Deep Dive Collaboration: Teamwork 2.0

Web 2.0 technology — wikis, blogs, Twitter — is quickly becoming the collaborative engine of manufacturers that need better ways to share information internally as well as with suppliers, customers, and field service.

Companies Mentioned
Posted on Feb 02, 2009

It was 10 p.m. Jim Wetzel was at home watching the news on television while surfing the Web on his computer. Suddenly, an instant message (IM) popped up on his screen, asking, “Jim, you there?” It was a General Mills system engineer who was having trouble executing a batch recipe at the plant. Seeking help, Wetzel sent an IM to one of General Mills’ batch experts, and the three worked out the problem — over a communication string in an IM window. A faulty controller was fixed remotely, using a wide area network, and everything was documented, all in a matter of 30 minutes. “We use instant messaging all of the time,” says Wetzel, technical director for the control and information systems group at General Mills, “as well as wikis, blogs ... and we just got approval for an internal [version of] Facebook.” Manufacturing, as General Mills demonstrates, has entered the era of Web 2.0. By definition, Web 2.0 is the use of Web technology and Web design to enhance creativity and communications, secure information sharing, and enable collaboration through Web-based communities, social networking sites, video sharing, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies. Never heard of these things? It’s time to find out, because the new Web age is upon us, and everyone, from CEOs to line operators, is all a-Twitter! (Twitter, of course, is a text-based micro-blogging service.) Operating in a global market where supply chains and engineering teams are dispersed and much of production is outsourced, manufacturers have struggled to find a better way to communicate and, more important, collaborate. They’ve implemented EDI and B2B hubs to work with suppliers, and they’ve tapped collaboration tools, such as Microsoft SharePoint, to implement workflows and allow teams to share information. But much of the technology within the manufacturing enterprise is tied to client/server architectures and requires an understanding of the program in order to exchange information. Web 2.0 changes the rules, as collaboration can now happen instantly with no expertise required and no complex infrastructure to manage. Just ask any Gen Y kid infiltrating the workforce. Gen Y, sometimes referred to as “the Google generation,” has grown up with mobile devices, text messaging, blogging, and chatting via social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace. And, as they enter the workforce, they expect to have these same communication tools available to them at their place of employment. It’s in their blood. “As the next generation of workers comes into play, they expect that they will have the same tools in the business office and interact the same way they do at home or did in college,” says Patricia Wilkey, director of global desktop and mobility at EDS, a Hewlett-Packard company. Manufacturers can resist the pressure to cater to the incoming generation, but it might be just what many need to move forward in a fast-paced, ever-changing, and financially fragile business environment. That’s because, even though it has been possible to integrate applications, share data in databases, or send a file in an e-mail, these methods are not real-time and usually require expensive hardware and software to make them run. In addition, some manufacturers turn to technology tools to enable connectivity, but miss the mark when it comes to creating value —which is all about content. “It’s not just connecting people; it is connecting people in an information-rich environment,” says Mark Heidenreich, innovation and lifecycle management practice leader at Capgemini. And, though that may mean providing a way for people to look at, comment on, and mark up a CAD file, for example, “it doesn’t assume these people have a bunch of experience using a CAD system,” says Benjamin Friedman, research manager at Manufacturing Insights, an IDC company. “Now, the impetus is a force that says, ‘In order to be competitive, you have to share best practices and you have to make certain information socialized, not only to product development teams, but to planning teams and technical and administrative groups.’ It’s enabling the people that previously didn’t have the knowledge.” In a recent Managing Automation reader poll on collaboration, 57.5% of respondents said they expect their company’s focus on collaboration to increase over the next 12 months due mainly to cost pressures, global competitive pressures, and increasing customer demands. As a result, 65.1% of respondents said they are looking at ways to collaborate with external partners and customers (see MA Poll: Collaboration). More and more companies are turning to Web-based technology, such as services-oriented architectures (SOA), and B2B or B2C hubs. But, industry observers say, they can’t ignore Web 2.0. This new generation of technology takes the form of wikis, blogs, and social networks as well as cloud computing, which taps the Internet as an IT architecture, and mashups, which use an open application programming interface (API) to take data from multiple sources to create a completely new Web service. In the Web 2.0 world, crafting the collaborative enterprise comes down to four things: Creating content and being able to easily upload and search files, documents, and spreadsheets; creating shared workspaces using wikis; connecting people through a social networking platform; and enabling conversations through discussion threads and blogs. “The general trend is moving from a machine-based industry to a process, people-driven industry,” says Isaac Garcia, CEO of Central Desktop, which makes a Web-based social technology platform for businesses. Social Services Equipois, Inc., is a 2-year old start-up that has a proprietary technology — basically a mechanical arm — that makes heavy tools or equipment seem weightless to the people using them, without sacrificing range or performance. Originating in the film industry where holding heavy movie cameras can not only be exhausting, but also cause injury, Equipois used a concept of zero gravity and applied it to an industrial setting. The company, with 22 employees, is based in Los Angeles and has an R&D lab in Philadelphia. Its sales representatives and distributors serve customers in the aerospace, automotive, government, and heavy machining sectors. “Being able to collaborate was a key challenge,” says Eric Golden, president and CEO of Equipois. The company investigated using Microsoft applications, which, Golden says, for a start-up were “ridiculously expensive and had a tremendous learning curve.” Instead, Equipois started using Google g-mail as its e-mail server and leveraged Google Docs for sharing spreadsheets and Word documents. The company also deployed as a customer relationship tool. Equipois had bits and pieces of technology, but what it really wanted was a complete software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution that could act as a central repository of documents, enable Web meetings, store calendar events, act as the company intranet, and even function as a mini-ERP system to manage the internal business. The company found all of that with Central Desktop, which provides a customizable and secure way to deliver everything Equipois needed in a SaaS-based enterprise application. And though fledgling businesses may jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon first for financial reasons, there is no reason that a large manufacturer can’t use tools like Central Desktop as well. “The only barrier to a large company is getting over the ‘not invented here’ problem,” Golden says. “Frankly, Central Desktop is really good for some things like customer extranets, portals, and B2B.” For example, when working with an automotive customer, Golden says, CAD files, pictures, and videos can be shared to ensure that the zeroG mechanical arm works seamlessly with the customer’s operating procedures. General Mills, on the other hand, is a Microsoft SharePoint user and has assembled communities of practice across the company via the collaboration tool as a way to facilitate discussions. For example, for every capital project General Mills undertakes, it first builds a website where employees and contractors can meet — like a virtual war room. “We used to need a physical space. Now, people can contribute to projects wherever they may be,” Wetzel says. As part of that process, using SharePoint as the backbone, wikis act as a dictionary/glossary/manual, while blogs serve as a way to promote discussions. All of this happens on the secure extranet where everything is structured at the corporate level according to General Mills’ “rules of the road.” This means that, even in the Web 2.0 environment where electronic conversations are the norm, there still needs to be a way to track, trace, and govern conversations. “The key thing here is all of this [Web 2.0 technology] is coming online at a time when businesses are facing a credit crunch and there is the need for governance, compliance, and risk analysis. Web 2.0 technology has the ability to disrupt all that,” says John Pyke, chief strategy office at Cordys, an SOA/BPM vendor. For example, IMs discussing supplies procurement could be considered a purchase order. In some countries, this would constitute a legally binding contract. But is this a process that has been sufficiently managed? “There needs to be an approach that captures all of that data to be used to the company’s best advantage, while keeping the CEO out of jail,” Pyke says. Nevertheless, many companies have a corporate mandate to increase collaboration, at least internally, in order to improve their overall business execution. Ford Motor Co., for example, is using SOA as the application infrastructure that will convert many production processes to Web-based services. “We have a whole group focused on defining the existing services and laying out the services approach for the future,” says Will Pierson, Ford’s supervisor of plant floor systems application development. The goal is to reuse existing applications by layering on a lightweight application that can pull data from Web services and, using business logic, format them in more appealing ways for end users. One scenario involved the development of a stamping production assistant system that brings scheduling, production, and maintenance applications together using Web services. The plant manager can pull the production schedule for each stamping line — which is visible to all levels of the plant, including the operators on the floor who can see in real time whether the production schedule for a line has changed — and make adjustments on the floor to run the next part based on the scheduling change. And if a downstream customer changes a shipment impacting the production schedule, people on the plant floor can adjust on the fly. This type of mashup application brings new meaning to the word “integration.” “In the past, discussions around integration and collaboration have focused on technical details,” Pierson says. “But now, with SOA, the teams can have conversations about information, and who is producing and consuming it, so that we can be more productive.” Wrestling with ROI Allowing people to be more productive in the field is another high priority for manufacturers trying to streamline operations and keep track of valuable assets, such as a fleet of trucks or even people. Internet-based technologies can help here, too. Air Liquide, for example, makes and delivers oxygen cylinders to hospitals and doctors. The company has plants in California, Houston, Chicago, and Florida, with a back-office team in Houston dispatching orders. Until last year, drivers responsible for delivering cylinders mapped out their own routes and managed their own time. To offset such inefficiency, Air Liquide used a Xora Inc. GPS tracking system to download an application onto drivers’ cell phones that acts as a tracking device and enables dispatchers to locate trucks. The system even finds the best route available, based on such conditions as traffic or road construction, and delivers a map directly to a driver’s cell phone. The Xora application also serves as a time clock. Using the interface on the cell phone, the driver can click “start shift” or “stop shift,” or download a list of customers and orders. The information is fed into an Oracle ERP system, which serves as a collaborative tool for plant managers, dispatchers, and drivers. “It’s all Web-based. You just need a user name and password, and, wherever you are, you have access,” says Air Liquide North American Operations Director Matthieu Giard. Just two months after deploying the Xora application, shipment volumes rose almost 12% while total costs increased only 3%. “It means we offset price increases [related to] salary, inflation, and fuel, and absorbed the additional volumes at no extra cost,” Giard says. Unlike Air Liquide, most Web 2.0 technology users can’t assign hard ROI numbers to the new collaborative ways their companies work. Some say the ROI of collaborative technology, especially if it is in the form of blogs, wikis, and IM, has to be measured in other ways. “Building enterprise value is about building institutional knowledge,” Equipois’ Golden says. The new generation of workers is ushering in new business practices that center on the value of intellectual property. With this change, the concept of “design to manufacturability” is evolving into “design to service.” That means closing the loop connecting design, production, and aftermarket service. “With the economic conditions as they are, companies need to excel at service by designing new products with things like warranty in mind, which is based on what the field service community thinks of the design,” Manufacturing Insights’ Friedman says. The basic idea is to reuse information and feed it back into the product lifecycle loop, he says. Web 2.0 technology can propel this concept forward. Just look at the Department of Defense’s Techipedia project, an internal version of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to. Of course, you need Pentagon clearance to access this wiki, but the basic premise is to create an easy way for scientists, project managers, technology experts, and defense contractors to collaborate online using timely, relevant information. If the DoD can do it, why can’t manufacturers? “The tools exist, but the use cases are yet to be propagated,” Friedman says, noting that the DoD project could be one to emulate. For now, however, for companies, such as General Mills, which uses wikis, blogs, IM, and even an internal Facebook to help its 30,000 employees get acquainted, it is all about the speed of doing business. “In the old days, if someone couldn’t come up with an answer until tomorrow, it was OK,” General Mills’ Wetzel says. “But now, people say, ‘Get a hold of Joe because I’m trying to make a decision.’ Waiting for information is unacceptable.” See also: Enabling Technologies: Web Technology for Collaboration Expert Q&A: The Future Holds Increased Information Sharing MA Poll: Collaboration Collaboration: User Resources

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