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Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

Facebook, Twitter and other social media venues are fast becoming staples of day-to-day personal life, but engineers, particularly veteran professionals, remain leery of the technology and have not outwardly embraced the platforms for substantive product development work.

According to a Design News survey on the use of social media in collaborative engineering, while nearly half of the respondents (48.5 percent) logged into Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter on a regular basis for personal use, only a quarter (24.5 percent) said they tapped those same social media networks in their work capacity as engineers. Of those using social media on a professional basis, only 15.7 percent logged on daily, with 47 percent claiming they never use social networks in any type of work scenario.

Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

So why can't technology that's popular on a personal level find traction for professional use among product development specialists? Survey results revealed engineers' chief concern to be fear of exposing critical company intellectual property (IP), with 58.5 percent of respondents citing security as their primary hesitation. Loss of productivity was a worry for 40.1 percent of respondents, while 29.3 percent said company policy precluded them from frequenting social networking sites on the job.

Click here for a pdf containing full survey results

Beyond any one primary concern, however, the majority of survey respondents said existing social networks just weren't helpful enough in terms of delivering access to relevant content or connecting them to knowledgeable domain experts in their particular field or area of engineering interest. Even joining engineering-specific groups on LinkedIn or Facebook resulted in a whole lot of noise and useless chatter, respondents reported, as opposed to serving up focused, practical solutions to real-world engineering problems. "It turns out a lot of the discussions turn esoteric or philosophical and are not really things I found to be useful in the day-to-day functioning of the business or my day-to-day engineering efforts," says survey respondent David Willis, PMP, engineering group manager for Agile Engineering Inc., a manufacturer of precision electromechanical systems. "Even though I was in focused areas, there was no focus."
Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

While 64.5 percent of survey respondents said they had interest in using social media to share knowledge with a like-minded community, a euro ...many, a euro Slike Willis, said they were disappointed in the experience of participating on the sites. a euro SPaul C. Czarapata, deputy division head for the Accelerator Division at Fermi National Accelerator Lab., took issue with what he called "too many talking heads" and not enough real experts. "The biggest problem I have with this is when people come off as an authoritarian and tell you you're wrong," a euro She explains, having experimented on Facebook and LinkedIn groups to get feedback on specific design challenges. "When you're looking for help, you're not looking to be told that you're wrong," he says. a euro ..."It's the social interaction that starts to turn away from the project and more into personal beliefs."

Czarapata says at this point, he has more luck with traditional engineering forums where people concentrate on solving a particular engineering problem, trade tips, and help troubleshoot engineering software or post specific results on what they're doing, including insight into what went right and what went wrong.

Setting the Stage for Collaborative Engineering

While social network usage ranked highest for knowledge sharing, as a resource for tapping into customer requirements (62.7 percent) and as a vehicle for networking (63.3 percent), only slightly more than a third (34.3 percent) of survey respondents said they were interested in the technology as a platform for collaborative engineering. Chris Crowley, engineering design and project management at Table Mountain Innovation, a contract engineering firm, is among the early pioneers exploring how social media and Web 2.0 technology can facilitate collaboration with far flung design partners. Despite lingering concerns over data privacy, data security and data durability (will the tools be there in two years when he needs access to the data), Crowley has experimented with 37Signals' BaseCamp collaboration platform, as well as Google Docs and instant messaging to keep communication going between multiple design partners.

Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

"Instant messaging proved to be a very valuable communication medium - more immediate than e-mail and less intrusive than a phone call," says Crowley, who deployed IM during a large medical device design project that had design sites in Colorado and Helsinki. a euro ...The typical IM was, a euro ~I'm looking for document XYZ on the server - do you know where it is located?', Crowley says, but that was more effective than sending an e-mail and waiting for responses or having multiple people chime in with different answers, not to mention, more cost effective than placing an overseas call. "IM is the gray area between true social media (Facebook, Twitter) and personal communication (e-mail, phone), but because you can instantly contact large or small groups, it has been a tremendous boon," he says.

While engineering experts admit most generic social networks are not really tuned for product development, they maintain that social technologies folded into next-generation design tools like CAD and PLM can foster a more streamlined and effective social product development experience by granting engineers access to information and resources that they require on a real-time basis.

"No one is going to develop the next airplane on Facebook - it's too risky and out there," says Robin Saitz, senior vice president of marketing and communications at PTC. a euro S"But product development is inherently a social experience and it's become more so given the global nature (of business) and the advent of the Internet. There's an opportunity to take the great technology that has come to fruition from Web 2.0 and social media tools and apply it to a real-world product development environment."
Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

PTC, which coined the term "social product development" several years back, is just starting to put that concept to the test. In October, it released SocialLink, which leverages Microsoft SharePoint 2010 to deliver social networking functionality like activity feeds, blogs and presence detection within the Windchill PLM environment. On one hand, the approach addresses security concerns because the social aspect of product development is conducted within the confines of a private network - not out on the open Internet, PTC officials say. In addition, by putting the social networking capabilities in the context of the product development materials managed by Windchill, users are not bombarded by streams of irrelevant status updates, but rather kept in the loop on the specific resources, design changes and project milestones that are highly relevant to what they are working on at the time.

Vuuch, an upstart that bills itself as an "enterprise social system for manufacturing," makes a critical distinction between social media and social technology and maintains that a platform that applies social technology to collaborative product development fills a gap currently not addressed in the market. a euro SVuuch CEO and Founder Chris Williams says on a simple level, extended product development teams need to create deliverables and content, manage everything they're doing and then interact. a euro SThere are plenty of content creation tools on the market, including CAD programs along with Word and Excel, and there are dozens of PLM and process-oriented configuration tools for managing that content. Yet the interaction piece is still predominantly stuck in e-mail today, which Williams says is highly inefficient. "(Questions like) where do we stand on tooling, where do we stand on standard costs - all that interaction today happens in e-mail and Excel files for tracking purposes,"
Williams explains. "That's what we are targeting - the integration layer, which can be greatly improved by social technology."

Vuuch, which creates connections between people based on the product and their deliverables, is on to the missing link that will make social technologies far more applicable to collaborative engineering, according to Chad Jackson, president of Lifecycle Insights, an industry analyst firm. "What's missing for a lot of social media platforms is the context focused on product development," Jackson says. With that hole being addressed in products like Vuuch, SocialLink and others, he says it's only a matter of time before social technologies change how engineers go about their jobs.

"The biggest use case is definitely for collaboration," he says. "When you think about the job engineers do, it's problem solving and iteration that you do as an individual every once and a while, but more frequently as a team. Engineers will benefit from social media almost more than anyone else in a company."

Click here to see the complete results of the survey used to develop this article.
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