Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

DN Staff

February 7, 2011

8 Min Read
Social Networks: Cautious Engineers and Collaboration-Focused Suppliers

Facebook, Twitter and othersocial media venues are fast becoming staples of day-to-day personal life, butengineers, particularly veteran professionals, remain leery of the technology andhave not outwardly embraced the platforms for substantive product developmentwork.

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

So why can't technology that's popular ona personal level find traction for professional use among product developmentspecialists? Survey results revealed engineers' chief concern to be fear ofexposing critical company intellectual property (IP), with 58.5 percent of respondents citing security as their primary hesitation. Loss of productivity was a worry for 40.1percent of respondents, while 29.3 percent said company policy precluded themfrom 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'thelpful enough in terms of delivering access to relevant content or connectingthem to knowledgeable domain experts in their particular field or area ofengineering interest. Even joining engineering-specific groups on LinkedIn orFacebook resulted in a whole lot of noise and useless chatter, respondentsreported, as opposed to serving up focused, practical solutions to real-worldengineering problems. "It turns out a lot of the discussions turn esoteric orphilosophical and are not really things I found to be useful in the day-to-dayfunctioning of the business or my day-to-day engineering efforts," says surveyrespondent David Willis, PMP, engineering group manager for Agile EngineeringInc., a manufacturer of precision electromechanical systems. "Even though I wasin focused areas, there was no focus."

While 64.5 percent of survey respondentssaid they had interest in using social media to share knowledge with alike-minded community, a euro ...many,a euro SlikeWillis, said they were disappointed in the experience of participating on thesites. a euro SPaulC. Czarapata, deputy division head for the Accelerator Division at FermiNational Accelerator Lab., took issue with what he called "too many talkingheads" and not enough real experts. "The biggest problem I have with this iswhen 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 onspecific design challenges. "When you're looking for help, you're not lookingto be told that you're wrong," he says. a euro ..."It's the social interaction that starts to turn awayfrom the project and more into personal beliefs."

Czarapata says at this point, he has more luck withtraditional engineering forums where people concentrate on solving a particularengineering problem, trade tips, and help troubleshoot engineering software orpost specific results on what they're doing, including insight into what wentright and what went wrong.

Setting theStage for Collaborative Engineering

While social network usage ranked highestfor knowledge sharing, as a resource for tapping into customer requirements(62.7 percent) and as a vehicle for networking (63.3 percent), only slightlymore than a third (34.3 percent) of survey respondents said they wereinterested in the technology as a platform for collaborative engineering. ChrisCrowley, engineering design and project management at Table MountainInnovation, a contract engineering firm, is among the early pioneers exploringhow social media and Web 2.0 technology can facilitate collaboration with farflung design partners. Despite lingering concerns over data privacy, datasecurity and data durability (will the tools be there in two years when heneeds access to the data), Crowley has experimented with 37Signals' BaseCampcollaboration platform, as well as Google Docs and instant messaging to keepcommunication going between multiple design partners.

"Instant messaging proved to be a very valuable communicationmedium - more immediate than e-mail and less intrusive than a phone call," saysCrowley, who deployed IM during a large medical device design project that haddesign 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 islocated?', Crowley says, but that was more effective than sending an e-mail andwaiting for responses or having multiple people chime in with differentanswers, not to mention, more cost effective than placing an overseascall. "IM is the gray area between truesocial media (Facebook, Twitter) and personal communication (e-mail, phone),but because you can instantly contact large or small groups, it has been atremendous boon," he says.

While engineering experts admit most generic social networksare not really tuned for product development, they maintain that socialtechnologies folded into next-generation design tools like CAD and PLM canfoster a more streamlined and effective social product development experienceby granting engineers access to information and resources that they require ona 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 ofmarketing and communications at PTC. a euro S"Butproduct development is inherently a social experience and it's become more sogiven the global nature (of business) and the advent of the Internet. There'san opportunity to take the great technology that has come to fruition from Web2.0 and social media tools and apply it to a real-world product developmentenvironment."

PTC, which coined the term "social product development" several years back, is just starting to put thatconcept to the test. In October, it released SocialLink, which leveragesMicrosoft SharePoint 2010 to deliver social networking functionality likeactivity feeds, blogs and presence detection within the Windchill PLMenvironment. On one hand, the approach addresses security concerns because thesocial aspect of product development is conducted within the confines of aprivate network - not out on the open Internet, PTC officials say. In addition,by putting the social networking capabilities in the context of the productdevelopment materials managed by Windchill, users are not bombarded by streamsof irrelevant status updates, but rather kept in the loop on the specificresources, design changes and project milestones that are highly relevant towhat they are working on at the time.

Vuuch, an upstart that bills itself as an"enterprise social system for manufacturing," makes a critical distinctionbetween social media and social technology and maintains that a platform thatapplies social technology to collaborative product development fills a gapcurrently not addressed in the market. a euro SVuuch CEO and Founder Chris Williams says on a simplelevel, extended product development teams need to create deliverables andcontent, manage everything they're doing and then interact. a euro SThere are plenty of content creation toolson the market, including CAD programs along with Word and Excel, and there aredozens of PLM and process-oriented configuration tools for managing thatcontent. Yet the interaction piece is still predominantly stuck in e-mailtoday, which Williams says is highly inefficient. "(Questions like) where do westand on tooling, where do we stand on standard costs - all that interaction todayhappens 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 socialtechnology."

Vuuch, which creates connections betweenpeople based on the product and their deliverables, is on to the missing linkthat will make social technologies far more applicable to collaborativeengineering, according to Chad Jackson, president of Lifecycle Insights, anindustry analyst firm. "What's missing for a lot of social media platforms isthe context focused on product development," Jackson says. With that hole beingaddressed in products like Vuuch, SocialLink and others, he says it's only amatter of time before social technologies change how engineers go about theirjobs.

"The biggest use case is definitely forcollaboration," he says. "When you think about the job engineers do, it'sproblem solving and iteration that you do as an individual every once and awhile, but more frequently as a team. Engineers will benefit from social mediaalmost 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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