Social Product Development

Friday, April 2, 2010

Enterprise 2.0 – a novelty or necessity?

At the speed of the internet, the debate seems to be moving away from whether Web 2.0 has a place in the enterprise, and squarely towards where it fits. My hunch is that this shift in the perception of social from a gimmick to a given is driven, at least in part, by the stunning adoption curve of Microsoft SharePoint – as evidenced by a recent SharePoint conference that drew more than double the attendance Microsoft expected, and more than a few rockstar engineers (bonus points if you can find me in the photos). Microsoft just seems to have that knack for moving things into the “widely accepted” category.

When “being innovative” is the problem…

But whether or not the perception is moved, there’s still a real risk of social enterprise applications going the way of the
Laserdisc if we as vendors get too caught up in the cool and not enough caught up in the useful. A recent commenter on one of our blog posts wrote, “Most clients I've worked with think they need innovation and need to implement web 2.0 technology to solve that problem…” But how much are companies focusing on the need to “be innovative” and not enough on the need to innovate? In other words, are we really identifying the problem as “not having a social application” instead of real business drivers like, “we need to bring new versions of the product to market more quickly.” Because if we’re just focused on the application, we run a real risk of a cool, flashy product that users will never adopt. We’ve seen that contrast in our internal applications of Web 2.0 here at PTC – for example, we once tried to roll out a Facebook-like networking application for the marketing department. While it provided a hipper (and prettier) way to collaborate with our peers, it turned out to not really be any better than sending emails or picking up the phone, and fell into disuse. At the same time, the Yammer use at PTC is growing by leaps and bounds – because it gives us visibility into what other groups in the organization are doing – information that helps us do our jobs better – in a way that wasn’t possible before. If we just focus on these individual applications, and their capabilities and features, instead of the business needs they solved, it’s harder to see why one succeeded and the other disappeared.

CAD connoisseurs vs. Marlon Brando – which is better for your company

Earlier this week,
a post by Leslie Gordon on Machine Design’s “From Shop Floor to Software” blog made me think some more about this quandary of features vs. function. She recounts a LinkedIn discussion started by a Senior Design Engineer at Whirlpool, on the topic of how young engineers seem to focus on mastery of CAD tools instead of mastery of engineering. She highlights one of the responses:

There were lots of interesting replies, including this one from Kevin Honaker, Consultant at Adecco Engineering & Technical. His comment: “I have been a mechanical designer for about nine years. I too notice that many engineers get sucked into a lazy, hypnotic state with 3D CAD software much like driving a vehicle on a long trip. I’ve seen people get promoted for modeling ornately complicated revolved parts that could not possibly be produced. Meanwhile, I worked 40-70 hour weeks in a different division of the same company on concurrent projects with complex assemblies that we produced on schedule. I have also seen engineers who don’t do their own modeling who can demonstrate on-demand the flight trajectory to Mars, or aerodynamic drag of nearly any vehicle.

Applied to Social Product Development, it raises an interesting question of means vs. ends. It reminds me of an anecdote I heard once about the late Marlon Brando. The way I heard it, when Brando first started performing in plays, his acting style was so natural that the audience would often assume that a hapless stagehand had wandered onto the set by accident – until he started to speak. While the other actors were focused on looking like good actors, Brando was focused on looking like a real person, and as a result achieved the end goal of getting the audience to believe in his character.

What’s the REAL meaning of social?

How can we apply this to the world of engineering? How do we make sure that when we think about how to apply social features to product development we’re focusing on the end result, the product, and not just the acting? I was IMing with a colleague of mine this morning about the fact I would be writing my very first blog post on the Social Product Development blog. He said to me, “You should write about me, I’m social.” I put this in here not just to embarrass him (that’s an added bonus), but also because he makes a very good, if unintended, point. Social isn’t really about technology, it’s about the users. It’s not so much about providing new ways to work together than it is about enhancing the ways that we already work together – providing a natural extension of our traditional methods of collaboration. Users who see innovation as not the process, but the result – the product – are the ones who are going to provide real value to their organizations…even if Honaker is right and they’re not getting promoted. And those product-focused users don’t really care about the features of the software they’re using – they care about finding easier, faster, and better solutions for creating a product – ways to improve the product development processes they’re already participating in.

What’s the take away? If social is brought into product development in such a way that it adds value to product development processes, organizations will see adoption and ROI. But if you’re focusing on neat features and cool functions because twittering CAD designs are the buzz word of the day, you’re probably spending money on tools that will sit on the shelf. It seems like a pretty basic concept, but I think it’s surprising how many companies miss this distinction. Back to Leslie’s point: if your application’s social features become so familiar and second-nature that we use them without noticing them, maybe our young engineers will get back to focusing on developing great products.

Although I must admit, I am a little curious about that trajectory to Mars.

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