Social Product Development

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Weak Ties Build Strong Networks

“Social networking” is a hot topic, and we’re hearing (or I guess ‘seeing’) many conversations around how it will change the way we create products in the future. I ran into a situation recently that might give you some insight into how social product development—particularly something called ‘weak ties’-- can work for you going forward. Here’s what happened:

I was looking for a ‘fast’ zoom lens in the 100-400mm range for my digital camera. I’d narrowed in on two lenses, each with slightly different features and strengths, but was having a hard time making a final decision. With the lens costing somewhere between $1,200 and $1,600, I needed to get it right. Time for some research.

Since most of my photography friends are on Facebook and Flickr, I had a couple of obvious places to begin asking questions, but unfortunately, none of my closest contacts had any experience with the exact combination of my camera body and either of the desired lenses. One of my contacts, however, pointed me to a Flickr group dedicated to posting shots from the same camera. After reading a few threads in their discussion group blog, I found someone - Bill in San Francisco - who owns the same camera body and who had been looking into the same lens that I wanted. Bill had rented a number of lens combinations, ran tests for a week, and posted the results. Amazingly, Bill’s photographic style is very similar to my own. He had essentially done all my legwork work for me, and was happy to share his results. He saved me a ton of time and effort in my research.

The point, of course, is that I never knew Bill before I asked this one question. But less than 15 minutes into my research, I found an expert on the subject – now an online ‘friend’ - plus literally dozens of comments, blogs, and opinions related to this very specific topic. In the world of social networking, Bill is referred to as a ‘weak tie’ – that is, someone that we ‘discover’ through online networking, who can help us ‘collaborate’ to accomplish a task—fast. Jim Brown has written a number of blogs on this topic, if you’d like to read more about it.

This concept of finding weak ties has real promise for product development. Name any topic, ask any question, and there’s probably someone out there who can help you out. The trick is finding them quickly and easily, without having to leave your design tool - and that’s just one element of what PTC is focused on with our social product development initiative.

On a related note, just imagine the value that a similar knowledge-base could bring to manufacturers—where designers and engineers are tapping into online communities to generate ideas, discover requirements, highlight gaps in product lines, and then capture, manage, and act on that information to develop new products. But that’s a topic for a later blog. Meanwhile, I have some pictures to take….

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Scrutinizing time spent social computing?

Occasionally when I’m walking past a colleague’s desk at the office I’ll notice them quickly minimizing their browser at the very moment I’m passing by. Until recently, I would notice them discretely covering up news sites, shopping sites and often sports sites like ESPN. But more and more I’m noticing social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. As a manager, my initial reaction is to ask myself how anyone is getting any work done with the pervasiveness – and addictiveness – of social media. You could literally spend all day networking online with friends and co-workers (including those in the office next to you..??) if you aren’t careful.

But then I heard my mother’s voice harkening back to my childhood where she would often encourage me to stop watching TV (usually after only 20 minutes…) or stop playing video games (that was Space Invaders and Donkey Kong for me). Back then, I knew that I wasn’t watching too much TV or playing too many video games, mainly because I had far too much to do. I always made time to complete my homework, hang with my friends, walk my dog and play sports. And then it occurred to me that there must have been laggard managers out there in the business world when email and the Internet were first introduced, who wondered back then: How can anyone be productive with such “disruptive”, time-wasting technologies at their fingertips?

The answer is that breakthrough new technologies like this do not need scrutinizing because good, smart, committed employees will always find the right balance between getting stuff done and leveraging a new phenomenon like social networking. In fact, what will be really interesting is to watch the evolution of those who figure out how to leverage social computing to become even more productive in their professional lives.

Product Development is an excellent case in point, because it’s a highly iterative, collaborative, and social process. Product Development will undoubtedly benefit from an “industrialized” version of social networking whereby engineers will be able to more easily find each other, work with each other and learn from each other. I’ve already seen how time spent in online communities saves time and results in better informed decisions. The project deadline, or the urgency to get a product to market, will naturally regulate against the overuse of social computing technologies.

And, as it relates to Marketing - an area that I am keenly interested in - social computing has limitless possibilities for improving access to market research and customer information as an example (I will explore some of these possibilities in my next post).

As for my colleagues who minimize their browsers when I walk past your desk, no worries. I know you are making yourself smarter and more productive in your everyday work by leveraging technology to engage in social networking and, in particular, to better understand our customers. Similarly for myself, I will leave the blog page open proudly when you walk past my desk as they often have great ideas about improving accuracy and hitting your target...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Microsoft is getting its groove on

The introduction of social networking capabilities into the world of product development is not without some challenges. Not the least of these is overcoming the stigma that social networking has developed, fostered by either our own personal experiences with online communities or hearing news stories about teens doing something stupid online. Sometimes when I introduce social product development, I get a little snicker or a cynical smirk from the audience. Someone invariably says, "Oh yeah, like we're gonna use Facebook to run our business... right?!"

The perspective that social networking is the playground of teens and twenty-somethings is ridiculous. Peel back the fa├žade and you'll find a portfolio of capabilities that are tailor-made for improving collaboration, innovation, and productivity in product development. To date, most of these capabilities live in consumer-focused web applications like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Xing, etc. And while big business has started to use these sites for marketing purposes, they're obviously not viable for running critical business processes like product development.

Enter Microsoft. Who better to "industrialize" these social networking capabilities into a business-ready portfolio of applications? They've got scale. They've got ubiquity. And they've got their sights set on being the company that brings social networking to the enterprise. SharePoint is already licensed on 100 million machines, and is one of the fastest growing businesses within Microsoft. And while the current version of SharePoint is lacking some of the more advanced social networking capabilities, Microsoft is promising big improvements in SharePoint 2010.

I think there will always be niche applications with more advanced features than what we find in SharePoint. But - whether you love them or hate them - Microsoft desktop and productivity tools are what 99% of us use everyday to crank out work. Having our professional social networking tools tightly integrated into the app's that are so ingrained in our daily professional lives will carry the day.