Over the last few years, I think most would agree that leading product development organizations have gotten much savvier about designers collaborating with internal stakeholders – such as manufacturing, sales, and marketing – to harness contributions and feedback from more business perspectives, get the product right the first time, and ultimately better transform technical inventions into market-relevant innovations. What’s really interesting is that, over this same period, the social Web – which Forrester calls Social Computing and includes peer-to-peer activities like social networking sites, blogging, user review sites, wikis, podcasts, and other user-generated content – has steadily grown in popularity among consumers as well as expanded its presence among manufacturing enterprises. The question is, will these new technologies and corresponding social trends make their way into product development organizations and – once again – transform the way leading product development teams collaborate to bring great products into the marketplace?

In short, I think so. The fact is, the increased prevalence of Social Computing presents product development with some compelling new capabilities:

  • Enabling established teams to better collaborate across distance or silos. The distributed nature of Social Computing tools – along with the relative speed by which they can be rolled out – enables development teams sitting in different sites or organizations to quickly convey more design ideas, intent, and context than the standard use of email, instant messaging, or teleconference calls.
  • Tapping outside communities for product ideas, answers, and feedback. Social networking sites now enable product development teams to connect with a new, broader set of outside perspectives, which can help thwart thorny design problems or, more strategically, enrich the quality of the development effort by engaging communities within the target audience of their new product or service to elicit early feedback on features or messages.  
  • Integrating compelling new services to traditional product offerings. As manufacturers in industries like automotive and consumer electronics embed more and more software into their products to enable sophisticated features and higher-end functionality, connecting these smart products via the “extended internet” paves the way for savvy product development teams to incorporate compelling peer-to-peer services built around their product platforms.

Of course, implementing these social product development capabilities is much easier said than done. In my research, I’ve heard manufacturers raise issues spanning IP security; the practicality of managing/using all this new, predominantly unstructured information; the fuzzy business case; etc. So, in order to take advantage of these Social Computing innovations yet overcome these realities, I think a new technology landscape will emerge that includes both traditional PLM applications as well as many new platform partners and startup players that help solve pertinent, last-mile challenges specific to product development. We’re already seeing this today, with PLM leaders like PTC and Siemens PLM investing in further partnerships with Microsoft to interweave human-centric processes like design reviews and engineering change requests with the social community features of SharePoint. Additionally, I’m seeing startup companies like Attensity getting attention for their ability to filter social channels using native-language heuristics and reformulate public commentary into more actionable, logically organized product requirements.  Or, maybe you’ve hit a snag with a sticky technical design problem, and you’ve already searched internally for help and come up dry – here’s where solution community sites like InnoCentive or Hypios are helping product teams leverage outside experts to find answers while still protecting company trade secrets. Or maybe your portal-based ideation process is running a bit stale of late – a quick drive on Spigi or Cambrian House’s website shows how bringing outside, diverse opinions together into focused communities can help you tap a new "suggestion box on steroids."

That’s my take on this whole hot topic of “Social Product Development,” but what are you seeing in your organizations? I look forward to your comments and feedback!