3M applies social business to product development

Thursday, 19 January 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

3M has long had a strong reputation for innovation, and social business is one of the tools the company is applying to keeping that innovation flowing as its research and development efforts are increasingly spread around the globe.

The company’s social business project leaders spoke at Lotusphere this week, having selected IBM Connections as their official enterprise social networking platform. They also acknowledged that some divisions – including the all-important R&D group – have been using competitive products they found to be better or easier to use. Michael Lynch, 3M’s IT manager for the advanced personal and workgroup productivity solution, said he hopes to consolidate on one social platform, “and, based on some of our discussions here, IBM is interested in helping us do that.”

Although it’s best known to consumers for products such as Post-It Notes and Scotch Tape, 3M is a global company that gets most of its revenue from industrial adhesives and products for healthcare. In all of these businesses, inventing new chemical compounds and manufacturing products is key to competitive advantage. Lynch said one of the main reasons 3M has made adopting social software a priority is that R&D efforts are no longer as centralised as they once were near the Minnesota-based company’s offices in the twin cities.

With two-thirds of its business now coming from outside the US and a focus on emerging markets such as Asia and Latin America, management has decided to also move more of its R&D to international locations.

The idea is to put the people developing products closer to the markets they serve. At the same time, R&D personnel around the world often are working on similar problems and need to be able to coordinate their efforts.

In a company full of experts, 3M personnel once worked off the maxim that, “You’re only five phone calls away from finding an answer to your technical question,” Lynch said. That worked well when people were working close to each other and knew each other because they ran into each other in the hallway, he said. Those dynamics broke down when the experts were distributed around the world, he said.

Providing a searchable directory of social profiles in IBM Connections is a better way of addressing that issue anyway, said Jeff Berg, manager of eBusiness architecture and development at 3M. “The old way was based on [informal] networks and who you know, whereas this is a complete list of experts.”

In addition to encouraging employees to tag their own profiles, 3M preloaded a set of expertise tags based on data pulled from its human resources systems, Berg said. Through integration with content management systems, 3M also makes documents such as patent filings searchable – and then correlates them with profile data so you can click through from a patent document to the profile of its author, he said.

To make content easier to find, Berg’s team also invested in creating a library of canonical tags to be used for tagging content and profiles. In combination with a user interface that suggests matching tags as you start to type, this helps prevent the same tags from being entered with multiple spellings, for example.

Lynch cited multiple examples of how social networking has improved collaboration and boosted product development. For example, R&D set a goal of developing 50 product prototypes in six weeks, using online brainstorming.

They actually fell a little short – 45 prototypes rather than 50 – but the experiment was still a success, resulting in seven patents. The R&D team also organised a virtual technology conference, as an alternative to a traditional scientific poster session, and what was planned as a two-week online event over the summer is still going today and generating more ideas.

Sales and marketing personnel who get requests from customers seeking to solve specific problems have used the Connections directory to find experts within the company who can suggest existing products, or products under development, to meet those needs. Sales teams have used social networking to better coordinate their activities and share tips.

Most of these success stories revolve around IBM Connections, but not all. For example, R&D independently selected Socialcast as its system for microblogging-style collaboration, and Sales wound up using the free version of Yammer, “which was outside of anything IT did, or anything that was sanctioned,” Lynch said. Although Yammer’s freemium model requires organisations to become paying customers if they want to assert administrative control, the free version is so far being tolerated because it has in fact improved collaboration across the sales force, he said.

3M was already promoting its implementation of connections when those other social networks snuck in, Lynch said. However, Connections was initially limited to a basic ability to post a status message that would be visible to the entire organisation, whereas some of the competing tools made it easier to organise microblogging conversations around more focused communities of interest, he said. With the next release of IBM Connections, IBM’s social software is gaining innovative features like the ability to include embedded applications in an activity stream, side by side with microblogging comments, and Lynch said he hopes to get everyone on the same platform. (informationweek)