Social Product Development

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Take 2: Engineers Want a Formula For Social Media

This is a cross-post authored by Derrek Cooper, CFdesign product manager for Blue Ridge Numerics. He is mechanical engineer with over 10 years experience working in the CFD/CAD/FEA market.

Derrek writes about social media and the prospect of its use by engineers for product development. If I were to split hairs, I would say that social media as we generally know it today, is not a good fit for product development (too risky), but social computing is (see my introductory blog on this topic). I agree with his point of view and really like the way he talks about it...though I assume he's using the term "guys" in a gender neutral way :-). The type of response he gets is not unfamiliar to me. That said, I find our customers bring this subject up more often than I do. Here's an excerpt...

'....I have had conversation with guys about Twitter and other tools out there. Response is mixed, either they feel they "don't get it" or feel it's "not for me". The reasons are all over the map-- don't care, no time, not interested. What I find interesting is that these same guys don't have any issues frequenting certain forums of interest. I'm not sure Twitter is much different, it all depends on how you use it.

I do appreciate the skepticism, but I'm not a fan of narrow mindedness. Just because its different, just because you aren't into it or understand it, doesn't mean it has no value. Simply put, social media, in my eyes is about communication, interaction, collaboration, knowledge gathering and knowledge sharing. Hmm, parallels engineering pretty closely from a top level? I'm the first to admit that there is a lot of fluff that all gets categorized as social media. But I think there is tremendous value being "plugged in, connected and informed"....'

Read Derrek's full post here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's Who You Know AND What You Know

My cycling friend, Mark, got his hands on a number to run the 2009 Boston Marathon earlier this week. Official numbers are not easy to come by. Either you qualify (which he didn’t) or you run for a charity (which he wasn't planning). I asked Mark how he got that number and he gave me the old adage, “Robin, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And that got me thinking about social product development, because these days, that’s what I think about a lot…I’ve got a blog to write, after all.

No question about it, product development is extremely collaborative; you don’t just need to know any people, you need to know the “right people.” The people on your design team are some of “the right people.” But what about the people you don’t know who could contribute to making your product world-class, solve a big design problem, or connect you to a low cost but high quality source for a component. How do you find them? They are “the right people,” too.

Think about this: the last time anyone looked at your resume was when they interviewed you for your job, probably. If you’ve been with your company as long as I have been with PTC, you’ve probably had several roles and your career has evolved. You may have outside interests that could be relevant to a colleague’s current work challenge. But they don’t think to ask you about it, or worse, in a big company, they don’t even know you exist….You work in the same company, have great experience that could help them out of a bind, while they toil away, rack their brains, or pay a third party to save the day.

Andrew McAfee, who is a well respected Harvard Business School Associate Professor and MIT Sloan School of Management Visiting Associate Professor, describes Mark Granovetter’s theory of the ‘strength of weak ties’ (SWT) in his blog as it applies to business in general, but imagine its application in product development. I’m working on product A with Bill. Bill is also working on product X with Sarah. Bill, Sarah, and I each have profiles that consist of our skills and interests, but it also contains what we’re working on and links to product information (which we can only access with permission, of course). I’ve got a design challenge that could be solved if I can use my strong ties with Bill and product A, to connect to Sarah through product X.

One advantage of social computing technologies is leveraging the ‘strength of weak ties.’ Creating and searching on employee profiles could help you connect to the “right people.” Marrying social computing with product development technologies could not only let you search on people’s profiles, but also let you search on the valuable product data produced by the experts in your company and use that to connect to the “right people.” Social product development lets you exercise weak ties inherent in product information that historically you’d have no access to with general social computing technologies. There is a huge amount of knowledge wrapped into product models and bills of materials that defines a product. Why not use that to get to the “right people?”

So really, Mark, it’s who you know, who they know, AND what they know.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Day in the Future of Product Development?

Bob’s phone rang to the tune of the Kinks’ classic B-side “I Need You.” It was an alert message sent by his prototype drilling rig currently undergoing field testing. Environmental conditions at the test site were compromising its performance, and the onboard communications system was letting Bob know of the problem. Bob remotely messaged the machine, downloaded a full set of diagnostics, and performed a virtual fly through of the design. A specific error code contained in the diagnostic data visually highlighted a possible problem area on screen: a damaged casing was exposing the equipment’s sensitive internals to the elements.

Bob used his product development system to interrogate the rig’s design history, and was able to visually navigate through a network of information which mapped specific iterations of CAD files with all past and present team members that worked on them or on similar designs. The system combined these results with an enterprise profile search, and presented Bob with a pathway that indicated the most efficient social connection to the person with the necessary skills to help solve the problem. He saw that Fred, a long-time colleague and team member on other projects, was a close connection to Ned, the original design engineer and person with the requisite knowledge. Bob initiated an instant message chat with Fred, who made the introductions to Ned. After a video-based design session and with guidance from Ned, Bob had the design guidance he needed. He revised the CAD files and had manufacturing run updated tool paths in the CAM system. NC code was uploaded to the field-based machine shop to cut a new part, and Bob sent visual instructions to the test engineer’s handheld regarding how to perform the fix.

Whoa, hold the iPhone! Is this what's in store for product development? One day, it just may be. What do you think: plausible or not so much?

For your enjoyment, here are some famously incorrect technology predictions courtesy of

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ignore these skills at your peril…

After reading Robin’s recent posting about the importance of capturing the intellectual capital from an aging workforce, I got thinking about the other end of the workforce age spectrum – namely, a generation of incoming workers that are wide-eyed, eager, and… utterly dependent on social networking. Case in point, on a recent flight from Boston to London I overheard a young woman ask “How much does it cost to text from London, because I don’t think I could go a week without it?” And to tell you the truth, the best multi-tasker I’ve ever seen is my 17 year old nephew – simultaneously texting, emailing, and checking ESPN scores. He’s “always on,” using short bursts of communication to stay in touch, keep up with what’s important to him, and let others know what he’s doing.

Face it, the incoming workforce isn’t going to just ask to use social networking in the workplace, they’re going to demand it. And wouldn’t it be crazy not to tap into this social computing skillset when it arrives – prepackaged - on our doorsteps? I thought about telling my nephew that he was great at “collaboration,” but I’m pretty sure he’d say, “Yeah, sure thing, Uncle Rob… whatever that is.” So behind Door A, an entire industry of PLM vendors is trying to get everyone interested in the benefits of engineering collaboration. While behind Door B, my nephew and his college buddies just simultaneously traded A-Rod from their fantasy baseball team, changed the location of a study group, and shared a copy of last years final trig exam.

So here’s my premise… we need these new entrants to the workforce to play the role of “social” in social product development. To ignore these incoming social networking dependencies – uh, I mean skills – would be foolish. We need to provide technologies in the workplace that tap into these skills and leverage them. To equip my nephew with a landline and an email account would be to kill his connectivity and his productivity. Wouldn’t that be a waste?

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Aging Engineering Workforce: Lessons From Al

When I graduated from college I immediately started working at Raytheon as a "Member of Technical Staff," which is essentially an entry-level engineer. At the time, I was a bit of a novelty – a young woman, who studied engineering, among many men who had been at Raytheon a life time or were on their way. I figured I would do the same; after all, I never went to going-away parties at Raytheon, I went to retirement parties.

My manager, Al, was a wonderful man who took me under his wing and mentored me. He had so much engineering experience and I had very little. Aside from training me to run the Boston Marathon, which I did with his daughter, and giving me tips about saving for retirement (BTW, that was great advice), Al showed me the ropes at Raytheon. He gave me the opportunity to learn the CAD application they were using at the time, showed me how to find (using microfiche), order (where to find and fill out the forms), and check out drawings (from the physical vault) so that I could work with a draftsman or CAD operator to update them for an assembly retrofit. I remember working on a heat transfer problem and he shared his experience working on similar problems in the past.

Al taught me a great deal in the 2.5 years I worked at Raytheon. I took that experience with me to GTE and then to PTC. Now that Al is retired, I wonder what was done to capture his invaluable knowledge and experience so that it could be used to get new engineers up to speed quickly and referenced for new product development.

In conversations with customers, I hear how the aging engineering workforce is of great concern to them. IP and knowledge capture are top of mind. The emerging engineering workforce is growing up with social networking applications that are giving way to social computing. They expect to be able to use this technology in their new jobs. Experienced engineers stand to gain great satisfaction by sharing all they know with anyone who will pay attention…it’s human nature. Is there a better way to capture and harness the expertise of the Al’s of the world for the enthusiastic, yet social networking savvy entry-level engineers, than to connect the two using social product development?