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….


  1. I think this is an excellent example of "weak ties." I also talked about this in a post that discussed the use of social computing "beyond collaboration." The link is if you are interested.

    The key point that Adrian makes in his post is what I refer to as "discovery" in addition to collaboration. It is when you have the opportunity to collaborate with somebody outside of your team, that is linked somehow through your extended network (as the post says, "weak ties").

    I can see a very clear parallel between the experience with the camera lens and scenarios that happen every day in product development and manufacturing. For example, an analyst trying to determine the maximum load on a new type of composite may be able to find an expert in another division that has already tackled the same problem. Or an engineer that wants to include a new chipset in a mobile device that is already included in a different product line. Or maybe even a manufacturing engineer looking into a new CNC machine to machine a new component with a particularly difficult geometry, one that is a new problem to this engineer but perhaps a common occurrence for an engineer in a different industry. In each of these cases, I can see leveraging the extended network (internally and/or externally, depending on the need for confidentiality) to find someone that "has already done the legwork."

    Thanks for a nice post Adrian, and for the reference to my previous post.

  2. What if this one 'weak tie' can be extended to thousands quickly...what if you really want answers on hundreds of features, and not just fast lens?
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