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Make Your Social Network Work

By Chris Forbes

Make Your Social Network Work

Technology has transformed how we work, live and interact with each other. With mobile devices, applications and technology, workers are no longer tethered to the workplace. Web-based technology fosters collaboration worldwide and acts as a catalyst for improved efficiency.

For example, open source software has a successful model. Setting aside debate around terminology, licensing and intellectual property (IP), the open source model enables software to be developed openly and collaboratively. Android devices exemplify successfully leveraging the wisdom and collective expertise of a large and diverse technology community.

As Web-based technology continues to evolve, so, too, will collaboration in engineering. Engineers seek answers to a variety of technical questions related to material selection, standards and safety. For answers, engineers tap trusted references, seek subject matter experts and collaborate with colleagues. The best answer may not be from the engineer down the hall. Why not query a larger pool of experts in the engineering community?

One way to do this is by leveraging social platforms. Knovel recently hosted a social networking webinar where one of the panelists, an Outsell, Inc. analyst, highlighted key findings of a 2009 engineering survey, including:

• 56% of engineers surveyed use a social network;
• 33% use social networking for professional purposes; and
• 27% use LinkedIn for professional or both professional/personal purposes. 

In 2011, we’ll continue to see the more sophisticated use of social platforms, particularly those focused on interests, ideas and problem-solving specific to verticals such as engineering.

Community and Crowdsourcing
Community is no longer confined to physical location. Social networking tools, including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, have changed how we build community and interact with friends, colleagues, peers and strangers.

Companies including Dell and Proctor & Gamble (P&G) use external networks to collaborate on product development. Dell, for instance, has used crowdsourcing, the act of outsourcing or collaborating with external audiences, to improve its products and services. There are a variety of crowdsourcing models that can be used for product development and research to elicit input directly from customers or other engineers willing to share their talents, ideas and critiques. 

Through its Connect+Develop initiative, P&G has embraced external collaboration to enhance its product line. Launched in 2001, some of the Connect+Develop innovations include Swiffer dusters, Tide Total Care and Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. By collaborating with other organizations, consumers and inventors, P&G has helped to spur innovation.

As engineers become more engaged in “open innovation” and collaborate to solve discreet problems online, both intra- and inter-organizationally, companies will find ways to overcome concerns about proprietary IP and security when engineers are talking to other, potentially competitive, organizations.

One way they may do this is by focusing on issues that are simply a subset of the overall project. This way, the external community cannot identify the whole.

Some collaboration may be driven by pushing the limits of innovation and industry firsts. The recent successful rescue of the Chilean miners is just one example of what engineers can accomplish with access to worldwide resources.

Mobility Plays a Role
Smartphones and tablets have given users immediate access to information that allows collaboration anytime, anywhere. Recognizing this rising mobile tide, vendors are evolving functionality to ensure users can connect to their software and other applications via mobile devices.

Many desktop applications engineers use require large processing power on the client side, but there is a shift toward lightweight software or cloud computing. This will enable users to be more mobile—and more importantly, better able to collaborate with peers across the world. You can see this with server side applications that are now being developed to compete with established CAD, CAE and process design systems. These newer systems will provide a more easily accessible, lower-cost alternative.

The possibilities for collaboration are endless, and the adage “consider the source” is taking on new meaning. As a new decade begins, collaborative, Web-based technologies will be in great demand by organizations that maintain global staffs, work with independent contractors, and employ telecommuters. As today’s product design and development issues become more complex, engineers will want to seek expertise beyond company walls.

Chris Forbes is president, founder and CEO of Knovel. Send comments about this commentary to de-editors@deskeng.com.

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