What I learned this week … came from two recent conversations with manufacturers about their use of social computing to support product innovation, product development, and engineering. I am exploring how companies are using these technologies to improve design and product development collaboration, but also trying to uncover ways they are going beyond collaboration on a specific product or design. Two of my recent conversations touched on the use of wikis and blogs to present information. To be more accurate, these manufacturers are using wikis and blogs to both collect and communicate engineering and product knowledge. Pretty interesting stuff, I think.
The two manufacturers I discussed were actually striving towards different goals. One company was developing product documentation in a wiki format. The idea is to allow actual users of the product to insert their perspectives into the manuals. The direction of the documentation was not free-form, but directed by a framework and outline provided centrally. By allowing the network of individuals related to the product (including customers) to provide content, the company hopes to gain better, more hands-on product documentation with a lower investment. The documentation is not free by any means, but has the potential to be more rich in content. Note that this documentation approach would likely not be appropriate for many documentation needs, particularly where product safety and liability are concerns.
The second company is using wikis and blogs to provide internal standards and other information to engineers. Their goal is to allow selected experts to contribute their knowledge for others to access and utilize. They are providing a way for the experts in their company to share their expertise with others in an easy-to-access, more permanent format than word of mouth or written guidelines. The lower threshold of effort required to add information to a wiki, the ability to share their knowledge, and the opportunity to be seen as an expert should all motivate experienced individuals to contribute. In this company’s case, however, they are not leaving the development of their content up to the generosity of their employees. They are providing financial incentives to senior experts to motivate them to share knowledge.
Relevant Past Discussion and Perspective
This is particularly interesting to me based on a few past experiences. First, I have been focusing on the use of social computing in PLM for product development collaboration, and the use of social computing in PLM beyond collaboration. In addition, however, I did some research on how electronic engineering reference information helps drive improve engineering productivity.
Does Social Computing Yield Trusted Information?
The latter research really strikes home in relation to the importance of “trusted information.” The companies interviewed for that report were very clear in their need to not just access some information, but to access the right information – and information they could trust to be accurate.
How are these companies ensuring the information is accurate?
- Author’s Credibility – the first company is relying on the credibility of the person providing the information. First, they aren’t offering the ability to input information to anybody, only selected individuals. Second, they are making it clear who posted which piece of information so that the person consuming the information knows where it came from. In this case, it is a relatively small community so the reputation of each contributor is well known.
- Moderators’ Knowledge – the second company is also screening those that can participate, and limiting the input to a number of chosen “experts” in the field. Adding to this, they are appointing experienced moderators to review and validate submissions. In this way, the information has two levels of credibility – the credibility of a chosen author and the stamp of approval from an experienced moderator.
Implications for Manufacturers?
I see three primary takeaways for manufacturers:
- Wikis and blogs offer a compelling way to capture and share engineering and product knowledge, both internally and externally
- Those using wikis and blogs in this way need to have a strategy to validate information posted, and the individuals posting it
- Manufacturers must clearly communicate the level of validation and integrity of each piece of information offered, or risk people making decisions on unsubstantiated data
While this is a compelling way to gather and share knowledge, it should not be applied blindly. Without providing an understanding of how the knowledge should be used (and how much it should be trusted) companies could find themselves making decisions much more rapidly – but on bad information. Using wikis and blogs can be a good strategy, but one that requires a well-conceived plan to address validity of information.
So that is what I learned this week, I hope you found it interesting. Let me know what you think.