What Business Value Does Social Software Bring to Manufacturing?

Nov. 3, 2010
Enterprise social software can recreate virtually the advantages of physical co-location that have been lost to innovation and product development teams.

For the uninitiated, enterprise social software (ESS) applications provide some of the same features that social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube offer, but customized to the enterprise with real-time collaboration features. These applications also offer web 2.0 capabilities through blogs and wikis, but with enterprise-class integration, security and management.

ESS is a technology that can enable enterprises to move with agility and coordinate across an organization. Manufacturing executives regularly report in surveys that their most important priorities center around three areas: driving faster innovation, increasing production uptime through operational best practices, and responding rapidly to customer service issues.

Each of these three areas requires being able to drive high velocity collaboration between disparate and diverse teams that are split by location, time zones and functional areas. Simply put, enterprises that are able to collaborate efficiently across geographical and organizational silos are better positioned to succeed.

Enterprise social software holds the promise of changing the way employees in enterprises interact with each other. It creates a platform where employees build communities that strengthen their bonds to the enterprise and to the cross-functional teams that they work in, and organize to address company initiatives or mobilize to respond to crises. Let's take a look at how ESS can be applied to the core functional areas within a typical manufacturing value chain.

Research and Development

Manufacturing companies are seeing ESS as the way to recreate virtually the advantages of physical co-location that have been lost to their innovation and product development teams. For example, a major high tech manufacturer is evaluating ESS to help bind its design and manufacturing teams closer together in the design and prototyping process -- providing a virtual project war-room where sensitive designs can be securely shared, deliverables and timelines are visible to all members and progress or the lack of it is discussed and resolved. Within the ESS platform, team members are able to post comments that build on each other and contribute to the overall discussion, avoiding duplication and loss in never-ending email chains. Escalation of problems is only a quick check of a colleague's presence icon and a click away.

Cisco's engineering team is using its own ESS solution, Cisco Quad, to design future iterations of the Quad platform. Engineers are able to start IM, voice calls or web conferences with a single click through this virtual forum. Geographically dispersed project teams are now able to use the Agile Software development methodology, which would otherwise require team member co-location.

Operations and Supply Chain

ESS is seeing traction in two broad areas in the operations sphere of manufacturing companies: reducing downtime and capturing and sharing best practices. To reduce the mean time to repair for equipment downtime issues on the plant-floor, ESS can help enterprises rapidly locate technical expertise.

For example, a consumer product goods company implementing a lean manufacturing program wanted to be able to enable process technicians and maintenance engineers facing a downtime event to quickly search for colleagues. It was crucial that their search would return the names of people that self identify as experts in that area, along with their availability information. ESS applications in this scenario empower the user to click on an "available" expert's name and instantly start a rich audio/web/video collaboration session with them. With desk-top video conferencing and mobile video solutions, the remote experts can even see live video from the plant-floor as they guide an employee through the trouble-shooting process.

ESS also enables companies to share best practices easily across their workforce, so new employees can be more productive faster. Many companies in highly technical sub-verticals like utilities or the aerospace industry today face the problem of an aging workforce. One utility company expects to see 40 percent of their workers retiring over a five-year period. This creates two problems: the loss of an enormous amount of institutional knowledge from experienced employees, and the need to be able to on-board an influx of new hires quickly and efficiently.

ESS becomes a scalable, enterprise class platform to drive the on-boarding process -- by creating virtual "communities of practice" where new employees can access resources like standard operating procedures, training videos and documents or best practice videos. New hires are also able to post questions that can be answered by any of the more experienced employees within the space, capturing their knowledge in a searchable format for the future.

A food services company looks at ESS as a way to drive supply chain efficiencies. Secure ESS apps on mobile devices like smart-phones and enterprise tablets have the potential to increase the participation rates of their sales managers from the current 30%-40% to more than 60% by making it easy to enter forecasts by accessing virtual sales communities from anywhere, anytime. This could reduce inventory carrying costs by 10-15 percent and halve the rate of fresh produce shrinkage by improving forecast accuracy.


Sales teams spend inordinate amounts of time searching for the right collateral and for subject matter experts (SMEs) to help resolve customer queries. By creating virtual sales communities and enabling employees to click-to-collaborate from their desktop or from mobile devices, manufacturing organizations can reduce the time spent searching for the best information. This enables sales teams and field support to spend more time with customers. Within Cisco, ESS solutions have enabled our virtualized product specialists to conduct an incremental 4.5 customer meetings per week with this free time.

With its ability to drive rapid expertise and expert collateral location on mobile devices, ESS is also garnering interest from manufacturers with large field service operations. Initial work done in looking at field service processes in utility companies indicates the potential to drive 30-45 minutes per day of productivity per field employee and significantly reduce issue resolution times.

Conventional wisdom says that enterprises need to deploy ESS solutions in the next decade or more, because the next generation of workers will have internalized the use of Facebook and other social networking tools for communication and collaboration in their personal lives and will likely need similar tools as they graduate to the workforce.

The time to leverage enterprise social networking to drive business imperatives is not in a decade or more, but right now. Manufacturers who move now can transform their business by driving increased innovation, additional production uptime and better customer service to separate themselves from the competition.

Abhay Prasad is a Senior Manager at Cisco who leads Cisco's enterprise social software consulting work with customers in the manufacturing, high tech and energy verticals.

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