Skillfully social: Companies embrace wikis, blogs, collaboration tools found on the lofty Web 2.0 landscape

In January, PTC, a supplier of product life-cycle management (PLM) software, released Windchill ProductPoint, describing it as a social product development tool. While Windchill ProductPoint brings more collaboration to the product development process, the social product development descriptor refers to the collaborative functionality the software offers, such as blogs, wikis, instant messaging...

By Hope Neal, Contributing Editor March 1, 2009

In January, PTC , a supplier of product life-cycle management (PLM) software, released Windchill ProductPoint, describing it as a social product development tool. While Windchill ProductPoint brings more collaboration to the product development process, the social product development descriptor refers to the collaborative functionality the software offers, such as blogs, wikis, instant messaging, and social networking.

The idea of leveraging these types of collaborative capabilities—sometimes referred to as social computing or Web 2.0—specifically for product development is part of a larger movement in which the tools people use to socialize or create connections are being adopted by companies to enable collaboration.

Microsoft , for one, started a strong push to incorporate social computing within the enterprise infrastructure upon release of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, which offers many of these capabilities out of the box.

“We see this as [an evolving] work style,” says Simon Floyd, worldwide industry director of PLM strategy for Microsoft.

In part, the growing use of social computing technologies is driven by the need to capture and find information.

“Companies that deal with lots of information and have many authors with differing skill sets are typically the ones adopting social computing in a more pervasive fashion,” Floyd says. “One of the primary reasons is there’s great information in their organizations that is indicative of the intellectual property [IP] that went into a product. They know the information is out there, but it’s not necessarily encapsulated in any one system or within any one team.”

Collaborative profiling

But unearthing IP isn’t the only reason wikis and blogs are popping up on company intranets. At Projility , a Vienna, Va.-based management and technology firm with offerings that include SharePoint collaboration consulting and implementation services, Rob Hirschmann, corporate VP, points to another factor: the widespread adoption of SharePoint Server 2007, which often is included in enterprise agreements with Microsoft.

“Microsoft kind of turned the industry on its head three or four years ago when it started including this product in its enterprise agreements. So instead of a major capital investment of a million-plus dollars, it’s, ‘Now I already own it—how do I access it, and what should I do with it?'” explains Hirschmann.

That question often can be answered by assessing a company’s needs. After all, collaboration means different things to different people. Do companies want to enhance employee interactions, or strengthen teams, or bring the enterprise as a whole more in sync? All these goals can drive technology deployment.

“It can start with setting up individual Web sites so people can share information about themselves and what they’re good at, then taking information off of email or a shared drive [and put it] in a centralized repository,” Hirschmann explains. “Then we start seeing more group collaboration, which involves portals and centralized access points so everyone can go to one place and access their information. Beyond that you start looking at implementing business process workflows, forums, and content management.”

According to Floyd, the first step toward enabling collaboration in the SharePoint universe is creating a profile. In many ways, it sounds similar to creating a MySpace or Facebook page.

“That profile may consist of what your skills are, what you’re interested in doing, what types of projects you’re working on, and what sort of experience you have. So you may have some documentation, some images, some other types of media that educate people about what you do,” he says.

Profiles link people to the content they create, such as documents posted on team sharing sites, or the blogs or wikis they create or contribute to. Using the SharePoint search feature, users can find the information they are looking for—or the creators of that information—and in turn identify the resources they need to do their jobs, whether that means finding the answer to a question, learning from others’ past experiences, or building a team to tackle a new project.

Graphically appealing

The collaboration made possible by SharePoint isn’t limited to people inside the enterprise. SharePoint also can be used to enhance collaboration with partners, vendors, dealers, and customers.

One company leveraging SharePoint capabilities to do just that is Roland DGA , a U.S.-based marketing, distribution, and sales arm of Roland DG Corp. of Hamamatsu, Japan. Roland DG makes products for the graphic arts, fine arts, photography, engraving, and 3D modeling industries.

As part of a move to consolidate the majority of its finance, CRM, and collaboration infrastructure on Microsoft software, Roland DGA deployed SharePoint Server 2007 along with Microsoft Dynamics GP, Dynamics CRM, and Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007. In doing so, it created internal and external team sites that enable collaboration between employees, customers, and dealers.

But this is just the first step Roland DG plans to take to encourage and enable collaboration. This year, it will launch a new social computing platform as well.

“We are looking at [the new platform] as a way to establish additional interactions with our customers,” says Bob Castle, CIO, Roland DGA. “Right now we have a forum set up, but it is independent of the team sites. We are looking for more integration with the forum, with the team sites, with the blogs. We’re looking at using chat for support calls [to engage in real time] with customers—and of course wikis too.”

While chats, wikis, and blogs will give Roland DGA new avenues for communicating with its customers, there is another benefit, Castle says.

“Yes, it’s another communication channel, but it truly can touch people in different ways. It can do things that other communication channels can’t,” he says.

These benefits will come at a price, however. Castle points out that the new way of communicating will require a culture shift in terms of “generating content, interacting with customers in this way, getting customers to interact this way, keeping content fresh, and responding appropriately,” he says.

While SharePoint may be providing companies with an ideal social computing platform on its own, other vendors are looking at ways of leveraging SharePoint collaboration capabilities to create new offerings. That’s what PTC did with its new social product development offering, Windchill ProductPoint.

Relevant extensions

Says Lee Garf, PTC VP of product management,”We’ve made [SharePoint] relevant for engineering teams, and we’ve taken social networking and social computing and extended that to the world of social product development, which is an expression we coined to explain how people in the product development environment can connect with each other to design and build better tools.”

Part of the value of Windchill ProductPoint, Garf adds, is tight integration with PTC Pro/ENGINEER.

Says Garf, “When you’re natively within your engineering application, you can then reach out and connect with people, or you can search for people with particular skills. If someone, for example, is working on a file that you need, you can instantly reach out through presence detection; you know they’re online, and you can do an IM or a Web conference immediately, in the context of the tool.”

While social computing has its benefits, the dominant concern that exists is security. After all, team sites may make sharing information easier, but it also may make it easier for people to walk away with that information.

That’s why Microsoft offers Windows Rights Management Services, which can be added to SharePoint to protect information through persistent usage policies that stay attached to documents no matter where they go. So if an unauthorized user does download a document, for example, he or she won’t be able to open it.

But sometimes that’s not enough. For companies with tighter security requirements—such as those in the aerospace & defense (A&D) sector— Exostar , a provider of secure, multi-enterprise collaboration solutions, offers ForumPass4. Released last September, the new version was redesigned to encapsulate SharePoint.

To make it easy for users to collaborate while still protecting information, ForumPass4 includes different security profiles that compartmentalize access to information based on the individual user’s credentials and role.

Once users sign into ForumPass4, they gain access to an external site through which they can share documents, establish and track workflows, engage in Web conferences, and contribute to wikis and blogs.

ForumPass4 can be used for both internal and external collaboration. And while it makes use of social computing tools such as wikis and blogs possible in a secure environment, Vijay Takanti, VP of security and collaboration solutions for Exostar, says they aren’t often used in the A&D sector.

In fact, Exostar has disabled wikis and blogs for its most stringent security profile in ForumPass4, “because we haven’t found an easy way to secure wikis and blogs from an auditing perspective,” explains Takanti. “If there’s a breach, they want to know who has access to the document and when. The audit logs are pretty much key to that.”

The techno generation

A&D isn’t the only sector slow to adopt social computing. According to Projility’s Hirschmann, manufacturers in general tend to use it a lot less than companies in knowledge industries.

Of those manufacturers that are using wikis, blogs, and other social computing tools within their companies, employees that have embraced them often are aged “between 23 and about 35,” says Hirschmann. “After that point you have a drop-off because people are a little more protective and some of the folks didn’t grow up with technology in everything they did,” he adds. “But the interesting part is that in many organizations where you have younger people replacing older people, they’re expecting this technology. They use Facebook and MySpace every day, and if you don’t give it to them at work, they’re going to go somewhere else and get it [ see sidebar ].”

That’s why Hirschmann believes enthusiastic adoption by younger workers will make social computing tools a must-have, even for companies where their use today is limited.

“They have to be ready for it,” he says. “The ones that are, they’re going to be ahead of the curve, and the ones that are still fighting it—it’s just going to be more painful for them.”

Help wanted: Social networking technology is next-gen problem solver for worker shortages

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter may be useful for more than just telling the world what’s on your iPod.

Benjamin Friedman, a research manager for product life-cycle strategies with Framingham, Mass.-based

“The knowledge deficit as a result of workforce attrition is consistent across manufacturing sectors such as aerospace, defense, automotive, high-tech, and energy/utilities sectors,” notes Friedman, author of the report, Web 2.0: The Inflection Point for Knowledge Management.

In that report, Friedman argues that Web 2.0 technologies in some ways will prove superior to earlier knowledge management (KM) applications developed by traditional business software vendors.

For example, he says, while traditional KM solutions attempted to capture knowledge by corporate edict and with rigid tools, Web 2.0 technologies foster “organic” KM by giving workers the means to locate, organize, and syndicate knowledge themselves.

According to Friedman, a confluence of factors is creating an environment in which manufacturers must consider investing in new methods of capturing and sharing knowledge. For example:

An aging domestic workforce creates a knowledge deficit, as does the fact that, even though emerging markets are graduating people in science and engineering and related disciplines, these people often lack practical experience.

Traditional KM efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The investments in knowledge management that took place in the 1980s did not deliver the desired results and ended up costing more than anticipated. The reasons? “Intentions were good, but the approaches didn’t work very well,” Friedman says. For one, the applications were rigid in nature. For another, companies tended to approach them as corporate fiats (“You have to contribute or else!”) and they were often viewed as patronizing.

Third, as previously mentioned, Web 2.0 technologies—which were once solutions in search of a problem—are proving to be practical alternatives for this job.

But Friedman is quick to point out that Web 2.0 technologies will not completely eclipse previous approaches to knowledge management.

“Certainly, there are some traditional KM tools that need to remain, and Web 2.0 is not designed to replace them,” he cautions, adding that the ones that should remain are those that involve very prescribed processes that do not offer opportunities for deviation. “These are processes that need to be documented, and there should be no level of editorial commentary allowed,” he says.

The use of Web 2.0 technologies may be particularly relevant and useful in today’s economic climate, where every penny counts.

“It can be a way to save money,” explains Friedman. For example, if a field technician needs to repair a piece of equipment in the field, in the traditional model, he will drive his truck to the worksite, filled with various parts he has pulled from inventory that may or may not be necessary for the repair. He may even need to return to retrieve another part once he realizes that his on-hand inventory from the truck is insufficient.

However, if the problem is entered in a Web 2.0 environment, another field technician may have logged his experiences with a similar problem. “As a result, the first technician will know specifically what he needs,” says Friedman.

In some cases, he adds, it may even be possible to solve the problem remotely without the technician going into the field.

According to Friedman’s report, organizations should focus on KM initiatives—including Web 2.0—that offer a mix of structure and prescriptive elements—such as Case Based Reasoning—combined with informal solutions that offer information flow at the speed of thought interactively, such as instant messaging. This approach to KM leads to agile decision-making, as well opportunities for reusing knowledge over the long term.

“The goal should be a centralized KM solution, and Web 2.0 can provide this,” Friedman says. .

The challenge remains in creating a governance model that achieves two things. “On the one hand, it should not fall into a pattern of corporate mandate,” he states. “On the other hand, it still needs to provide some level of structure that discourages nefarious intent, and also creates rules on how these systems are to be used.”

For example: What is considered useful information? What is considered to be “noise” that needs to be removed?

Once the balance has been achieved, actual rollout to the workforce should be easier than with traditional KM solutions. “People weren’t very familiar with traditional KM interfaces,” says Friedman. “However, people today are very familiar with typical Web applications, so there should be a need for only limited training.”

For guidance, Friedman recommends researching what the U.S. Department of Defense is doing in this area.”They are working on this challenge of balance,” he states. “They are putting rules into place that may prove useful in the workplace.”

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