Social Networking and Product Development

22 Jul, 2009 By: Tom Shoemaker

Web 2.0 technologies bring advantages, disadvantages, and applicability to the product engineering processes.

Are Web 2.0 tools appropriate for use in product-development settings? Raise your hand if you say "Yes." How about "No way"? Lastly, is there anyone who believes "It depends"? My bet is that mass opinion resides with that third option. Social computing tools certainly offer great promise, but their potential use within product organizations is not without risk.

The Upside Companies can realize tremendous gains by incorporating social computing technologies — an initiative that product-development software company PTC has termed social product development.

A key value of social product development is that it allows engineers, project managers, and other product-development professionals to reach out to a broader network to gain knowledge and form new interest groups or communities.

Three communities participate in social product development: corporation, user, and community.

Each of the three communities that participate in social product development can be defined by its activities.

For example, an engineer might start by creating an online profile indicating education background, specialties, critical project successes, and willingness to connect with other engineers about specific topics such as product validation and nondestructive testing. At some point, another design engineer might run into a design problem, conduct an enterprise profile search for design engineers with experience in particular types of nondestructive testing, then find and seek assistance from the first design engineer.

A design engineer works to solve a problem with the assistance of a social network organization. This example shows how social product development works within an organization.

Other examples of social product development include:

  • A project manager at an industrial original equipment manufacturer (OEM) sets up a web portal to act as a secure project collaboration hub for an outsourced design task. Because of tight integration between the design solution and the social computing tools, this task can be conducted from within the CAD system simply and naturally, without any discontinuity.
  • A manufacturing company's product marketing manager creates a forum to track customer reaction to a newly released version of an existing product.
  • A product line manager who works for a consumer electronics manufacturer conducts an online campaign that asks prospective customers to vote on possible enhancements to a next-generation wireless mouse. The ratings are used to develop the product's marketing requirements document.
  • A senior engineer nearing retirement documents a series of key design decisions and CAD modeling techniques by way of wikis associated with the appropriate CAD files. This documentation is indexed and fully searchable, which allows others to learn from his many years of experience and to transfer ownership of specific CAD designs for future modifications.

These scenarios are valuable because they allow for a very easy — perhaps even fun — way to capture knowledge from a previously untapped pool of expertise and to make more effective use of that knowledge to achieve a business advantage.

The Challenges
Many organizations feel that getting the current workforce to adopt social computing tools as part of everyday activities will be a significant challenge. Additionally, companies are concerned about losing a degree of control — over intellectual property due to security and access issues as well as IT infrastructure — due to wide proliferation and easy user access to Web 2.0 tools.

Although these concerns are warranted, companies can take steps to mitigate potential risk. Any initiative that results in a technology or process change is best supported by an accompanying set of user training and adoption activities, and this would hold true for the introduction of social computing tools in the workplace. Skilled technology implementers with product-development expertise can help organizations extract maximum value from a Web 2.0 technology initiative. Furthermore, security concerns regarding intellectual property can be addressed through policies and access-control technologies that enable users to share information in a controlled way while protecting it from unauthorized viewing and use.

Final Thoughts
A cold, hard truth likely is at play here. Whether you currently support or are skeptical of the applicability of Web 2.0 tools in product development, the train has already left the station — and it's not coming back. I remember first checking out Netscape Navigator in the mid-1990s and wondering how it would be used in the workplace. Now, it's virtually impossible to think of a company operating without a web presence.

In a competitive environment, anything that ultimately proves itself to be useful will have a long life and will find myriad uses. Thus, product-development companies that embrace social computing as part of a complete, robust, and standard technology platform are likely to achieve substantial benefits by better accessing the community's collective knowledge and by accessing valuable information that otherwise would have been undiscovered.

At the same time, the younger, emerging workforce, which is already proficient with social computing tools, will be more likely to go even further in exploring their potential application for product development.

Want to see more? Learn more about PTC's social product development initiative and see a YouTube video.

About the Author: Tom Shoemaker

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