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Professor Mohan Sawnhey delivered product management insights to students in the Kellogg Part-Time MBA Program during an April 16 presentation to the Technology Club.

Connecting company and customer

Product management demands rigorous and varied skills, Professor Mohan Sawhney tells Technology Club

By Matt Golosinski

4/19/2007 - Kellogg School technology expert Mohan Sawhney brought his insights on product management to the Kellogg Part-Time MBA Program during an April 16 presentation to the Technology Club. His discussion took place at Wieboldt Hall on the school’s Chicago campus.

During his presentation, Sawhney, who is the McCormick Tribune Professor of Technology, defined product management and outlined the responsibilities of exemplary product managers.

“A product manager is a middle manager, usually within the marketing organization, responsible for successfully bringing new products (or services/brands) to market and ensuring the ongoing success of existing products,” said Sawhney, adding that this objective leverages all functional areas that involve the development, manufacture, sales and support of products.

A good product manager knows how to orchestrate all product-related activities and serves as the “voice of the company” to customers and the “voice of the customer” to the company, he said.

Considerable ambiguity surrounds the roles of product managers, Sawhney said, which is why he has taken steps to bring clarity to the discussion. He noted that his recent research project —which includes corporate surveys of more than 200 firms as well as detailed interviews with professionals — has involved identifying best practices in product management. Among the insights gleaned so far: The product manager must know the customers, the market and the competitive features better than anyone else in the company.

Product management has “two faces,” said Sawhney: One involves “converting the value proposition into a market offering,” while the other involves taking the offering and the value message out into the marketplace. The former is known as product development; the latter as product marketing. Each involves listening to the customer and considering how the firm’s capabilities can meet market needs.

Breaking down the product manager’s role, Sawhney identified typical responsibilities, which include product conception, development and launch. Once the product is in the market, the manager also plays a leadership role in sustaining that offering by working with colleagues to provide sales training, customer promotions, trade promotions, product updates and planning for the next version.

The success of product managers is evaluated by several metrics, Sawhney’s research indicates. These include the offering’s overall revenues and profitability. Measurements such as customer satisfaction are also important, but most firms surveyed (80 percent) did not believe this metric was central to the manager’s performance evaluation.

The knowledge domains most important for product managers, said Sawhney, include knowledge of customers, product, competitors and overall company business. Also key is an awareness of the macro business environment.

Good product managers need many competencies, said the Kellogg professor, who is also director of the Kellogg Center for Research in Technology and Innovation. Among these skills are: the ability to think strategically about the product by understanding how it fits the company’s business; the ability to define and communicate the vision, goals and value proposition of the product from the customer’s perspective; the ability to understand customer requirements and map those into produce specifications and features; and the ability to understand technology broadly and deeply to interact effectively with developers.

“Product managers also need to have personal skills, such as passion for the product, intellectual curiosity, communications and listening skills, negotiation and analytical skills, as well as selling skills,” said Sawhney.

He concluded his presentation with a comparative assessment of the companies that are most admired for their product management strengths, including Microsoft, GE, Sony and Procter & Gamble.