Social Product Development

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Putting the social back in Social: Collaborative Product Development

The other day, one of my Twitter contacts shared an article from Abhay Prasad, Senior Manager at Cisco, on the "Value of Social Software in Manufacturing" (published in Manufacturing Business Technology). The piece was an interesting look at the potential benefits of social technology across the manufacturing value chain.

It said a lot of things I agree with - a lot of things that I'd heard before in one form or another. This is in no way a knock on the writer - I think it's actually a positive reflection on the state of the industry.

I mean, I spend a decent amount of time thinking about social in the enterprise (especially right before I publish a blog post). I try to keep up on an ever growing stack of of articles, blogs, tweets, and posts - from my peers, from my competitors, from analysts, from journalists. And sometimes I feel like we're all saying the same things when it comes to the value of social in the enterprise.

Which is good - really. In an arena where there was very little chatter only a few years ago, there seems to be a growing consensus that "social" as an enterprise concept is inevitable. Social is a wave, and ready or not, it will wash over you and your business at some point (just try not to be caught with your mouth open). In one form or another, progressive companies are embracing social. And that's a real change, a positive change. When I started out in the software industry a decade ago, we were forbidden from IMing at work. Now IM clients are standard in the company technology catalogue. I remember reading debates about whether blogging was a fad - whether blogs had any applicability to business. Now I'm a writer on a corporate blog. We all see the value. We're tweeting, we're Facebooking, we're LinkedIn-ing.

So my question is - have we moved past the "why" of social? According to our friends at Kalypso, a recent research study found that 70% of surveyed manufacturers "were using, or planning to use, social media for product innovation." Are we beating a dead horse with each "new" perspective on the value of social? If we all agree, should we just move on and focus our debate the "how" social gets implemented (something we don't all agree on)?

But as I was reading Prasad's article, something occurred to me that I hadn't really focused on before. He was writing about the importance of "high velocity collaboration between disparate and diverse teams that are split by location, time zones, and functional areas." And I thought, well OF COURSE collaboration is important. I don't think you would find anyone who would argue against the value of collaboration. Against the necessity of collaboration, even. Frankly, it was a line or two of text that could have been pulled from any of the white papers I've worked on in the past - before or after social bubbled up as a concept. So why are we still talking about it like it's new news? If the statement hasn't changed, has social changed the statement?

I think it has. Prasad expanded on his point to say that enterprise social software "creates a platform where employees build communities that strengthen their bonds to the enterprise and to the cross-functional teams that they work in..." I might be reading into this line - it may not have really been Prasad's point - but it made me think about whether we are overlooking a major concept in the social enterprise. The fact that it allows us to be more, well, social. In all of our messaging about protecting IP, knowledge capture, real time collaboration...have we discounted the benefit of the human side of collaboration?

I think about PTC's use of Yammer. Sure, there are technical discussions and project questions - but there are also jokes, wise comments, and personality. Speaking of dead horses, just this week, someone posted a link to The Dead Horse Theorem. It was certainly good for a laugh - but was it also good for something else? Are these types of non-strictly-business interactions just a distraction? Or are they actually part of the value?

While I'll admit to only taking one Sociology class in college, my gut tells me that there is a benefit to collaborating with people that you identify with, that you trust, and that you like. I think that when you feel a personal connection to your network, when you attribute a personal value to the people you are interacting with, you feel motivated to make those people think you are valuable as well. You WANT to contribute to discussions, to help people solve problems - you want to be a respected, liked member of the virtual community. And part of creating that personal connection means knowing more than a name and a title - it means feeling like you know the 3-dimensional entity behind the screen name. Does knowing that my colleague is a closet skateboarding nut who competes in a "senior skateboarding" league really help us work together? It does if that developed personal connection motivates me to be more collaborative, to go the extra mile to find out-of-the-box solutions to issues and challenges that benefit us both.
Can social technology in the enterprise help us be more effective, more efficient, and more innovative? Can it help us bring back personal, human, social motivations of collaboration that got lost when technology first moved into a world of distributed global teams? Can it lead to better products?

I think so. And now, I'm going to go post this on Twitter.

What do you think? Is the social aspect of social as important as I think it is?

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