A curious thing that I’ve noticed about social product development initiatives is that they tend to leave out designers and engineers (except the ones on the payroll.)

I can understand this when design and engineering is at the heart of a company’s sustainable competitive advantage–but in many social product development projects, it isn’t the case.

I’m going to use Quirky as an example. I’ve watched a few development projects on Quirky, and felt largely unmotivated to contribute. Not because I don’t have anything to contribute, but rather because Quirky wasn’t soliciting contributions where my contributions would particularly stand out. Choosing product names or colors may be important, but my opinions on these sort of things are no more valuable than anyone else’s. Answering these sort of polling questions holds about as much interest for me as participating in the customer service poll advertised on Home Depot receipts.

Now, if Quirky (or any other social site) were to ask questions where I have some domain expertise, the story would be different. Ask me about trade-offs between stepper and servo motors, and not only would I have an educated opinion, but I’d also be willing to contribute it. I might even be willing to help with motor sizing and drive design. (Once upon a time, I used to design motion/logic systems for a living.)

Of course, Quirky attracts a lot of contributors. I suspect it’s not because those contributors feel compelled to share their domain expertise, but rather because Quirky has gamified the process of contributing. It seems rather akin to voting for your favorite performer on American Idol.

An example of a social help site that takes good advantage of domain expertise is Stackoverflow, which provides social answers to programming questions. Through a combination of techniques, including moderation, voting, reputation building, and pure coolness, Stackoverflow manages to attract heavy hitters to answer serious programming questions.

Stackoverflow has been so successful that its creators have expanded the concept to a variety of other sites, covering everything from mathematics to garden gnomes. Well, maybe not garden gnomes. But my point is, that, with the right combination of pixie dust, it’s possible to attract serious contributors who have deep expertise.

Two other sites that do seem to attract real expertise are Innocentive and GrabCAD. They do this by offering serious challenges, coupled with appropriate compensation.

In the case of Innocentive, the challenges are often “non-trivial.” Not quite as hard as “fix global warming,” but in the same general neighborhood. Challenges tend to be in areas that just happen to have corresponding Nobel (or other international) prizes. And the rewards offered seem to be inline with the value of the challenge—ranging up to $1 million dollars.

GrabCAD doesn’t offer such high rewards, but it does offer challenges that seem more up the alley of design engineers. One recent challenge was to design a triple-clamp for an electric racing superbike, with the winner to receive an iPad2. In a matter of weeks, site members had submitted over 150 designs—not just pretty pictures, but high-quality solid models. I can’t say that the design of a triple-clamp is a particularly challenging engineering problem, as these things go, but I looked at some of the photos of the submitted designs, and was impressed. This was pro-level work. The challenge sponsor got way more than their money’s worth.

Something I’ve noticed about CAD designers and engineers is that they consider some things fun, and some things not so fun. Solving design problems is fun–which is probably why GrabCAD can get so much participation from its community members. To engage designers and engineers in a social product development enterprise, you have to focus on fun things, and make the not so fun things as transparent as possible.

 

Oct 112011

Remember the old folktale about stone soup? Here’s how Wikipedia relates it:

Some travellers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travellers. So the travellers go to the neck of the stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travellers answer that they are making “stone soup”, which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with just a little bit of carrot to help them out, so it gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travellers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.

Does the story remind you of anything? How about social product development?

There are quite a number of companies doing their own version of stone soup these days. Off the top of my head, I can think of GrabCAD, Local Motors, Quirky, The LEGO CL!CK Community, Innocentive, Instructables, and Thingiverse. I’ve probably missed a dozen or two other truly high profile projects, and hundreds of smaller projects.

Each of these projects has lessons to teach. But none of them cover the entire range of the new product development process—from the fuzzy front end to commercialization. They each start with a lot of cabbage in the soup. (Sorry about the strained metaphor there.)

Something I’ve been mulling over recently is this: What is the best way to make stone soup? That is, if you wanted to build a best-in-class hyper-social product development business—incorporating the best ideas in co-creation and open innovation—what people, processes and resources would you want to have?

Are you curious what the next-generation platform for social product development might look like? How about who it might come from?

Michael Fauscette is the lead analyst in IDC’s Software Business Solutions Group, and writes often about software ecosystems and emerging software business models. His thinking is that the next generation enterprise plaftorm has to be built on a foundation of people-centric collaboration:

New “social” collaboration tools must connect people inside and outside the enterprise but do it in a way that provides real time communications and real time access to supporting content, data and systems in the context of the activity. More over this tool (or tools) must support ad hoc work groups that need to reach beyond traditional enterprise boundaries and at times include customers, partners and suppliers, which protecting enterprise intellectual property and providing flexible security. Contextual collaboration also implies that the tool resides inside employees workflow and thus inside current enterprise applications. Embedded, contextual, real time, ad hoc, people-centric collaboration.

To date, I’ve not seen any PLM or engineering software vendors provide a toolset that meets these criteria. But that’s not to say I haven’t seen flashes of bits and pieces of it:

  • PTC’s Windchill SocialLink, built on Microsoft SharePoint, provides a more product development-centric social graph than other enterprise microblogging platforms (e.g., SocialCast, SocialText, Novell Vibe, Salesforce Chatter.) You’d expect that, since it is, after all, integrated with WindChill. PTC also put their money where their mouth is with SocialLink, and used it as the social backbone for the development of their Creo products. Yet, it’s still a young product. A new version will be coming out soon, so it’ll likely grow quite a bit in capabilities.
  • Dassault Systemes has a number of tools that fit in the realm of social product development. In the V6 porfolio of products, 3DLive is a 3D search/viewing and collaboration tool that’s integrated with Microsoft Communication Server. It serves as a foundation for a number of other “Live” products, including Live Collaborative Review, Live Fastener Review, Live Process Review, and Live Simulation Review.
  • Siemens PLM’s Active Workspace isn’t out just yet, but, based on previews, looks to be a seriously interesting tool.
  • SpaceClaim, though not explicitly focusing on social product development, has found that their software is getting regularly used by customers (in conjunction with gotomeeting and similar streaming tools) for digital mockup and design review.

I could probably go on for a long time talking about interesting tools that support social product development in one way or another. But what I can’t do is talk about tools that meet Fauscette’s criteria of providing embedded, contextual, real time, ad hoc, people-centric collaboration. Such tools don’t seem to exist yet.

One problem I see with existing PLM tools, in the context of social product development, is that they distinguish too sharply between first-class users, and those who are stuck in economy-class. While they provide an optimal set of capabilities for people inside the enterprise boundaries, they provide a far more limited set of capabilities for people outside the enterprise boundaries. They don’t do a very good job of connecting the voice of the customer with the voice of the process.

I do wonder whether the “next-generation enterprise platforms” for social product development are going to come from the traditional PLM vendors, or from new players—companies which have been built, from the ground up, as socially integrated enterprises.

“I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write…

“I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

“Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Leonard E. Read wrote this essay, entitled I, Pencil, in 1958, a month after I was born. In it, he described the complexity of something so seemingly simple, yet requiring the knowledge and effort of thousands of minds to create.  It is an essay you must read.

Product development is not the realm of the lone genius. It is an inherently social and collaborative process. Commenting on Read’s essay, Milton Friedman said:

None of the thousands of persons involved in producing the pencil performed his task because he wanted a pencil. Some among them never saw a pencil and would not know what it is for. Each saw his work as a way to get the goods and services he wanted—goods and services we produced in order to get the pencil we wanted…

It is even more astounding that the pencil was ever produced. No one sitting in a central office gave orders to these thousands of people… These people live in many lands, speak different languages, practice different religions, may even hate one another—yet none of these differences prevented them from cooperating to produce a pencil.

Friedman was an economist, and the lessons he drew from I, Pencil were within this realm. I’m an engineer, so the lessons I draw from Read’s essay are different. Though I first read I, Pencil years ago, the question it raised in my mind has never really changed:

How can we give people better tools to help them work together, and create better products?

No, my question is not “how can we give enterprises better tools.” It is “how can we give people better tools.” Product development may be practiced within enterprises, but it is a people-centric process.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been following the concept of “social product development” for awhile now. Seems different people have widely varying definitions of what the term comprises.

One company that’s become high-profile in this space is Quirky, a developer of consumer products. Quirky’s development process begins with crowd-sourced ideas, which are voted on by a jury of community members, then developed by an in-house team (again, with input from community members.)

Quirky gives amateur “inventors” a way to see their ideas become real, and potentially earn money from the result. The company has a fast product development process (days, not months), and has captured the imagination of many people—including producers at the Sundance Channel, who are producing a documentary series on the company.

Quirky’s take on social product development is intriguing, in that it rewards community participation. Influencers—people who contribute to the development process—are paid from a royalty pool generated from sales of products (which are available on the Quirky website, as well as through retailers such as Bed Bath and Beyond.) Top influencers have earned literally tens of thousands of dollars.

Consider Jake Zien, for example. While Jake has contributed to 11 projects, his greatest influence was on the design of an innovative power strip. Mostly from this idea, he has earned $33,395.62 from Quirky. Not bad.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Quirky.

Most of Quirky’s products are banal exercises in industrial design. Lots of kitchen and bathroom gadgets. Very few products that require any serious engineering.

As much as I like Quirky’s social model, I’m just not impressed with its actual product development process. Certainly the community has the opportunity to influence product development (by submitting and/or voting on concepts, features and ideas), but they aren’t actually brought into the heart of the design or engineering processes.

In any serious product development process, hundreds of decisions must be made, with thoughtful rationale for each. Consider Jake’s power strip: How many questions can you come up with that would be important in its design process? I can think of a bunch off the top of my head: fault current, contact tension, wiping patterns, dielectric constant of the plastic, and many more. Then there are CAD, CAE, and CAM related issues.

As a practical matter, it probably makes sense for Quirky to handle serious product development issues internally. I can’t see many community members getting enthusiastic about progressive die design or mold flow analysis.

Yet, I can’t help but think: There are people out in the community who have tremendous domain knowledge. Why not design a social product development process that can capture and use all the expertise you need for a project, no matter where that expertise may be found?

Why not think much bigger?