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.