1998 when, as a student at Paris' prestigious engineering school Ecole des Mines, he took a summer internship at Renault (RENA.PA). But once inside the automotive giant, Baudoux found his science background wasn't enough to make him competitive in what he'd always assumed was an engineer's field.
"Engineering was too technical," he explains nearly a decade later. "I realized that engineering activities would not allow me to get as close to the product, to the human and customer processes, as I needed to." In fact, says Baudoux, "I found I could not be taken seriously within Renault without a design background."
Luckily, Ecole des Mines had a partnership with nearby Strate Collège, a design academy in the Paris suburbs looking to become more business-savvy and a new addition to BusinessWeek's 2007 list of featured design schools. When Baudoux finished his formal engineering training in 1999, he was able to move directly to Strate to embark on a two-year Master's in design.
Beating the Creatives' Prejudice
But here, too, earning the respect of his peers was a struggle. Although all the students were relatively young, those with prior design experience didn't necessarily welcome those without a creative background. "At Strate," Baudoux explains, "there were fewer than 10 engineers, and we had to prove to the designers that we could be as creative as they were."
Baudoux's big break came when a professor divided the class into teams of four or five students and set them to work on projects with real companies. Baudoux's team was assigned to work with an electricity provider to improve its relationships with customers and overcome the perception that utility firms are impersonal and unresponsive. Baudoux had the understanding of electrical engineering necessary to improve the company's service, and he took the lead in helping his team translate technology into user insight.
"Technology is not just a benefit," he explained to his classmates. "It can be frightening. You have to understand it and make it more human." Baudoux's engineering experience, the very factor that had initially separated him from his "more creative" peers, proved a key ingredient in solving the design problem.
Meanwhile, Baudoux kept in touch with Renault, and in 2001 he met a manager interested in recruiting an interdisciplinary strategy team to craft a new vision for the firm's R&D arm. When Baudoux, two other design-engineers, and a sociologist were hired from several French schools in 2001, they joined a company looking to innovate.
Renault Comes Around
"This was the very beginning of something at Renault," says Baudoux. In other words, company management realized that successful technological advances must be matched by a heightened understanding of consumer needs. So researchers, engineers, and designers needed to escape their corporate silos. The company needed managers who could speak the language of all of those disciplines in order to communicate the go-ahead corporate culture. "The car industry is very conservative, and even now there are maybe 20 of us with this mixed background in the company," says Baudoux. "But Renault was aware that it was important and necessary to have a strategic vision behind design."
Since then, Baudoux's role at Renault has been to offer that vision to both designers and engineers. He articulates the design stakes of new technologies to car designers, explaining how different technologies might affect the user experience. And he translates user insights about what drivers and passengers really want to engineers in order to help them build more customer-oriented cars. Baudoux, with his double education, is neither engineer nor designer but a strategist in his own right. "I can follow any technical, managerial, or financial point," he says. And his experience means he has more than one way to approach business problems. "When classical marketing strategies are not appropriate," he offers as an example, "design can be helpful."
As more companies follow Renault's path and focus on using design as a differentiation strategy, graduates like Baudoux may become a prime focus of the corporate talent hunt.