Aug 05 2009

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From PLM and social media, to AEC design

I have been monitoring conversations about social media among some manufacturing and product lifecycle management (PLM) commentators, and a post by Desktop Engineering‘s Kenneth WongWhat PLM Can Learn from Social Media – has lingered in a browser tab for most of the past two days as I’ve re-read it and pondered it.

Kenneth makes some excellent points about the potential impact of social media (“relationship lifecycle management”) to PLM software developers and users – points that I think could equally be applied to their counterparts working in design for the architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) and property sectors. He points out that it is now increasingly difficult to ignore the growth of social media, with the number of “inactives” (people untouched by social technologies) dwindling while “spectators” (those who read, watch, or consume social content) have ballooned. He says:

“You might choose to sit by the sideline, but you can’t ignore the way social media has irreversibly transformed the way people live, work, learn, play, and collaborate.”

He then discusses a few areas where he feels PLM should imitate social media and become more ‘people-ready’, and I think these can all also be applied to the AEC design and project delivery environment:

1. Put people before processes. Kenneth thinks PLM has become too focused on the information, at the expense of people, resulting in systems that force people to conform to rigid IT infrastructures.

The same could also be said of most construction collaboration technologies, from CAD down to the tools often used to manage project team interaction. The latter have the potential to allow individuals to, in Kenneth’s words “put a face on collaboration”, but this opportunity has generally been overlooked. The tools, as a result, are little more than glorified document management systems, rendering project participants faceless processors of information, applying business systems that are outside their direct control.

2. Encourage transparency, not secrecy. “The design culture of the past is defined by protectiveness,” says Kenneth, identifying that the new generation of designers have a culture of file-sharing rather than file-locking.

AEC projects are every bit as bad. Having spent much of the past ten years marketing collaboration technologies, I know that the key concerns for many teams were security and confidentiality. Designers didn’t want to share data, and while SaaS vendors often highlighted the potential transparency that could be delivered by using centralised repositories with ‘a single version of the truth’, many contractors and other project team members were also alarmed at such openness. It challenged their contractual ‘knowledge is power’ mindsets, their ability to manage changes, make claims and increase profits.

Not surprisingly, this is one of Kenneth’s arguments that prompts some comments on his blog – see Debankan Chattopadhyay’s opener, for example: “I think we are being naive and rather presumptious to think that design of the future would be posted, reviewed and commented online. Let’s not discount IP related issues here.”

However, I would argue there are a growing number of examples of crowd-sourced product innovations and efficiencies (read chapter 8: The Global Plant Floor of Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics, for example) that have arisen precisely because companies have been both prepared to share their design ideas online and ready to listen to and incorporate the feedback. There are also numerous ways in which companies can crowd-source other aspects of product design, marketing and promotion – see this econsultancy article for some great examples.

3. Email is no longer good enough. Email chains can quickly resolve into “an incomprehensible mess, while social networks show how discussions can be presented in a digestible, threaded form.

I have long held that email is one of major hindrances to effective collaboration. In the early 2000s, for example, vendor BIW [a former employer] positively discouraged its users from using email (and I continued to bang on about the email argument – see my 11 March post, for instance), but BIW was eventually persuaded to deliver an email-like functionality, often limiting, as a result, the capacity to involve other interested parties in discussions. I was gratified to see UK vendor Asite introduce some discussion forum functionality into its new-look collaboration platform launched in June, but I haven’t heard, yet, if it is has changed the nature of project team collaboration.

4. Move off the desktop, move into the cloud. Kenneth says: “I don’t see why markups, annotations, approvals, and other change orders can’t be done from a browser.”

Well, in construction at least, many of these tasks have been undertaken in the browser for a decade or more, with full audit trails detailing who did what and when. But why stop there? Why not look further and think about managing the whole modelling process ‘in the cloud’? It might seem far-fetched today (looking at those heavy processing requirements and bandwidth constraints), but it is not impossible. With others, I have been debating the possibility that CAD and even building information modelling, BIM, might one day be deliverable on a Software-as-a-Service basis – see some of my BIMaaS musings.

5. Enable single-click publishing. “If I see a link, a blog post, or a photo I like on Facebook, I can republish it elsewhere with a single click. I think PLM should work the same way.”

It seems that PLM shares many of the poor data-sharing capabilities of other industry-standard business applications. In one of his comment responses, Kenneth talks approvingly of Google Wave, believing that this new technology may change the nature of collaboration in CAD and PLM (see my post here).

6. Allow personalization. Kenneth argues for greater flexibility in how individuals can manage information about themselves, rather than locking everyone down with the same same security features.

Some of my most rewarding industry contacts have resulted from being able to share information about myself on social media platforms (increasing my “discoverability” – to use Mark Burhop’s term in his comments on Kenneth’s blog), and yet – when it comes to using almost all industry-standard collaboration platforms – my personalisation and those of my contacts is almost completely eradicated, erased by systems that focus bureaucratically on the project, the companies, the files, the processes – forgetting that it’s the people that actually do the work!

7. Leave room for interpersonal (nonprofessional) interactions. I love Kenneth’s opening: “Creativity, or innovation, usually doesn’t happen in a boardroom (that’s where good ideas go to die).” In his view, work-focused PLM systems don’t foster creativity and coll

The same could be said of most construction-oriented platforms, and email. Mark Burhop and commenter Stan Przybylinski both wonder about how designers might cope with the additional ‘noise’ that comes with social media, but I think this is part of the evolution businesses will have to go through to integrate social media into their enterprise processes.

Some filtering may be necessary, but it is worth remembering that some “rich” collaboration via social media may well replace inefficient or non-creative communications that were previously undertaken by, say, time-consuming email exchanges (I’ve found that my use of email has dropped dramatically through increased use of various social media platforms – by using discussion forums or wikis to develop documents, or by sharing interesting links through Delicious or Twitter, for example).

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Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2009/08/from-plm-and-social-media-to-aec-design/


  1. Ryan Schultz

    an emerging business model of social PLM, where all the stakeholders share revenue. A commendable move away from extorting the ‘crowd’

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