Some Answers to the Question: What exactly is PTC’s Windchilll SocialLink?

This series of posts will cover new product releases, changes in product strategy and acquisitions by engineering software providers affect engineering stakeholders. New posts in this series will be published based on software provider activities. Today’s post takes a close look at PTC’s Windchill SocialLink to understand exactly what capability it provides to the engineering community.

When I attended the PTC/User conference and heard this announcement earlier this year, I thought it was an interesting concept. I knew it brought more social computing capabilities into product development. I heard a lot about the vision of what it would eventually become. But at that point, I had no idea exactly what capabilities it would offer. Since I was in Boston last week, I made it a point to drop by PTC and talk it over with Christian Barr, a product marketing manager for Windchill SocialLink.

Dates and Events: Back in June 2010 at the PTC/User event in Orlando Florida, PTC (wikipedia entry) announced the future launch of a new product called Windchill SocialLink (press release). This product is slated to launch on October 20th 2010.

Capabilities Provided by SharePoint 2010: This post is supposed to be about PTC’s Windchill SocialLink. Why should I talk about the SharePoint product from Microsoft (wikipedia entry)? The reason is that Windchill SocialLink actually sits on top of SharePoint. So it’s important to understand exactly what capabilities are first provided by SharePoint so we can then discuss how Windchill SocialLink enhances them.

Now there is a lot… and I mean a LOT… of capabilities in SharePoint. I couldn’t begin to do it justice here. There’s a Microsoft’s SharePoint site that goes into excruciating detail. However, for this discussion, there just a few capabilities in the Communities part of SharePoint that are relevant. Here they are.

  • You can post updates. Essentially, SharePoint provides a capability where you can enter updates on what you’re doing and what you’ve done.
  • You can follow other’s posts. This is basically subscribing to an RSS (wikipedia entry) feed of someone else’s activities. In aggregate across a number of people, you can keep track of what other people are doing.

Commentary on SharePoint for Product Development: All in all, these two capabilities let you update others on what you’re doing and see what others are doing. Why in the world would you want to that? Let me offer a couple of scenarios where this might make sense.

  • Project Status Meetings: Do you like these meetings? For individual contributors, I think they are one of the biggest examples of non-value added activities that exist. You sit in the meeting waiting while everyone else gives their updates until it’s your turn. Basically, you end up participating in the meeting for a single minute out of an hour. By updating via posts while you work, project managers won’t need to go into excruciating detail during meetings. At the least, the meetings can go much faster and perhaps be eliminated altogether.
  • Email for Communication: Have you ever been waiting on something from someone else so that you could move forward on your task? You might email or come by the desk intermittently to get a status update if nothing else. Instead of flooding your inbox with yet more messages or wasting time walking to another section of the building, you could track that individual’s updates instead.

Seems like reasonable scenarios where SharePoint could add some value. However, there have been some barriers to using the technology as described. The feed of posts needs a context. In SharePoint the only way to set that context by following a specific individual. So, conceivably, you could setup your feed to follow the other twenty engineers working on your project. But here’s the problem. Some of those engineers might post about a functional specific area not related to the product and, as a result, you get too much irrelevant information. Alternatively, some of those engineers might engage other experts about the product yet their responses might not be included in the feed. As a result, you miss relevant information. Furthermore, any back-and-forth response on a product issue isn’t caught in your feed. You only see the responses for the people that you are following. So, all in all, the context is wrong.

New Capabilities Provided by Windchill SocialLink: So what exactly does PTC’s Windchill SocialLink add to SharePoint? Here are the capabilities that will be available in the first release.

  • Adds two new community contexts. One of the new communities is created based on the product context within PDMLink. Basically, everything about and only about that product is included in the feed. The other is called a community of practice where the same types of functional stakeholders can be grouped together. For example, there might be a community of practice focused on system engineering, This let you catch all of the back-and-forth for a specific product or in a certain practice topic area.
  • Adds microblogging (wikipedia entry) capability.The new offering essentially provides a new way to post that also includes videos, images and other sorts of media that provides more context. This might include markups and picture of product failures for example.
  • Adds a social toolbar to Windchill. With SharePoint alone, you have to go into the SharePoint application to track your feed or post your updates. That’s not exactly convenient for the hyper-overworked product development stakeholder. SocialLink adds an ability to contribute to posts from within Windchill from this social toolbar.
  • Adds a desktop client. Last but not least, another way to track and contribute is through a desktop client instead of using a browser or going through the social toolbar in Windchill. This most likely will be useful for those using CAD and CAE clients where you don’t really need to keep a browser open constantly. Those stakeholders tend to use the Windchill integrations that are embedded in their CAD and CAE desktop clients anyway.

Commentary on Windchill SocialLink for Product Development: So what does this really mean for stakeholders, especially engineers, in product development? Let me start by saying that I firmly believe in the promise that social computing can address a lot of fundamental issues that exist in product development today. I’m a judge for the Spike Awards, which recognizes excellence in using social media for product innovation. Here’s a recorded interview where I talk about it’s potential benefits.

However, I think that historically there have been some serious technology and cultural issues barring the way. To my point, SharePoint and other product have provided generic social media capabilities for some time. Yet there’s been little to no adoption in product development organizations. The capabilities provided by Windchill SocialLink make it much more feasible to deploy social computing capabilities and make them stick. I am looking forward to additional capabilities in the next release to provide additive value beyond this first release. Beyond the capabilities provided, be aware that adoption of this technology involves much more than just installing the software. To really reap the value, you need to rethink what technologies you use for collaboration.

Summary: PTC’s Windchill SocialLink provides social technology capabilities above and beyond Microsoft’s SharePoint to make it feasible to track and contribute to information in product development. This product offers a new means to collaborate and correspond with others on the product development team. However, as this offering is being considered, take into account other efforts to get product development teams to rethink what technologies they use to get their job done.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

The Flight Risk of GenX Engineers

This series of posts covers a number of issues related to the differences in generations specifically in engineering organizations. Today’s post looks at the mindset of Gen X’ers and puts it into the context of today’s engineering organizations. The conclusion is that, without some HR changes, the Gen X engineer may become a rare natural resource in the workforce.

Remember when the term ‘Gen X’ was coined? For me, I first remember hearing about it when the grunge music scene was emerging from Seattle in the early 90’s. As part of that generation, I remember we were young and cool. But over the past twenty years, lots has changed.

To get some perspective on what the Gen X mindset looks like in a professional environment, I’m going to turn back to Tammy Erickson at the Harvard Business Review (HBR) again. Across a lot of blog posts and publications, things aren’t so mixed bag for Gen X. They’re sandwiched between two much larger (in terms of volume) generational cohorts, the Boomers and Gen Y, leading to a lot of dissatisfaction. However, they exhibit the sort of characteristics that engineering organizations need the most right now to bolster economic recovery through new product development. Here’s a quick excerpt from one post, Career Advice for Generation X, that puts it pretty succinctly.

The dissatisfaction is easy to see. You stepped out of university when the economy was slow, and the Boomers already had a death grip on all the good positions before your job search even started. Now, just as Boomers are preparing to retire (to second careers, most likely) and the top slots seemed poised to open up, the economy is weak again. Not to mention, you’re facing competition from the very people you’re managing–Gen Y workers outnumber you, seem to enjoy better mentoring relationships with your Boomer supervisors, and frustrate you with their penchant for playing loose and fast with protocol and company norms.

But corporations really do need you. Your skills, passions, and talents are well-suited to the challenges of business today. As a generation of latch-key kids, you bring self-reliance, resourcefulness, and a certain measure of seriousness to the table. As the children of civil and women’s rights protesters, you are sensitive to multicultural issues and tolerant of diversity. As the consumers and creators of the DIY ethic (punk and alternative music and art), you are entrepreneurial and unconventional — traits that are critical for growing organizations.

For those of you wanting more context from Tammy at HBR, here’s more posts related to Gen X and their plight: Thanks to Gen Xers for the Reality Check, Why Generation X Has the Leaders We Need Now and Stuck in the Middle: How Generation X Can Survive the Boomer- Gen Y Love Fest, 10 Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work.

Now you might ask yourself: so what? How is this related to engineering? Well, here’s the problem. If you remember from the last post in this series on The Braindrain Threat from Boomer Engineer Retirement, there’s already a going to be a shortage of senior engineering staff when the Boomers do eventually decide to retire. Sooner or later, even though they are the smallest generational cohort in engineering, those from Gen X will be the senior technical leaders in your engineering organization. High levels of dissatisfaction lead to edgy employees looking for the first real opportunity to leave the organization. I’ve actually heard it first hand time and time again. And with the economy officially over and some other engineering organizations looking to hire again, that opportunity might be more available than you think. Combine the dissatisfaction with new job opportunities related to the recovery and you might lose the most senior engineers that are queued up behind the boomers. Suddenly, you could find that the most senior engineering staff in the company are Gen Y engineers or new hire Gen X engineers you just desperately hired yourself. That’s the last thing you need to drive a recovery off new product development.

What do you do about it? In addition to good context, Tammy Erickson offers some good advice too (Career Decisions and Generation X). But it’s the touchy-feely stuff that is infrequently associated with engineering organizations. But I’d advise serious consideration of changes just like these to hold on to what might well become a rare natural resource in the workforce: the Gen X engineer.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

The ‘Value-Add Qualifier’ Principle

How much of your day is spent adding engineering value to your development projects? Think about it for a minute. All that email. That huge list of issues you track in a spreadsheet. Running across the office with those forms because you heard the engineering director finally came out of that meeting. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of non-value added work that goes on every day in the engineering office. In our last post on the hero work of an engineer, we talked about how to use the ‘Get It Right the First Time’ principle to avoid letting product issues get downstream, where they come back as firedrills to blow up your desk. In this post though, we’re going to focus on how to identify non-value add work and then how to avoid it if at all possible. To what end? Well, if you can cut down on the product issues that get downstream and eliminate some of the non-value added work, then your work day can get a lot more normal. To start off, what do I mean by non-value added activities in engineering? First, let me outline the different types of activities in the engineering organization during the design phase of the development cycle.

  • Authoring: This group of activities covers the creation of traditional engineering deliverables such as specifications, drawings and models.
  • Decision Making: This category of activities addresses meetings and discussions amongst the team or individuals to make engineering decisions.
  • Issue Resolution: This set of activities includes the myriad of product issues that arise during the design process that must be resolved to move forward.
  • Governance and Oversight: These activities provide visibility into the status of the development project so corrective action can be taken as necessary to stay on-budget and on-schedule.

So are any of these categories of activities non-value added? My answer is a definitive ‘no’. These types of activities are necessary to run a successful development project. However, the depth to which you go in each of these categories can be too far, thereby expending time and effort on activities that are not absolutely necessary. Another area to consider is the effort required to track and monitor these activities. For example, one could track product issues in spreadsheets amongst a team or in a centralized system that acts as a source of truth. The manual effort required to reconcile and propagate change in the spreadsheets in the team is unnecessary compared the use of an centralized system where change is automatically managed. To wrap for today, I think there’s two questions to consider.

  1. What other areas of non-value activities have you seen in your engineering organization?
  2. What steps do you take to avoid them?

I’ll be back next week to summarize the discussion and add some final thoughts. Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

General / Books

What is ‘The Goal’ for Engineering?

Cleaning out the closet the other day, I came across an old favorite book of mine called The Goal (wikipedia entry). I read it a couple of years after coming out of engineering school to get a little perspective on the business side of manufacturing.

Now there’s a lot to this book, but fundamentally I remember it for something the author, Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt coined as the Theory of Constraints (wikipedia entry). Here’s an excerpt from the wikipedia definition.

Theory of Constraints (TOC) is an overall management philosophy introduced by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt in his 1984 book titled The Goal, that is geared to help organizations continually achieve their goal. The title comes from the contention that any manageable system is limited in achieving more of its goal by a very small number of constraints, and that there is always at least one constraint. The TOC process seeks to identify the constraint and restructure the rest of the organization around it, through the use of the Five Focusing Steps.

Sounds dry, I know. But the brilliant context of the book is that the protagonist, Alex Rogo, is trying to figure out how to keep the plant he runs for a fictional company UniCo Manufacturing from closing. In the case of the plant, the goal of the plant was increased profits. The constraints to that goal were bottlenecks in production as well as sales volumes. Alex ends up tweaking and twisting those bottlenecks to up production as well as bring in more sales at lower margins but huge volumes.

Besides bringing back memories of years ago, I have to admit, this book got me thinking. What’s the analogue of the plant’s goal and constraints in engineering?

I think we all know what engineering does, whether it’s digital or on paper. I think we all know a good amount about the difficulties that the engineering organization faces with layoffs with no falloff in workload. We know a lot about the trends in the engineering organization like globalization and the recession. But finding the analogue of the plant’s goal and constraints might not be as easy as you might think. It certainly wasn’t easy for Alex in the book. At that time, there were all sorts of long-standing and well-known trends and initiatives in manufacturing. However Alex didn’t figure out that profitability was the goal of the plant until halfway through the book. He didn’t figure out that production bottlenecks and sales volumes were constraints until not long after he recognized the goal. So let’s pose the same questions here.

What is the goal of the engineering organization?

What are the constraints limiting the engineering organization from achieving that goal?

What do you think? I’ll post my thoughts in a follow up post next week.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.