How Social Media Is Improving Manufacturing Collaboration

Nov. 1, 2011
Social media isn’t just for personal use any more. Businesses of all kinds, particularly manufacturers, are looking to leverage social media types of connections for easier access to needed expertise, business intelligence insights and new product ideas.
As the use of social media applications like Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter become more prevalent, the business world is furiously trying to figure out ways to leverage the interpersonal connections inherent in social media. The problem with joining these two worlds is that most people prefer to keep their social media lives separate from their business exploits. But as people spend more and more time with social media as part of the regular online activities, the wall separating our business and personal lives is disintegrating.
Evidence of increased business interest in this disintermediation can be seen in IBM’s focus on social business. IBM recently started adding IBM experts to various Web pages on its site to bolster interaction. According to IBM in a recent Fast Company blog post, this addition of experts to its Web site has “dramatically improved page performance and revealed increased confidence and trust in IBM in focus groups.”
IBM is looking to leverage social media interaction into its business process because it sees the use of email chains decreasing. Ethan McCarty, senior manager of Digital and Social Strategy at IBM, contends that email is “anti-social” and that a social business “needs to employ more collaborative digital work tools that are asynchronous, enabling a geographically disperse team to do great work together.”
For manufacturers, the principal driver behind the move toward greater incorporation of social media for collaborative business processes is access to expertise. The need for information, and people’s general willingness to share it with those to whom they are connected, are behind three major trends to drive the use of social media for business benefit. 
Those three trends are:
  • ease of connection with experts who can answer difficult questions when needed; 
  • added layer of expertise for business intelligence; and
  • connections with end users as sources of new product/process ideas.
For several years now, manufacturers have been lamenting the ongoing brain drain of engineering expertise as older engineers retire and fewer new engineers are adequately mentored to take on the roles held by their predecessors. To help bridge this knowledge gap, some industrial companies are beginning to leverage social media approaches to connect their scattered resources.
The need for easy access to experienced expertise is especially acute in the energy industries. According to Booz Allen Hamilton, there were only 1,700 people studying petroleum engineering in 17 U.S. universities in 2006, compared with more than 11,000 in 34 universities in 1993. To understand how this is impacting energy companies, consider Saudi Aramco, the state-owned national oil company of Saudi Arabia. Half of Saudi Aramco’s workforce is less than 30 years of age and more than 60 percent of its engineers have fewer than 10 years of experience.

One example of an energy company using new connection technologies to alleviate this issue is Baker Hughes, a Houston, Tex.-based company that provides reservoir consulting, drilling, pressure pumping, formation evaluation, completion, and production products and services to the global oil and gas industry. The company has started using Cisco Pulse from San Jose, Calif., networking products manufacturer Cisco Systems to connect its experts with its well sites around the world.

Unlike traditional business directories and expert locators that require manual updates, Cisco Pulse includes tagging features, enabling it to automatically collect key terms and analyze business content shared across a company’s network. This system can dynamically rank users and the information they contribute for each tag, and even suggest updates for users’ profiles. Information on someone in the system can also be linked to social media sites, such as LinkedIn, to further enhance the data on that individual. 
Leveraging this tagging capability, Pulse provides a combination of human expertise identification, knowledge capture and locator services. Users can share their backgrounds, highlight areas of experience, and provide contact information through their profiles. The system imports role and contact data from the corporate e-mail database.
To find an expert in the system, users can search by keywords to retrieve a list of relevant experts. These searches can also be refined by role, group, or location to see who is currently available to engage with on a particular issue. When integrated with Cisco’s connection technologies such as Unified Communications, TelePresence or WebEx, those searching for experts can be directly connected to the relevant, available experts who turn up in their search results.

How useful has this technology been to Baker Hughes in connecting experts and capturing their expertise for future reference? According to the company, on one project Cisco Pulse was used to connect 75 control engineers in Houston, Tex. and Broussard, La. Within six weeks, the technology was used to help the company identify 70 major collaboration clusters (defined as having more than 500 transactions per cluster). Baker Hughes also notes that more than 2,400 relevant documents were tagged on this project, including some 1,200 relevant e-mails, 650 documents and 550 Web page references.


Business Intelligence
For several years in late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed as if business intelligence (BI) was going to be the next big thing in the enterprise software realm. And while its value is easily recognizable, interest in layering yet another software application on top of a company’s array of enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain, customer relationship management (CRM) and manufacturing execution system (MES) applications has rarely been at the top of most companies’ wish lists. 
Testament to the inherent value of business intelligence applications, however, has been the incorporation of their capabilities in a number of operations management and MES applications via dashboards.
Upping the ante on business intelligence as a separate application is Toronto-based Panorama Software with its release of Necto, which it claims to be the first socially enable BI application.
At its core, Necto works like most BI software in that it connects to a data warehouse then collects information from a company’s ERP, CRM, MES or other operations software. Though a dashboard-like interface, Necto displays the data collected and organized across all these applications and allows it to be drilled into for greater insights into business activities and trends as they develop.
The big difference with Necto is how a user can, by clicking on a piece of data (for example, a decrease in production at location A), see a list of all users in the system who are connected to that data either by direct responsibility or knowledge of the topic. These search results of relevant experts can also be sorted by those who are currently logged in so that an instant dialogue via built-in chat can be initiated. All discussions that occur are logged in the system and added to the knowledge base around that issue for future reference. 

“Necto’s core attributes are social intelligence, relevancy and self service,” say Rony Ross, chairperson and founder of Panorama Software. “It reduces dependence on IT for report generation and data mining. Analytics are automatically performed to suggest exceptions and see positive or negative trends.”

Though it’s rare to find a company unaware of the importance social media plays in its existence (in both positive and negative terms), it’s equally rare to find a company that’s doing much about it.
Manufacturers in particular are lagging behind when it comes to tapping in to the many different voices available via social media, especially customer voices, says Peter Granger, Cisco’s senior global market manager for the manufacturing industry. “They’re not using social media enough as a listening post or as a means to provide communications with plant operations.”

From a plant operations perspective, some manufacturers currently using socially enabling technology applications include Ford, Coca-Cola and Harley Davidson. Granger says these companies are taking advantage of a converged IT/plant network to use IT apps in factory areas. 

“With Ford it’s a Digital Media system,” says Granger. “By bringing content to people, versus sending people to content, Ford can have town hall meetings with workers at plants scattered all over the globe.”
At Coca-Cola, Granger notes the same phones used in offices have been deployed in the warehouse with a voice-activated warehouse picking system used by forklift truck operators. The converged network used by these phones links them back to the company’s IT systems, integrated with the SAP ERP (enterprise resources planning) system. Granger says that Coca-Cola’s approach here differs from what many manufacturers are capable of doing. The reason: most manufacturers still use proprietary systems in their warehouse operations that are unable to be used for other applications.
Aside from the internal benefits, it’s the customer-facing side where social media can have the biggest impact for manufacturers. As an example of this, Granger references Procter & Gamble: “In 2000, Procter & Gamble said that about 15 percent of its product development ideas came from outside the company. That number has since risen to about 50 percent due to their outreach and monitoring of social media through their Connect and Develop innovation model,” says Granger. “But most manufacturers still don’t do anything like this,” he adds.
About the Author

David Greenfield, editor in chief | Editor in Chief

David Greenfield joined Automation World in June 2011. Bringing a wealth of industry knowledge and media experience to his position, David’s contributions can be found in AW’s print and online editions and custom projects. Earlier in his career, David was Editorial Director of Design News at UBM Electronics, and prior to joining UBM, he was Editorial Director of Control Engineering at Reed Business Information, where he also worked on Manufacturing Business Technology as Publisher. 

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