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What PLM Can Learn from Social Media

The growth of PLM market, as recorded in market watcher CIMdata's annual market reports.

The growth of PLM market, as recorded in market watcher CIMdata's annual market reports.

This is the story about two lifecycle management trends: product lifecycle management (PLM) and relationship lifecycle management (social media). But to be more precise, it’s about the importance of relationship management in product lifecycles.

PLM is an offshoot of the need to “[integrate] people, processes, business systems, and information,” according to CIMdata, a market watcher dedicated to PLM study. Sidney Hill, Jr., executive editor for Manufacturing Business Technology, fixed PLM’s birth in the year 1985, crediting American Motors Corp. (later acquired by Chrysler) as the progenitor of the strategic business approach (“How to be a trendsetter: Dassault and IBM PLM customers swap tales from the PLM Front,” May 2003). Going by this date, PLM is now 20-something, an adult.

Nearly everything we now come to associate with social media — blogs (Blogger and WordPress), social networks (Facebook and MySpace), and user-contributed content (Wikipedia and YouTube) — came into existence about five years ago. Facebook was conceived in 2004 by a group of Harvard computer geeks. It was preceded by MySpace (2003), itself preceded by Friendster (2002). Wikipedia was formerly Nupedia, an expert-written online encyclopedia. It was formally opened to public contribution in 2001. Currently in its 8th year, it is quite possibly the oldest of the social media bunch. Compared to the 24-year-old PLM industry, social media is a baby.

CIMdata’s statistics over the past decade shows PLM growth (measured in revenues) hovering around 7%-15% (in 2001, the beginning of the decade, it peaked at 26.53%). By contrast, social media is growing in leaps and bounds. Josh Bernoff, a Forrester analyst and the author of “The growth of social technology adoption,” wrote in his blog, “Inactives — people untouched by social technologies — have shriveled from 44% down to 25% of the online population. Spectators — those who read, watch, or [consume] social content — have ballooned from 48% to 69%” (“New 2008 Social Technographics data reveals rapid growth in adoption,” October 2008).

Where people go, money follows. In the report titled “Social media playtime is over,” Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang predicted, “Despite the recession, more than 50% of marketers will pursue social applications.”

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. Here are a few areas where I think PLM should imitate social media:

1. Put people before processes. Somewhere along the way, PLM seems to have reversed its priorities from “people, processes, business systems, and information” to “information, business systems, processes, and people.” The result is a data-cataloging system that forces people to conform to a rigid IT infrastructure. Social media, on the other hand, puts people at the forefront. In a social network, your profile is your greatest asset. Consequently, you put considerable time and effort to develop it with contacts, photo albums, notes, and links. This approach literally puts a face on collaboration.

2. Encourage transparency, not secrecy. The design culture of the past is defined by protectiveness: You don’t let anyone else see what you and your team are working on. But the next wave of designers belongs to a culture of sharing (some might even call it over-sharing): They’ll post online a detailed description of their concept, along with a high-resolution JPEG, in return for constructive feedback from friends, colleagues, even anonymous commentators. To them, file sharing is probably more important than file locking.

3. Email is no longer good enough. For discussions involving more than two, email is a terrible medium. After the third or fourth “reply to all,” an email chain involving six participants or more invariably devolves into an incomprehensible mess. By contrast, social networks like Facebook and Friendster have found ways to organize and display multi-user discussion threads in a digestible fashion. I believe PLM vendors should look to them for collaboration interfaces.

4. Move off the desktop, move into the cloud. Microsoft gets this. The next release of Microsoft Office (2010) will feature browser-based versions of Words, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, which let you work on Web-hosted documents with your colleagues. Computing-intensive 3D modeling tasks should probably still be confined to desktops and workstations, but I don’t see why markups, annotations, approvals, and other change orders can’t be done from a browser. (For more on this topics, read “One small step for office, one giant leap for online collaboration.”)

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. (By the way, feel free to repost this by clicking on the “Share it” button at the bottom.) I think PLM should work the same way. If I’d like to publish the dimensions and material specifications of a gadget I’m designing to an enterprise system, I shouldn’t have to leave my CAD program, launch another program, and manually enter the numeric values, part number, and supplier data into a dialog box. It should be as straightforward as right-clicking on the highlighted dimensions in the CAD model and selecting “Publish to PLM.”

6. Allow personalization. Some of my friends like to add splashes of psychedelic colors to their MySpace background. Others like to publish the result of the latest quiz they’ve taken to their Facebook profile (choices include “What Beatles singer are you?” and “What Star Wars character are you?”). Some prefer to set their privacy settings so only their friends can see their photos. Others set this option to “public” so the whole world could see their Disco-era hairdos. The point is, users should have the option to decide how much or how little exposure they want. By contrast, PLM systems tend to implement the same security features across the board for everyone. Consequently, they sometimes get in the way of ad-hoc collaboration. How can I identify potential collaborators if the system prevents users from volunteering certain details about who they are and what they’ve done? Besides, who better than the user to decide what to reveal and what to conceal?

7. Leave room for interpersonal (nonprofessional) interactions. Creativity, or innovation, usually doesn’t happen in a boardroom (that’s where good ideas go to die). It often comes from a casual conversation unimpeded by fear of judgment or rejection, a serendipitous encounter between two people from different backgrounds (an engineer + a biologist = biomimicry), or a Eureka moment prompted by a natural phenomenon. I can’t think of a PLM system that facilitates this type of interaction. In general, PLM functions as an environment where people talk about projects and portfolios, but nothing else. By contrast, in social media, friendships stemming from playing seemingly silly games like Pillow Fights and Mafia Wars (both available to Facebook users) could lead to individuals from different cultural and professional backgrounds collaborating on a project later on.

People-Ready PLM?
In his recent post titled “What I learned: why is implementing PLM hard?,” Jim Brown, president and founder of Tech-Clarity, wrote, “The technical challenges pale compared to the need to change the way people work! … I believe that PLM is hard not because of technology, but because of people.”

In my view, social media’s rapid penetration has to do with one universal human characteristic: our deep-seated need to connect. Blogs and social networks give us digital platforms to manage, maintain, and enhance our connections with others. They accommodate not just our immediate personal networks but our extended networks and others we have yet to discover. To borrow Microsoft’s marketing lingo, social media was “people-ready” from the start. I’m not sure I can say the same about PLM.

To be people-ready, PLM must conform to how people relate to one another, not the other way around. It needs to give engineers, designers, contractors, and suppliers a low-maintenance framework for managing their complex transactions and relationships. It shouldn’t become an additional IT burden.

The question is not whether people are ready for PLM, but whether PLM is people-ready.

Follow Up: Ken Amann, CIMdata’s director of research, pointed out, “There has been significant seat count growth [in PLM], especially when you count visualization and collaboration seats. There are over 5 million [Siemens PLM Software’s] Teamcenter seats alone. Major growth in seats in all categories has occurred. Social media adoption has exploded for a couple of reasons: (1) the technologies have just been made available and to a wide audience for free  — nobody pays for Twitter, etc. (2) PLM is a business-focused issue and is much more complex than IM or chat and has a more limited audience — the entire world doesn’t need PLM but everyone will use chat, Twitter, Facebook, etc.”

The growth of social media in the U.S. population, as shown in Forrester Research's data.

The growth of social media in the U.S. population, as shown in Forrester Research's data.

Note: This post and the accompanying graphics were updated with additional data from CIMdata on July 29.

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About Kenneth

Kenneth Wong has been a regular contributor to the CAD industry press since 2000, first an an editor, later as a columnist and freelance writer for various publications. During his nine-year tenure, he has closely followed the migration from 2D to 3D, the growth of PLM (product lifecycle management), and the impact of globalization on manufacturing. His writings have appeared in Cadalyst, Computer Graphics World, and Manufacturing Business Technology, among others.


  1. PLM has its own place and so does social media. (IMHO) to compare growth metrics or proliferation of both is meaningless. But yes, you have proposed some excellent points reg PLM adopting ‘social media behavior’. Here’s my two cents worth:

    – Inflexible architecture and complicated workflows (not to mention IT overheads) inhibit companies (often times large corporations) from installing a PLM system. Cloud computing might address this but then data security will be a serious roadblock to deal with

    – I would leave non-professional (interpersonal) interactions outside the PLM framework since its a double-edged sword which, some might argue, hampers productivity tho’ personally I think an idea worth toying with

    – Tho’ I would love to see pro-transparency, anti-secrecy behavior, I think we are being naive and rather presumptious to think that design of the future would be posted, reviewed and commented online. Lets not discount IP related issues here

    – Even though “collaboration” as a buzz-word, has been around for sometime, I have to question its application in real life situations. Technological advancements notwithstanding, I still believe engineers are more comfortable in an across the table discussion of their design than using real time collaboration tools in digital space. Something tells me that engineers are still not very comfortable with the digital collaboration idea. Maybe they are waiting for the ‘Holy Grail’ as far as digital collab tools are concerned. Maybe they are doing it already. I just don’t see it.

    I think marrying CAD and social media is a better idea and we have already started seeing major CAD players (SolidWorks for one) lay out their social media plans. IMO, thats where we all are headed and seems more of a natural fit to me than PLM. Whether its a good move, only time will tell.

  2. I love this article! I think you did a good job of exposing some of the differences between PLM and Social Media and why they are important. I’m also glad you went to the extra effort providing data.

    For 6 and 7, I might have mentioned “discoverablity” which Jim Brown brought up in some of his writings. Connecting with people you didn’t know existed can be very powerful when it comes to innovation and collaboration.

    Of course, one of the barriers is still the noise you get. If there is work to be done for the business side of social media, I think this is it.


  3. Kenneth,

    I like your conclusion about People-Ready PLM. I think PLM needs to change toward simplicity, social behaviors and may be additional flexibility.

    Some thoughts about that:


  4. Mark: Jim was right on about “discoverability.” Current PLM systems let us reach out to those we know, but social media lets us connect with those we wish we can work together but don’t know how to reach. “Chatter” is unfortunately part of any group communication, but I think it can be kept at an acceptable level if the PLM interface is designed correctly.

  5. Debankan: I agree with you that PLM and social media are different software species. I compare the growth of the two only to illustrate that social media has mass appeal because it complements human nature right from its conception. By contrast, PLM (as it stands) seems to go against the way people prefer to relate to each other.

    Data security in cloud computing, I feel, has been addressed satisfactorily by on-demand software providers with proven track records like Arena Solutions and Salesforce.com. They have shown that they can safeguard data in a fashion comparable to corporate IT.

    I personally think certain IP risks are worth the benefits cloud computing and Web-based collaboration have to offer. I also think it’s a risk that can be further reduced by choosing the right collaborator — something software architecture can’t address anyway.

    Marrying CAD and social media is a wonderful idea. I think what Vuuch does amounts to combining CAD modeling with threaded discussions from Facebook.

    Thanks for sharing your insights! I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  6. Your comment ” Move off the desktop, move into the cloud. Microsoft gets this” resonates for us. Everyone uses MS Office so why not beef up the tools folks already to augment PLM collaboration. For instance our ActiveSolid for MS Office is a powerful 3D modeling application for visualization and content publishing in 3D. Some of your readers may remember comments from Oleg Shilovitsky (see below) about the power of Excel for PLM collaboration and there are new companies like us (www.threedify.com) and eXpresso (www.expressocorp.com)that break the mold and create opportunity to share/change/create complex 3D data. Why limit collaboration to markups, annotations, and approvals when powerful full featured 3D plug in applications like ActiveSolid for MS Office are here NOW. MS Office in the cloud combined with ActiveSolid for MS Office opens up collaboration in 3D to millions.


  7. Jeff: Just checked out ThreeD-ify’s site and read some online literature. I think Excel-driven 2D/3D modeling is a very creative approach. In fact, while discussing importing Excel tables to AutoCAD LT 2010 with Autodesk, I asked if a user could create a 2D profile sketch with each parameter tied to a cell in an Excel table. (The answer from Autodesk was, “Not at this time.”) I’ll have to look deeper into ActiveSolid.

  8. Hello Ken-

    Great post, very insightful.

    As a consultant to over 30 companies, I’d like to see specific information on how companies who’s worklflows must meet ISO/FDA standards can justify any change in their workflow process.


  9. Stan Przybylinski

    One downside of social media is that you need to change your behaviors to regularly frequent new virtual “places.” Just a few short months ago, I could get by with just a few tabs in my Firefox window. Due to proliferation, I now have about 7 or 8 tabs, including a RSS reader to summarize a bunch of others.

    This was actually similar to a early criticism of PDM tools, i.e., they made the user get out of their comfort zone in their authoring tools to do “PDM stuff.”

    The better we are at adding these new behaviors to our core applications, email for most, to work in a consistent fashion to watch our work (and the work of relevant others), capture what is important, and share at the drop of a hat (or the click of an icon), the sooner we will be able to best leverage all of this technology.

    Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your view of Microsoft), they are in the best position to play this integrating role, as they control more of the applications and user interface metaphors than anyone else.

  10. Devon: Thanks for the input! Personally, I’m not a fan of reshuffling established workflows just to suit a new IT structure. It should be the other way around. I believe a broken workflow — one that impedes people’s productivity — ought to be fixed, but I’d hate to see a good workflow becoming a casualty of technology adoption.

  11. Stan: Thanks for the feedback! Considering the fierce rivalry between Microsoft and Google, I hope Microsoft looks at what Google is doing with Google Wave (http://wave.google.com/) and realize Microsoft Outlook is overdue for an overhaul, especially to facilitate exchanges involving multiple chatters and multiple media types. This, I hope, also serves as an example for how collaboration should be handled in CAD and PLM.

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