The social PLM model gets a reality check

Paul Boughton

Marlee Rosen examines how ubiquitous social networking tools have become and how the global supply chain/manufacturing/development marketplace can use this to their best advantage.

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), the series of strategies, business practices, and technology design for acquiring and maintaining product information across the entire lifecycle of the product, can provide the ability to boost development speed, enhance customer satisfaction, optimise operations, and create new revenue generation opportunities.

Product designers and engineers managing their company’s PLM are becoming more and more mobile or distributed. When you couple that with an aging engineering workforce, there has become an even more critical need to capture the implicit knowledge that these team members possess and pass it on to younger generations of engineers.

In addition, the role of the IT team is expanding due to social IT networking and collaboration tools being deployed in other departments. Industry analysts report seeing an incremental rise in IT department members being asked to contribute their technical expertise and Microsoft skill sets to support the infrastructure once solely involving engineering and design teams.

PLM software companies have come to understand that within the product design environment; there are many new challenges to collaborate across far extending teams and geographies. When you add to the mix the sophistication of product development processes, it is easy to see how both managers and their teams can feel overwhelmed by the many options to address these challenges especially in light of the importance of dealing with security and being in compliance.

In what has become a global economy in the past decade, manufacturers today have to make the most productive use of the skills and knowledge of their own people regardless of where they – as well as their business partners – reside and adopt a more collaborative approach to do so.

The innovation of collaboration tools, which historically began with email, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, instant messaging, LinkedIn, wikis, and other social forums are further progressing into next generation collaboration dashboards (like Sharepoint, Sabisu and Internet-based communications platforms). The idea is to provide companies with real-time visibility to product data and share information across planning, design, costing, sourcing, manufacturing, and logistics.

There is no doubt that collaboration tools are quickly evolving and helping growing companies to create even better and more effective 'virtual teams'. The extended reach of these virtual teams have advanced as well to include internal employees, a company’s supply chain partners - such as vendors, outsourced services, distribution houses, consultants, integrators, distributors, etc - and even customers, private labelled partners and OEMs. This results in bringing together the right people at the right time, even when they are in different locations to deliver higher productivity, operation optimisation and often more creativity in product designs and innovation.

According to ARC Advisory Group, collaboration is a key factor that is driving better business performance because it enables teams to tackle business challenges more effectively, speeding up decision-making and transforming key activities like new product development.

The social computing era

The emergence of Web 2.0 capabilities has taken centre stage in positioning wider spread adoption of social computing-- where individuals, at home or at work, can easily and simply engage with peers and colleagues. Sharing information and opinions have become easier and more collaborative than ever before.

According to ARC Advisory Group, what we are witnessing is the convergence of social real-time collaboration and PLM across product development organizations in connecting the people and the products they develop to create communities that solve real problems and develop breakthrough product ideas. 

There are PLM vendors on opposite ends of the spectrum with the likes of Dassault Systems promoting its 'Social 3DExperience platform' to PTC and Autodesk with 'Social PLM' to Omnify Software’s more down to earth approach in providing a 'Social Collaboration Portal'. Omnify Software serves primarily small to mid-market companies that need secure, safe environments for their PLM initiatives. Their key differentiators fall within their scalable and flexible technology platform offering on-premises and cloud deployment options as well as open integration to engineering and business systems. Whereas the large enterprises or Fortune 500 companies have the bigger budgets to invest in all the bells and whistles that 'Social PLM' promises to deliver with more of a 3D experience.

In reality, the use of social media in product design still has a long way to go in terms of adoption. Companies are using social media as a low cost way to broadcast a message but not necessarily as a means of collecting customer input that can be turned into valuable information.

Josh Bernoff, senior vice president, Idea Development at Forrester Research put it bluntly: “We're several years into the social marketing boom, but still many executives are going about social strategy backward: picking technologies like Facebook or Twitter first instead of focusing on what they want to accomplish.”

Omnify Software advocates conducting perception studies with customers in order to prioritise how its social dashboard could provide the most value.  They went about identifying how users would want to communicate PLM data with suppliers, customers, manufacturing partners, and other external resources and uncovered that customers want a web-based social platform that can allow for communicating product information in a secure environment that eliminates the need for partners to directly access their Omnify Empower system. Omnify partnered with Sabisu, a social business platform provider that makes complex operational environments manageable. Their partnership and work together has yielded a social business portal that is promoting faster, better product design and manufacturing management collaboration. This type of social portal eliminates the use of emails and spreadsheets to share information with external resources and instead provides the ability for these channels to access real-time information from anywhere in the world, shorten the communication cycle and make better decisions.

Social collaboration transforms global outsourcing

ISG, the sourcing advisory firm, reports that social media collaboration, mobility, cloud computing and big data are the key factors that have impacted global outsourcing during 2012 and will reshape outsourcing in the long term. Companies will use collaboration tools to accelerate growth by utilising the skills and knowledge of suppliers, partners and customers in an 'extended enterprise'.

Author Patricia Seybold coined the process term for this as 'Outside Innovation'. PLM customers often will outsource functions, whether engineering, manufacturing or logistics, to quickly gain greater scale or reduce costs.

Enterprise software deployments are complex, customised to each customer and incredibly time consuming. Seybold continues “the future of global outsourcing is going to have to move to more social, collaborative environments where customers, partners and employees are able to communicate more readily amongst themselves."

For engineering and design departments, it seems that it is the IT group that is brought in to set up ad hoc internal social networking tools and facilitate the free flow of information between teams. Once this is done, it becomes apparent that product management is impacted with engineering interfaces extended to product service and support functions. Real-time feedback on product performance improves the accuracy of demand and manufacturing planning. Workflow-based systems minimize design iterations, while enabling streamlined engineering and ensuring regulatory compliance. 

Mevion Medical Systems Inc, a radiation therapy company has just that - a workforce distributed across the globe and a business solutions requirement to be available 24/7 on all company-supported platforms (PC, Mac, Linux, Android and IOS).

Making Omnify Empower PLM software an integral part of the company’s R&D process via the cloud has enabled Mevion Medical Systems to create a more collaborative environment for innovation, but also importantly made the content sharing available from any device. Mevion sees their collaborative environment extending past the integration of social networking capabilities and encompassing data sharing from all devices the company utilizes. “All employees in the company utilise Omnify Empower on a daily basis from their computers, smartphones, and tablets; both within the company network and through remote secured VPN connections,” said Edward Quinn, Mevion Medical Systems IT Manager.

Social networking tools – the expert’s findings

ISG proposes a collaboration model that generates intellectual capital gathered from all of a company’s relevant constituents including pertinent social networks that tap into the final customer’s insight where they air their views about products.

Today there is even more sharing and shifting of power from marketers to customers where the manufacturer can’t afford to ignore customer sentiments that are presented through the conversations going on in the social media sphere.

According to ARC Advisory Group, soliciting these conversations, paying attention to the advices and integrating them into the Product Lifecycle Management, will save manufacturers several marketing dollars.

The speed of product design into a life-cycle process is hastened through the addition of social technologies and the impact they can bring.

Innovation management is a critical business process that is most effective when implemented as an end-to-end continuous process driven by a culture of innovation and enabled by technology.

According to Michael Fauscette, group vice president, Software Business Solutions at IDC, “building a collaborative enterprise is about a lot more than just some new software tools, it’s about fundamental changes to culture and behaviour.”

There are four phases of innovation management: idea-source, develop, produce and feedback, built on new social technologies that are integrated across a business. "Such an approach will help companies compete more effectively in the rapidly changing global, hyper-connected business environment we have today.”

It’s not a revelation to see PLM slowly adopting social habits, just like some other enterprise processes and tools. Manufacturing industries and engineers have been slower in adoption than marketers and media. Managing security and compliance continues to be one of main struggles. There are real risks to using social media, ranging from damaging the brand to exposing proprietary information to inviting lawsuits. Even the most responsible employees have lapses in judgment, make mistakes or behave emotionally.

Dealing with a confidential design comment in the office is one thing; if the comment or slip up on providing confidential product design details is made on a work-related social media account, then it's out there, and it most likely can't be retrieved. Most industry experts agree that without putting in place a social media policy for your enterprise, you may be inviting disaster. Companies need to spell out and be up front with the goals and parameters of its social media initiative. Otherwise they are not properly mitigating risk.  It is important to predetermine who is allowed to use social media on behalf of the organisation and what they're allowed to share.

Bertrand Sicot, CEO of SolidWorks, understands that while people still have some insecurity about data sharing in the cloud, the general belief is that more and more people are growing more comfortable about using it: “Regardless of the platform, our customers are always ensuring their IP is protected.

He continues: “There is a bigger concern when data residing outside their infrastructure is contemplated. We have seen a similar scenario with how unsure we were about conducting online banking just a few years back and now people have come to embrace it. We anticipate the same will happen in our industry. People in time will become more comfortable with the security put in place to protect their designs.

Social media and collaboration tools are changing how product development was once regarded. Gone are the days of the closed-door, experts-only approach to designing and engineering products. There is a new force in town made up of social-savvy mobile employees that Internet-enabled and always connected. PLM users have no choice but to expand, rethink implementation strategies, plans, and embrace the fundamental shifts in PLM enabling technologies and their use for collaboration.

Experts are concluding that the enterprises that seize the opportunities offered by these shifts in PLM software models enabled by social business tools—in particular, leveraging their mobile connected workforce will be in a better position to utilize new collaborative skills being brought to the workplace and will result in better engineered products.

Marlee Rosen is with Rosen Associates.