What I learned: The Front End of Innovation is Disconnected from PLM

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What I learned this week… came from The Front End of Innovation event in Boston. fei-logoOne thing that stuck in my mind from the event, based on conversations with end users and from presentations, is the lack of connection between the front end of innovation and the rest of the product lifecycle. Customers seem content with their current, often manual process of collecting ideas, and collaborating with the team. And there are some very mature approaches to the front end of innovation – as exemplified in presentations from Fortune 500 companies in the CPG, life sciences, A&D, and high tech markets.

The Front End Should not be Gated
Let me be clear: I absolutely agree with the assertion that the front end of innovation, at the idea formulation and management phase, needs to be free-form, creative, and not constrained by a gated process. But at some point, doesn’t this whiteboarding/brainstorming phase need to be connected to a modeling tool (for virtual prototyping), a product roadmap (so you can launch new products at the right time), and a set of requirements? Without a good flow into portfolio management, product planning, and modeling/engineering/manufacturing, many game-changing ideas may never come to fruition. One vendor that sees this vision is product portfolio management company Sopheon, which last week announced an OEM partnership with Hype Software, provider of idea management and analytics software. Another vendor that understands that this bridge between the front end and the rest of the product lifecycle needs to be present, is Invention Machine; they have connected their semantic search engine, Goldfire, to other PLM systems via partnership, much as Endeca has. Microsoft, Oracle and SAP also have embarked on front end initiatives in the past year.

And although the big three CAD and PLM guys – Dassault, PTC, Siemens PLM – are not currently focused broadly in this area of PLM, by default, however, with their strength in product modeling and a requirements management solution, they do have an offering at the front end. In fact one of the keynotes, from National Instruments, touted the benefits of modeling and simulation as an innovation driver. The presentation discussed how the key to successful product development is iteration, and modeling provides the perfect platform to create, try designs out, and prove concepts before building the actual product. Absolutely!

Social Product Development in its Infancy
What about the connection to social networking? This was also discussed at the event. Is “social product development” a pipedream, or reality? We think it’s only a matter of time before manufacturers see the need to leverage this phenomenon (see Jim’s thoughts on social computing in product development for more ). At the event, there were a couple of tracks about leveraging social media to enhance the front end of innovation but surprisingly, many end users (a diverse cross section of CPG, medical device, food, industrial ) were not using social networks as much as I would have thought. Certainly there is dabbling in the medium as companies try to determine the value to product development; most examples exist on Facebook and Twitter, where the conversation about company or product is monitored, and discussion groups (or “fan of” groups) are formed which can be leveraged for PR purposes, and (at least theoretically) to get input on new product ideas.

FedEx has a team of people focused on innovation, and presented on their need to keep track of the conversation in the cloud; Lockheed Martin is piloting the usage of virtual worlds to collaborate across their engineering team. But examples of traditional voice of the customer and ethnographic methods of understanding customer behaviors being enhanced through leveraging social media is not a mainstream phenomenon – yet. At next year’s FEI event, I expect much progress will be made on this front, though.

Implications for Manufacturers
The front end of innovation cannot be constrained by gated processes – creative minds that help manufacturers to grow would simply revolt. This was noted by executives from P&G, to J&J, to HP. But once a portfolio of ideas and then products is formed, I believe there needs to be a connection with the broader PLM process. Designers and marketers could benefit greatly from a collaboration system that connects them with the downstream product development team – engineering, supply chain, and manufacturing.

This, combined with rich modeling functionality means many PLM vendors do in fact have an effective story to tell this “non-traditional” PLM audience. The very front end (idea capture, management, analytics) will be filled, at least in the short term, by best of breed vendors like Accept, Brightidea.com, Hype, Imaginatik, Mindmatters, Planview, and Sopheon, as well as consulting firms Maddock Douglas, NineSigma, and Sagentia. A little company in Redmond named Microsoft also has a large presence in this space, because manufacturers are looking to leverage their existing investments in Sharepoint, Performance Point (now integrated with Sharepoint), and other MS tools.

What do you think? Should this front end of innovation be connected tightly with the rest of the product lifecycle, or would this corrupt the creative process?