Are You a Social Engineer?

You do the occasional check in with Facebook to keep tabs on old college buddies and you sporadically monitor Twitter to stay abreast of breaking news events. But when it comes to your day job in engineering, there’s not a chance you’ll leverage these—or any social networking site—to get your work done.

If that sounds familiar, it might be time to rethink your stance on social media. While many seasoned engineers thumb their nose at mainstream social networks, the truth is social capabilities can help advance product design, helping teams collaborate more effectively and serving as critical resource for research and idea sourcing.

The Apri can opener comes from Quirky, a company that uses social media to find and develop product ideas.

[Ed. The Apri can opener comes from Quirky, a company that uses social media to find ideas and PTC Creo to develop them. Read more here.]

There’s another reason to be open minded about the role of social networks. Young engineers have social networking sensibilities ingrained in their DNA. As they become a dominant force in the workplace, existing social networks and their next-generation replacements will become a preferred means of engagement. Engineers not comfortable with the format might find themselves shut off from colleagues and more at risk for being marginalized on design projects.

Conventional wisdom has been that engineers avoid social media for serious design work, but that mentality seems to be changing. A social media research study conducted by Calgavin found that 61% of engineers are indeed using social media for work-related activities—the majority on Facebook (67%) followed by LinkedIn (43%), Google+ (33%), and Twitter (22%). Engineers are flocking to these sites not to goof off or humble brag about their latest projects. They are actually using the platforms to gain access to valuable information—anything from videos and presentations on how to set up Finite Element Analysis (FEA) simulation models to learning about the latest materials advances or simply trading input to help select the best CAD tool.

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For all of its cutesy animal videos and pictures of some distant relative’s offspring, Facebook can serve as a valuable connection tool, especially if your network transcends personal friends and relatives. Direct messaging trusted colleagues for recommendations and advice can come in handy for quick input on design problems or for casual brainstorming. Your vendors’ company Facebook page can also be a source for hard-to-find product details or even a way to draw out other customers experiencing similar problems or involved in like projects.

Similarly, LinkedIn can serve up a treasure trove of information relevant to a particular design project—not just be a launch pad for your next job search. By joining industry-specific groups, you can gain access to targeted content and community resources, helping you cast a much wider net to gather design tips, engineering best practices, and domain expertise compared to what can be culled from internal resources or traditional networking.

What about trade shows and conference events? Obviously, they are a priority for keeping skills fresh, but when push comes to shove, they are a royal pain to accommodate as project work piles up and deadline pressures mount. Instead of physically attending an event, you can follow what’s happening in real time by using the proper hashtags and not ever leaving your workstation or office. Who knows, you might even be able to interact directly with a top executive at your CAD vendor or go head to head with a seasoned consultant, gaining quick access to domain expertise that would otherwise be out of reach.

There’s no question many engineers will continue to swear off popular social networks because they have legitimate concerns about the security of design intellectual property (IP) or they just can’t see the relevance for anything other than personal use. However, even if mainstream social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn are not in the cards, the social paradigm is gaining traction as a way to enhance collaboration and foster ideation and innovation within traditional design software like CAD and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM).

In fact, many CAD and PLM platforms are borrowing popular social networking conventions such as “likes” or “friends” and incorporating them into their own user interfaces and product structures as a way to enhance collaboration and promote idea sharing among extended design teams. Some PLM and CAD systems now let users follow key individuals so they can stay abreast of who’s involved in what projects, which helps foster collaboration and promotes design reuse. Other tools are putting more emphasis on profiles and community capabilities, helping to connect colleagues that can benefit from each other’s domain expertise.

Instead of being a social media naysayer, think about how the medium can foster interaction and communication. No one is expecting you to post CAD models on Facebook or tweet out details on a top-secret design problem. However, in the right context, social media can be an invaluable tool for ideating, collaborating, and peer engagement. After all, isn’t that what good engineering is all about.

Beth-StackpoleBeth Stackpole is a contributing editor at Desktop Engineering (  who has been covering the engineering and design tool space for nearly a decade.

This blog post is funded by PTC. The concepts, ideas, and positions of this post have  been developed independently by Beth Stackpole.