What I Learned: Flogging the “Facebook for Product Development” Horse


Flogginga Dead HorseWhat I learned this week…is that it is really fun to pick on Facebook because it doesn’t have the capabilities to support product innovation, product development, and engineering. Of course, it was never intended to and that is probably not a market that they are really very interested in. But it is fun, and also helps to bring home some of the requirements that are important for social computing in PLM. This post started as a reply to Stan’s comment on my not building an airplane on Facebook post, and I realized after about 17 pages of comments that maybe I had better turn it into a blog post. Thank you Stan for bringing up a lot of very good questions.

Some Good Questions

Stan brought up a lot of good questions. Some I have thoughts for, others are just good questions that will require the thoughtful development of a solution – one that works in the real, complicated world of product innovation, product development, and engineering (and yes, just to take one more shot at it, that is not Facebook). I have pulled out what I consider some core questions from the comment and offered my thoughts below (hopefully well paraphrased):

How do we have Time to Pay Attention to This (in addition to everything else)?

People will make time for what is valuable. If people can get the information they need faster through social computing capabilities, then it will pay for itself. If we can eliminate 90% of status e-mails (and their redundant replies) then we will save time overall. Or, if we gain access to technical, market, or customer insight that we didn’t have access to before, the value will come in more profitable products. Social computing should be replacing innefficient communications and processes with more efficient and/or more effective ones. If not, it is just a sinkhole for time. As much fun as it might be to share Dilbert cartoons with coworkers, social computing in PLM must focus on enhancing communication and collaboration in a business context.

What Good is Sharing Status Updates (like Facebook)?

I believe status, even like Twitter or Facebook, can offer business value. But it has to be status in a business context – not a social context. For example, there is little business value in me knowing that you are visiting your son for the holidays. But if we are coworkers and I know you are visiting one of our key suppliers next week, I might be able to leverage your visit to accomplish some of my goals with that company as well. Or if we are on a project together and you say “I am redesigning the left widget today,” I might really like to know that because I am working on the right widget, and we may be making incompatible decisions. Considering the distance between team members these days (globalization, outsourcing, etc.) I probably won’t hear about this at the water cooler or over the cube wall, but maybe on a “social” network we are both on for our project. This is where a company today could use an internal tool like Yammer or maybe even SharePoint.

What Good is Sharing Photos (like Facebook)?

I think the commenter may have been baiting me with this one. Sharing product information visually can go a long way. Whether it’s a 3D representation of my widget (with rotation, sectioning, measurement, explosion, etc.) or something simple like sharing a photo of some sketched artwork for the packaging, the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousdand words” rings very true in product development – particularly product development across language and cultural boundaries. Even Facebook photos (or Twitpics) could help here.

What about Security and Protecting IP?

Now, we start getting to some hard questions. If we believe that some of the things above are useful, we probably also believe that we only want to share the information with the right people. On Facebook, it might just be our competitors as easily as it is our coworkers. Or on Twitter, we are just posting into the public timeline (viewable by all, unless you protect your updates which makes it much less useful overall). Today’s social networkings are just not built to handle the kind of robust data access needs that you would find in a product development/engineering environment. What about auditability? Revision control? Regulations like ITAR? Nope, not yet – and probably not ever for a “social” social computing tool as opposed to a “business-oriented” social computing tool, or even a “PLM-oriented” social computing tool (through development or extension of an existing platform).

So that is what I learned this week, I hope you found it interesting. Thanks to Stan for his thought-provoking questions, and thanks to Facebook for being such an easy target. I doubt their product managers are reading this, but if you are please know that I realize you never intended to support these kinds of requirements. Well, except for stability, and I know you will get that right eventually. Let me know what you think.


  1. Jim, good thought provoking Q&A. I would argue there is still business value in the social context. I’d worry that limiting the conversation to just “what I’m working on” would produce robotic reponses. I’d hate for the the platform setting to just look like calendar entries. I’ve found some of the most meaningful business conversations in these social environments started with something social/personal. Just the other day a colleague I’ve never met except over Yammer sent me a link to a 3D academic computer science program. She sent it to me because she saw personal comments I made about my kids. So the personal/social context led to a resource I see business value in for our academic customers and the IT industry overall.

    • Dora,
      I have been giving your message some thought since I read it. I agree with you from my own personal experience. I have found that my social interactions with business-related people have led to unexpected business value. To me, it is a bit like learning in casual conversation before a meeting starts (or in the cafeteria, or at lunch, …) that somebody is working on a project that might impact yours. So I have experienced exactly what you are describing.
      On the other hand, I see so many corporations struggling with social networking. They are blocking access to Facebook and other social computing platforms. They are even blocking access to more business-related forums such as Twitter. Why? Because they are afraid that they will be misused, with people spending “work time” on purely social pursuits. Is this the same concern that companies had about putting a telephone in the office? Or granting access to e-mail? And isn’t the reverse true, where we are all VERY accessible outside of work via mobile phone and PDA?
      I see these two conflicting views, and I am trying to reconcile them. To me, the common ground is allowing social networking in a business context. I believe that you can have “social” experiences that are related to work, and that those will provide business value and (hopefully) be sanctioned by corporations. At least forward-thinking organizations. In the end, I think we need to hold people accountable for their performance, and if social networking is what helps someone be successful it will show in their work and they shouldn’t be limited. But I don’t see that as the case in many instances, where companies still feel they need to manage their employees’ time and not their output.
      So how can we get corporations to embrace social computing instead of block it? I think the answer lies in grounding the “social” interaction in work. Perhaps Yammer is a good example, where the conversation is typically internal? Or more likely, I believe it will be social extensions to existing tools and enterprise solutions that integrate the work context (product innovation, product development, and engineering) into the mix.
      What do you think?

  2. Yeah, I understand the concerns and your recommended approach that companies ground the social interaction in work. Yet at the end of the day I think companies need to come over the culture shift. Access doesn’t imply abuse. If the company has trusted me with a phone line to not spend all my time yapping on personal phone calls, they should be able to trust me to access the social networks and sites that add value to my work and relationships.

    I do agree the best fit will be social extensions are in the context of other work tools (product innovation & development…like you mention). But in the meantime companies will need to work with rather than ignore or block access to those people are migrating to.