What I Learned: We are not Going to Design an Airplane on Facebook!


What I learned this week … came from a participant at my session on Social Computing in PLM at COFES last month. A quote from the session has been haunting me since that time, and I haven’t been able to place my finger on why it has resonated in my head. I think because it is both meaningful to me and meaningless at the same time. The quote was “We are not going to desgin an airplane on Facebook!AirplaneThe statement drew a lot of chuckles, and I have to believe it’s a true statement of fact. But I think why it haunts me is that people are willing to discount the value of a hugely important trend (the use of social computing technologies in business) because the examples they have don’t quite fit the way the currently work.

See my previous post for some background (and relevant links) about social computing in PLM. I believe this is one of the most important opportunities to improve product innovation, product development, and engineering performance that will unfold over the next 2-5 years. Without repeating all of that here, let’s drill into why the statement is meaningful and meaningless:

Why You Probably Will Use Social Computing in Product Development
To me, there is a simple fact about developing products that transcends industries, time, and corporate cultures. It is hard to get people to work together effectively. It takes a lot of different skills (technical, marketing, financial, etc.) to bring a profitable product to market. And beneath those classifications, there are more sub-skills. In the technical domain there are designers, engineers, validation/analysis people, compliance experts, manufacturing resources and quality personnel. Down another level inside engineering, many products require mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and software engineers. You get the point – there are a lot of skills (and therefor people) involved. This is true for even simple products, let alone an airplane. If the fundamental truth is that it is hard to keep all of these people informed and working together – and you believe there is value in improving it – how can social computing in PLM be anything but inevitable?

Just talking about the collaboration aspects of social computing leads me to a clear vision of how the daily communication and information sharing can be sped up and made more effective with capabilities like threaded discussion or instant messaging. I can easily envision using a blog to capture the thought processes and discussion for a major decision where multiple people need to weigh in, but also provide that context of the decision for downstream decision-making and learning. I see the potential to reduce e-mail and inefficient meetings in favor of more streamlined, rapid (yet documented) communication. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface on the ability to work with a broader network of talented individuals or tap into communities such as pools of experts or customers. These are practical ways to improve product development that can return faster time to market, better product decision-making, earlier design validation (less rework), reduced cost, improved efficiency, and more.

Why You Won’t Design a Plane on Facebook
With all of this said, not designing a plane on Facebook suddenly sounds like a meaningless, misguided statement. Between collaboration and discovery, the value is available. I can conclude that this is a case of somebody looking at a solution (Facebook) and not being able to abstract the underlying capabilities (social networking) to apply to their own business. This isn’t uncommon, it is hard for a lot of people to look beyond the current implementation of a technology. On the other hand, we are talking about really smart, experienced engineers here, not a part time clerk with little training or visibility to the “big picture.”

So as much as I want to dismiss the comment, I can’t shake it.Why? He is right, at least for him, and at least now. Why? There is work to be done and questions to be answered before just dropping the technology in place. Here are a series of questions / objections that he could point out that make Facebook inadequate:

  • How do I have time to pay attention to this in addition to everything I already do?
  • How do we address security concerns?
  • What relevance do status comments and photos have to do with serious engineering?
  • How will we protect intellectual properly?
  • What does Facebook know about business processes or how to manage them?
  • What does Facebook know about engineering data? CAD files? Projects? Engineering in general?
  • Why would I trust my business performance to a technology platform like Facebook that doesn’t appear stable or perform well (sorry Facebook, that is just my practical experience not a sound technical analysis)?

These questions are valid, and just a sample of what companies are asking. This is what makes Facebook (as an application, as it stands today) meaningless to developing an airplane. The big question is whether answering these questions and solving the technical (and business) challenges will provide new business value. Are the obstacles to be climbed (or blown up to clear a better path) worth the value of arriving at the destination? And if it’s not Facebook (I agree it’s not), then what will be the path to enable product development with social computing capabilities?

Implications for Manufacturers?
I want to end with a “yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” type of feel-good statement. But I am not that kind of analyst, and the answer isn’t that simple. But here it goes: “Yes, Global Manufacturer, you will design an airplane using social computing capabilities.” There goes my Pulitzer Prize, it just doesn’t have a ring to it. But on the other hand, it will be a statement that I will be comfortable to live with and review over the next few years to see if we (as a manufacturing community) are making progress in this direction. My bet is that – while not eloquent – my statement will ring true for some time.

So that is what I learned this week, I hope you found it interesting. I am probably writing about this just so the quote stops bouncing around in my head, thanks for indulging me. Let me know what you think.

NOTE: I updated the quote and post title from “… build an airplane …” to “… design an airplane… ” which captures the spirit of the conversation, and on reflection is probably better captures the actual quote.


  1. Good post, Jim.

    I had some of the same thoughts. With social media, you really have to extrapolate a bit to see where it will affect product development. It is all changing and growing so quickly.

    One of my own posts kind of touched on some similar ideas by talking about “Life after Facebook”. Jumping to the end, I basically said social media is coming “… and it is more than Facebook and Twitter”. For design, I find some of the 3D immersive Internet ideas particularly attractive.

    Here is the post:


  2. Mark,
    What a great view into the world of immersive, interactive 3D over the Internet! Great addition with the video, definitely paints an interesting picture. As you said, not too hard to envision using this on a product design.
    Nice post!

    Mark’s link is worth a look – definitely watch the video.



  1. […] "Facebook at Work" news made me think about what it means for engineering software ecosystem? First of all, it reminded me how is dangerous profession of industry analyst. It is still unclear how successful Facebook at Work is going to be, but Jim Brown of Tech-Clarity should be probably concerned about his 5 years old statement – We are not Going to Design an Airplane on Facebook! […]

  2. […] I had a short tweeterstorm with Jim Brown yesterday, following my blog about “Facebook At Work”. Jim kind of dismissed my points about usefulness of Facebook as a business social tool. Jim stands behind his old article – What I Learned: We are not Going to Design an Airplane on Facebook! […]