Why social collaboration for product engineering is not as easy as it seems
Some time back, I had advised and shared some thoughts with a client on how best they could roll out a platform that enabled digital collaboration for their product-engineering unit. The idea was to create a platform that would allow engineers from different disciplines such as thermodynamics and flight physics, and from different engineering programs, to informally collaborate in a product development scenario. In this manner, they would be able to record findings and share the lessons learnt with the other engineers in the organization, irrespective of the success of the project.
Last month I heard they were planning to de-prioritize the project. I can understand why. Social collaboration in an engineering organization is not as easy at it appears at the first instance. It is easy to build a technology platform, but it requires a lot more to get the social network going.
Amongst many hurdles, the biggest is perhaps the free-rider problem. The creation and sustenance of a knowledge exchange ecosystem requires people to contribute to the knowledge, and not just consume it. With too many free-riders in the network, there are chances that the ecosystem would get obsolete with no additional content or inputs to retain readership and reference. This problem can be acute in design and engineering organizations, where teams are under significant time constraints. Although they will want to use the available information in the network, they would rarely have the time to properly document their findings from projects. Furthermore, the drain on time is pronounced if they have two different platforms - one for structured engineering and collaboration, and the other for social collaboration. This was, predominantly, the reason why the client had to turn down the social collaboration initiative.
The adoption of social networks within organizations would need an environment with the right organizational structure, incentive structure, communication planning and other roll-out strategies that are conducive to the maintenance of a collaborative platform.
Here again, one-size does not fit all - Different personas will respond to incentives differently. A 30-year veteran thermodynamic engineer may not be as excited about a T-shirt that says "I contributed a wiki today" as an engineering intern!