Research Rap: Are Engineers Social? Online They Are!


A quick peek into some research on… how active engineers are with social networks. While attending the PROuser conference, I heard Robin Saitz of PTC talk about a study that they commissioned Forrester Research to develop. Forrester Research logoThe goal of the study was to better understand how active PTC’s customers are in social networks. The results surprised me and they didn’t, it turns out that engineers and product developers are very active with social computing!

The Research

Forrester, from what I can see, has taken a significant lead in researching social computing. I hear and read frequently about their research and their books. Robin discusses some of this background and provides links in her blog on this research, “Think Engineers and Web 2.0 Don’t Mix? Think Again.”Forrester has developed some interesting frameworks on social computing, including their “Social Technographics Profile.” I won’t attempt to explain it because it is their framework and they are the experts. What interests me is turning this lens on engineers to see how they interact with social media. That is what the study did. To be honest, I have only seen a few publicly released pieces of the report, so I can’t go into detail about methodology or specifics. But the results I have seen are pretty amazing.

About nine out of ten (specifically 89%) of those surveyed use social media and Web 2.0.

There is clearly more to the research about how they use it, whether they use it personally or professionally, and other factors. overall_results_of_ptc_social_media_surveyRobin did make it clear that they are using social computing for work as well as personal reasons. I am hopeful that PTC will share more of this over time. But this is enough for me. The clear takeaway is that the industry is on the right track with social computing in PLM, or “Social Product Development.”

My Thoughts

Let me keep this short. My biggest concern about the move towards social computing in product development and engineering was whether people would be comfortable participating. I believe the use of social computing is inevitable (see more of my thoughts on social computing in PLM in this post, and related links). But what this tells me is that the adoption of social computing techniques will not be slowed by engineers’ discomfort with the concepts. In fact, the opposite is true. As Robin said in her blog, they are ready.

Why am I surprised? We like to be online. We sit behind our “glowing rectangles” all day – some of us with several monitors going at once. Engineers are comfortable being online and communicating electronically. Maybe some of us like it more than interacting personally, but this is not a psychology blog so I won’t head down that path. After thinking about the results, I can’t remember why I was surprised. What better community to adopt social computing?

Implications for Manufacturers

Developing products is an inherently “social” activity. Collaboration is a best practice. We know these things. Now add that fact that engineers and product developers are comfortable with online communities, social networking, and general “Web 2.o” activities. Social computing is going to be fundamental to the way we go about the business of product development in the not-too-distant future.

So that was a quick peek into some recent research on product developers use of social computing, I hope you found it interesting. Does the research reflect reality? Do you see it differently? Let us know what it looks like from your perspective.


  1. The adoption of social product dev will be interesting for sure. The biggest unknown is how it will be accepted by the masses and how to ensure that the social side of it is directed towards work during work and not work during non-work.

    The more actual examples in working environments, the more you will see mgmt accept the idea of it.. “proof is in the pudding”

    Otherwise, we will see some will have a jaded view of social networks because of what they see and hear at home with their kids.

    There will be a fine line of “professional” level social networks and “personal” networks. There will certainly be overlap with contacts and tools, but the content should be quite different.

  2. Jim hi, I fully agree with your observations. I believe due to the time engineers and developers spent behind the computer it becomes a ‘friendly’environment, easy to expand their activities as they feel comfortable with somehow complex interfaces. For that reason new Web 2.0 technologies / concepts are interesting for them. A data consumer (sorry for the word) who uses the computer like a browser to search for data, usually does not jump into the complexity to be interactive.

    Although i believe the new generation, like my kids, are much more trained and familiar with social networking. They have hundreds of friends ……….

  3. Jim,

    From what I’ve seen, in the high tech industry segment, engineers have been using the network for social and business interaction for longer than almost any other community (look at usenet). Historically though, there has been a firm border between these systems and the “official” product development/PLM toolsets. Typically, the use of these networking tools for product development has been discouraged because of security and IP protection concerns (open source software being the exception).

    What is interesting is that the border between enterprise tools and networking tools is now fuzzy, and getting fuzzier, yet companies are more concerned than ever with protecting their IP. So what you get is “underground” collaboration. I haven’t seen a solution yet that attempts to address these conflicting trends without requiring a lot of administrative overhead.