Manufacturers Get Social

This guest post is written by Microsoft Partner PTC, the Product Development Company.

The company I work for, PTC, along with Microsoft, has a vested interest in "social" in the enterprise - PTC's product, Windchill SocialLink, leverages social computing enabled by Microsoft SharePoint 2010 to bring the collective wisdom of communities to bear on product development challenges.

As a result, we're very interested in continuing a discussion within the manufacturing industry about how web 2.0 technologies impact product development processes, and how social, in a variety of forms, can bring value to enterprises of all sizes. While it may seem to the younger generations (cough-ahem-cough) that social technology has been around...forever...the relative newness of social means a lot of ongoing, interesting, and sometimes heated debate on what social means to business, why companies should consider investing in it, how it will be used, and what it will look like in the future.

It also means that the lexicon related to business-ready social is constantly developing. For example, some people think of social in product development as simply synonymous with crowdsourcing. If you haven't heard the term crowdsourcing, the Wikipedia definition is: "the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call." Now, if my title includes anything related to product development, this definition might make me a bit nervous. After all, crowdsourcing in its traditional interpretation seems to be about finding an alternative to your product development team. And if I'm a manufacturer, I might fret about a brave new world where crowdsourcing rules and innovation is outsourced. After all, creative IP developing solely outside of a company seems to bring with it some inevitable questions about differentiation and competition based on anything other than price.

For PTC, the application of social as a medium for feedback is interesting - but it's not our definition of Social Product Development. Certainly, understanding your customer likes, dislikes, and wishes is an important input into innovation, and customer satisfaction. But that's not the same as relying on your customers to actually do the innovating. The core assumption of crowdsourcing is that you are choosing the unqualified crowd over a skilled product development team. I'm going to hazard a guess that, as a manufacturer, you've chosen your R&D team for a reason - you think they're smart, you think they're qualified, and you think they're capable of new ideas that will move your company forward. Right? With this in mind, it makes sense to me that the promise of social computing is in its ability to give these experts additional tools - to help them collaborate in ways they weren't previously able, with a level of access to your community of experts they couldn't previously achieve.

So here's where Social Product Development and crowdsourcing do agree - people are important. Social tools allow a wider pool of people to contribute to product development. And widening the pool of people that can contribute to product development can have a positive impact. The key for Social Product Development is defining and qualifying your crowd, perhaps by granting or limiting access, creating relationships between contributed content and contributor experience and skills, or establishing communities of practice for functional-specific collaboration.

I'd love to hear your thoughts - what do you think social means to product development? You can comment here or at the PTC blog, or you can find me on Twitter: @edaly8198.

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