Unstructured Collaboration is Key to Increased Innovation and Business Agility in 2010

In 2010, manufacturers will adopt social collaboration tools as they look to integrate social computing tools and platforms into their business processes, linking internal communities and external communities.

In today's fast-moving high-tech industry, business agility is an essential capability for success. Business agility requires rapid decision-making capability fueled by ready access to key business information such as supply and demand; customer needs and wants; and competitive and general economic dynamics. Most high-tech companies have made significant investments in tier 1 business applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), product lifecycle management (PLM) and customer relationship management (CRM). While these systems provide access to structured, transactional information, they do not facilitate the unstructured, ad-hoc collaboration activities where people interact with people and where business decisions are made.

The biggest challenge in 2010 and beyond, therefore, will be to integrate PLM, ERP, supply chain management and other structured, transactional frameworks with tools and processes that facilitate unstructured collaboration. By embedding unstructured collaboration tools such as unified communications, live meetings and online chat within these structured, transactional systems, manufacturers will be able to increase business agility through an array of benefits ranging from improved innovation to more rapid decision making and faster time-to-market.

One of the key tools for unstructured collaboration is social computing. Many high-tech manufacturers have already adopted business-to-consumer social computing channels due to the explosion of sites like Facebook. The consumer practice of sharing information through social interaction has opened the door for a handful of manufacturers to examine the use of social computing tools in a business-to-business capacity -- but not in the traditional sense of using sites like Facebook and Twitter. Some high-tech firms have adopted similar capabilities through robust collaboration tools that already exist and that in most cases, they already own enabling them to share unstructured information amongst employees, customers and partners in a secure, corporate environment. By experimenting with such sophisticated collaboration tools, these companies have seen a host of benefits, ranging from improved innovation processes to more efficient customer service.

In 2010, we will see the adoption of social collaboration tools increase significantly, as more manufacturers will look to integrate social computing tools and platforms like SharePoint into their business processes, linking internal communities and external communities. These unstructured collaboration tools can help high-tech businesses gain visibility into customer needs and wants; improve customer support and satisfaction; and facilitate knowledge-sharing throughout the enterprise.

Here are three areas where we will see online collaboration take off in the manufacturing sector in 2010.

Ideation

In today's economic environment, many companies are counting on being able to innovate their way out of the recession and they will look to increase their use of practical social collaboration tools to advance this process. Leveraging social community tools to securely access the ideas of a broader set of people-including employees, customers and partners-helps high-tech enterprises generate the innovation that leads to new products, processes and services necessary to reduce costs and fuel revenue growth. When Electronic Arts saw that many of its employees were on Facebook, it used SharePoint to create a social networking portal on its intranet that allowed employees to share knowledge and innovative ideas. In just eight months, the portal attracted more than one-third of the company's employees and has helped them reduce duplicated efforts and increase knowledge sharing, all in a secure environment.

A number of high-tech companies have expanded the range of their communities, opening them up to include partners and customers. The key to success for this broader ideation effort is to ensure such collaboration is done in a secure environment rather than an unsecure, public platform. By empowering employees, customers and partners to interact and share ideas and information in a secure, real-time infrastructure, companies can reduce costs, shrink time-to-market and deliver products that best meet customer demands.

Customer Self-Service

Some forward-thinking companies have recognized that customers can actually help other customers and have fostered community interaction through social collaboration. This idea of "self-service" enables customers to discuss problems and reach solutions organically and more efficiently, while reducing customer service staff time. While opening up such a forum for discussion requires giving up some control on the part of the manufacturer, it delivers valuable transparency, improves the customer experience and provides significant cost-savings. For example, in an effort to drive sales, Cadence Design Systems incorporated social networking functions like user forums and community blogs into its corporate Web site, providing customers with the ability to supplement Cadence-generated content to help users of its design tools address their issues. In the first six months since the site was launched, more than 30,000 people registered and community content now accounts for approximately 17 percent of overall public Website traffic.

Partner Self-Service

The "self-service" model can also be applied to the partner channel. High-tech manufacturers have been able to build tighter partner and retail channels, increasing revenues, brand preference and customer satisfaction through the development of such communities. Pioneer Electronics used the popular SharePoint tool to create a secure online dealer community that helped them increase dealer loyalty; expanded exposure within their marketplace; improved partner and customer satisfaction; and facilitated new business initiatives. Since January 2008, the number of registered dealers has almost tripled and the portal is now regularly used by about 75 percent of the Pioneer network.

These are only a few of the ways that unstructured collaboration tools are providing a bridge between the world of unstructured interaction and structured processes. Unstructured data is a critical component and having such interaction should be a necessary and required decision-making tool. However, it needs to take place within a secure environment, rather than on public social networking sites like Facebook.

According to a recent study by Washington, D.C.-based KRC Research, 78% of business decision-makers and 85% of technology decision-makers at high-tech manufacturing firms reported using at least one non-secure public communications tool to collaborate with partners. What executives must realize is that they don't have to rely on public communications tools to collaborate within a social environment when those tools are already available within their existing solutions.

Unstructured collaboration and interaction is becoming a mission-critical application and needs to be viewed on-par with tier 1 applications such as ERP, PLM and CRM. To ensure the level of business agility necessary to compete in 2010 and beyond, high tech enterprises must adopt an unstructured collaboration platform and integrate it with the structured, transactional applications to ensure their competitiveness.

Drew Gude is Director, U.S. High Tech and Electronics Manufacturing Industry Solutions, Microsoft.

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