Do We Need Engineering Note App?

March 27, 2014

engineering-notes-app

Yesterday’s post about how engineers can collaborate in the office, made me think about another aspect of collaboration – taking notes. You may argue… Taking notes isn’t specifically collaborative activity. However, I can see it very tightly coupled with our ability to communicate and collaborate.

There are lots of applications for notes taking these days. Just to mention few of them – Evernote, OneNote, Word processing applications such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs. You can see a comparison of some popular applications here. Mobile is another interesting platform today for notes taking and it created a separate niche. Take a look here – Five best mobile note taking apps. Expanding even more, Evernote is transforming into platform and allows to other development specific note taking apps – The Best Evernote Apps for Organizing Even More of Your Life.

Do you think engineers are taking notes? I think, they do. I have to admit that I do… I also know few other engineers that taking notes. Now think about engineers using CAD systems and many other engineering and manufacturing applications. Do they need a special application to take notes? Maybe CAD should develop "note function"? Maybe new social collaboration tools will provide it? I don’t know. Nevertheless, I want to outline some specific functional requirements for engineering notes app:

1- Engineering context support. When you take notes, you want to be able to capture snippet of a specific content coming from CAD and maybe other engineering content creation tools (analysis, bill of materials, etc.)

2- Integrated camera for 3D, photo, voice and video capturing. It is very important to be able to capture real world content. Engineers can take this app to field trips or use it at shop floor. Ability to take photo, video or even capturing 3D model is extremely useful.

3 – Integrated measurement tools. Measurement is another aspect of engineering activity. To have ability to take measurement in the field or check dimensions can be extremely important.

What is my conclusion? There are lots of general purpose application for taking notes. Nevertheless, I think, customization is important. To have note taking app tailored for the needs of engineers can be an interesting option. Especially, if this app will support a specific engineering context. If you know one, please let me know. I didn’t find it yet. How to make this app? This is a tricky question. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


How engineers find path from emails and messages to collaboration?

March 14, 2014

email-message-collaboration

We are really bad about managing ourselves. The natural people behavior is to create mess. Life is getting more dynamic these days. We are swamped into the ocean of information, data streams, social networks, emails, calls, etc. If you want me to do something, send me an email. I’m pretty sure you are familiar with such type of behavior? I’m sure you do. This is our way to get our of mess, so we can track everything. It is true for both private and business life. One of the most requested feature in all PLM workflow systems I developed was to send notifications via email. HRB article Stop using your inbox as to-do list speaks about why we should stop this bad behavior. I liked the following passage:

The reason so many of us fall into the trap of conflating email and task management is that email is inextricable from much of what we do in work and in life: many of our tasks arrive in the form of email messages, and many other tasks require reading or sending emails as part of getting that work done.

While there are those who solve this problem by simply tracking their to-dos using the task manager within Outlook (or another email platform), that approach comes at too steep a cost. Keeping your tasks in your email program means you can’t close that program (and its attendant distractions) when you want to plow through your task list. Having both activities as part of one application also means that you’ll still have to flip from one view to the other; even if you open a separate window for your task list, you risk losing sight of it in a sea of open emails. Most crucially, defaulting to the task manager that is built into your email client means you don’t get to choose the particular task manager that works best for your particular kind of work, or work style.

Email became the pile of all activities I need to do. It is a mix of emails, tasks, alerts and everything else that eventually comes to my inbox to distract me. I want to resolve this mess. At the same time we all panic when messages are starting to come into multiple channels, since we are afraid to miss them. So want both – to keep all messaging activities together and focus on what is important and what needs to be done. It is a time to come with David Allen’s Getting Things Done method. Such method and systems can work for individuals, but what happens in groups, especially when these groups are sharing common tasks? This is where we get social these days.

Social became such a buzzword for the last few years. How many times you’ve heard "Facebook for xyz" or "Twitter for abc". I guess a lot… One of the companies that comes to my mind in that context is Yammer. The idea of Yammer was simple – go viral by combining people messages in activity streams. Microsoft snapped Yammer for $1.2B few years ago. Now Microsoft is converging Yammer with SharePoint – an attempt to create social collaboration system. Mobile has very strong impact on our life these days. Does mobile+social is a future big deal? For some of people it is really big deal – especially when we speak about Whatsapp acquisition by Facebook. Companies are recognizing the importance of messaging platforms. Example in engineering and CAD space – Autodesk (disclose – my current employer) just released mobile group messaging application Autodesk Instant.

So, social chat, social messaging, social networking are good. However, where is the line that turns emails and messaging into collaboration? The difference is big. What can differentiate between social email facilitating communication and system that allows people to collaborate (work together)? I posted Will Microsoft-Yammer kill social PLM? Not yet… The topic differentiating messaging and collaboration is context (piece of data). This data is presented in a contextual form allowing people to make operations and activities together. The simplest "collaboration" is commenting on Facebook photo. In the context of engineering activity, it can be more complex. What about drawing or 3D model? This is a good context for common work. So, collaborative nature of the system is first of all to allow access and common activity on the contextual data. Technically it can be done by sending email with link to the file on FTP site. But it is so 95…

What is my conclusion? I don’t think there is a clear boarder between email,messaging and collaboration. It is blurred. However, access to contextual information and data representations such as photo, spreadsheet, drawing or 3D model is the most important thing that differentiate between any type of fancy email / messaging and collaboration. By accessing these pieces of information together people can work together and get job done in an organized form. Engineers are surrounded by huge amount of complex information. So, collaboration is clearly way to go. However, don’t underestimate simple messaging, especially for some downstream tasks. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


CAD, Engineers and Online Communities

February 19, 2014

cad-engineers-community

Remember our life before internet? The meaning of community was about social group that shares common values. Actually, the history of communities is longer than history of CAD software :). So called "Community Rules" were mentioned in one of the first scrolls found in Qumran Cave. Community word often explains common geography or environment. However, in human communities it is usually comes down to needs, belief, intent, risks, etc. Internet expanded borders of social groups and made possible to create virtual communities. The result – massive creation of online communities (social networks). Some of them, such as Facebook, started as a virtual continuation of physical social groups (academic organization). Social networks today represent huge segment of online internet activities.

The success of social business and social networking raised multiple questions among developers of business software. Collaboration still remains one of the biggest problem in organization. Geographical distribution is another reason why companies are looking how to improve communication. Software vendors are coming with the ideas of software to collaborate similar to social networking web sites. In addition to that, community creation is related to customer activities. This is where a potential to link collaboration in an organization and customer activities.

So, what is the secret of successful community creation? I was reading The collision of communities few days ago. Article brings some interesting perspectives on community organizations and some driving factors behind community work. Among them, article speaks about Jelly (Q&A search), Wut and Secret (anonymous status apps). These are communities too. Author compares these communities with communities companies are creating these days. Fundamentally, in order to be successful, communities are sharing the same common behavior and interest. Here is my favorite passage from the article:

Every social startup that launches hope to have a large, organic community organize around their product. They hire community managers and product managers spend a lot of time thinking about how to increase engagement. Jelly, Wut and Secret, each different in application, have at it core, the need to build and cultivate a vibrant community to succeed, and in order to do so, they must remember the first community rule: He shall guide them with knowledge and instruct them in the mysteries of wonder and truth in the midst of the members of the community, so that they shall behave decently with one another in all that has been revealed to them.

Engineering software companies are joining the bandwagon community building. Social CAD, Social PLM, Social Collaboration – for the last few years we’ve heard a lot about how community driven (social) software will change the way we do business. We can only speculate about successes and failures of social software. However, I want to bring two examples of communities related to engineering software – SolidWorks Users and GrabCAD.

SolidWorks has large and successful community. Nobody can argue. The common interests and needs among them is to share knowledge and experience of how to use SolidWorks. In my view, it was extremely important to all participants since it allowed to them (engineers) to get CAD system support. Most of SolidWorks users are working for small firms that had no budget and engineering IT to help them.

GrabCAD is an interesting example. Started few years ago as "Facebook for Engineers", it succeeded to gather about 1 million engineers to share CAD files online. Here is my pure speculation how it was done. Re-use is one of the fundamental engineering behavior. You can save a lot of time by re-using existing design even if you will modify it. Back in my university years, to have an old similar project was a huge time saving factor in every project I did. GrabCAD provided to engineers models to reuse CAD models for the best price – free. In addition to that, it helps engineers to self-promote their work.

Think about these two examples. In both cases, focus on identification of "community rule" was a key to success. It should be something that will drive common interests and benefits of all participants. Wikipedia article about organizational communication can be a good source of learning and additional information. Here are few assumptions I captured:

All we really need to understand communication in organizations is (a) observable and replicable behaviors that can be transformed into variables by some form of measurement, and (b) formally replicable syllogisms that can extend theory from observed data to other groups and settings. Organizations are mechanical things, in which the parts (including employees functioning in defined roles) are interchangeable. What works in one organization will work in another similar organization. Individual differences can be minimized or even eliminated with careful management techniques.

What is my conclusion? Ask two engineers about how to do a project – you will get 3 options. To work with engineers is like herding cats. Nevertheless, the focus should be on identification and capturing of behaviors that can help engineers in their everyday life. Be prepared to discover something different from traditional organizational goals like "improve quality" or "decrease cost". By capturing and replicating engineers’ behaviors you can find a recipe to organize a successful engineering community. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Why engineers need exploratory search?

December 13, 2013

engineers-exploratory-search

Search. One of the most powerful changes in experience we’ve seen for the last 10-15 years. It is interesting, but search was with us many years. Search or find was a functionality in every enterprise application already 20-25 years ago. However, before Google made us to believe and experience the power of web search, the importance of this function was clearly underestimated. Because of Google wide adoption, we associate almost everything in search innovation with Google. It is not unusual to hear that vendor or developer is comparing what they do in search with Google.

Interesting enough, search innovation happens outside of Google Headquarters too. Old article from 2007 – Top 17 Search Innovations Outside Of Google speaks about it. Have a read, compare your notes from 2007 and draw your opinion. Several innovation mentioned in the article aree very resonating with PLM, engineering and manufacturing. The following two are my top choices – result refinement and parametric search. Here are passages I captured:

Results refinement and Filters: Often a natural next step after a search is to drill down into the results, by further refining the search. This is different from the "keyword-tweaking" that we’ve all gotten used to with Google; it’s not just experimenting with keyword combinations to submit a new query, but rather, an attempt to actually refine the results set [akin to adding more conditions to the "where" clause of a SQL query] – this would allow users to narrow the results and converge on their desired solution.

Parametric search: This type of search is closer to a Database query than a Text search; it answers an inherently different type of question. A parametric search helps to find problem solutions rather than text documents. For example, Shopping.com allows you to qualify clothing search with a material, brand, style or price change; job search sites like indeed let you constrain the matches to a given zip code; and GlobalSpec lets you specify a variety of parameters when searching for Engineering components (e.g. check out the parameters when searching for an industrial pipe ). Parametric search is a natural feature for Vertical Search engines.

Another interesting writeup that drove my attention last week was LinkedIn post – The Changing Face of Exploratory Search. Daniel Tunkelang, speaks about modern trends in search, such as entity-oriented search, knowledge-graph and search assistance. The conclusion Daniel made in his article is that future of search is in combination of faceted search and search assistance. He called it exploratory search. I found the following quotes very insightful:

Exploratory searcher has a set of search criteria in mind, but does not know how many results will match those criteria — or if there even are any matching results to be found.

Combining entity-oriented search and knowledge graphs has led to the use of faceted search interfaces that expose entities to searchers and encourage searchers to combine entities into precise search queries.

Search assistance offers the promise of making faceted search more accessible to the average searcher, enabling searchers to compose faceted search queries as they type. Indeed, search assistance makes it possible to expose untrained searchers to a richer set of relationships than typical faceted search interfaces, approaching the expressiveness of a database query language like SQL. Facebook’s Graph Search offers a taste of what is possible by combining faceted search with search assistance. It encourages people to create structured queries inside the search box, using suggestions along the way to guide the process of query construction.

PLM vendors are looking towards how to provide search as part of user experience. For most of user today, search is a natural part of application. At the same time, engineering and manufacturing data is semantically rich and interconnected. The complexity of products is growing. Product configurations, bill of materials, suppliers, manufacturers and many other data islands. All together creates a complex data access problem.

What is my conclusion? Customer demands is to have simplicity of Google combined with the complexity of product configuration, multiple bill of materials, variety of document configurations, manufacturing and supply data. The idea of "exploratory search" can be very compelling for engineering and manufacturing data. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


Why PDM stuck in non-web age?

July 27, 2013

Web as a platform. You can hear many conversations about that nowadays. Started as cloud talks, it comes more to the point where we can see the discussion about how “world wide web” is changing user experience and computing paradigms. One of the strongest trends coming on top of massive shift towards web paradigm is consumerization trend in enterprise. Lots of technologies, applications and paradigms were proven during past decade with “consumer space”. These techs are trying to find their paths towards our working places.

Thinking about engineering and manufacturing software these days, I can see a significant shift towards web (and cloud) computing and software. Autodesk joined web race by introducing many cloud products over the past 2-3 years (Autodesk 360, PLM 360, Fusion 360, CAM 360, etc.) After yesterday announcement made by Dassault System about new cloud based portfolio, I need to revisit my 2 years old blog – PLM Cloud: differentiation or “anti-cloud rant”?

I want to speak today about PDM (product data management) or EDM (Engineering Data Management) in early days. The PDM discipline is around since mid 80s. Few days ago, GrabCAD published an interesting blog post covering some historical PDM roots. Nevertheless, despite all changes, look back 10 years and now. Not much changes you can find. I still can see massive amount of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets flying around in and out engineering desktops and manufacturing facilities. The spreadsheets is one of the main evidence of the fact engineers are stuck on their desktops.

I was reading an interesting interview by Scott Moyse – Synergis Adept Trumps Windows File Management. This is a journey of the company implementing product data management this year. What struck me the most is how deep PDM philosophy is connected to folders/files hierarchy paradigm. Here is an interesting passage I captured:

SM: What system did you use to manage your documentation prior to purchasing Adept? RH: Pretty much Windows Explorer (file manager). We had secure drives and it was divided into folders and file names. People would search the servers to find drawings, and if they didn’t have AutoCAD they opened them with DWG Trueview.

SM: Have you maintained that folder structure for Adept? RH: Pretty much, I would say we still have same folder structure that we put into Adept’s database. Using Adept’s Library Browser, we can still see the folder structure and drill down to a specific file. Now we search for our files with Adept’s Library card. We just type in whatever information we want in a search field and the file comes up. But the Windows file structure is still there because Adept doesn’t scramble or move the files.

Thinking more about that, I came to my top 5 reasons why I think engineers love their files and folders. It also explains why PDM “stuck on the desktop”:

1- Majority of engineering stuff lives on the desktop or shared network drives these days. These are large files and perception that moving these files to web environment is complicated, painful and not necessarily needed.

2- Most of engineers are convinced that they can collaborate using “file exchange paradigm”, so they don’t think how to make a change. CAD file viewers are probably the only one mainstream web technologies came to engineering space that takes files from desktop and file servers to outside of engineering space.

3- Engineers have limited interests to share. For many years, engineering departments were treated as “black boxes”. Engineers must do design and provide the result. Manufacturing and operation can do the rest. So, it developed sort of “comfort zone” for most of engineers – don’t touch my stuff I put in my folders.

4- Many engineers are concerned about IP (Intellectual property). Especially, not very computer savvy engineers are afraid of the wild behavior of the web spreading viruses and stealing identities. So, typical engineering position – I don’t want to be responsible for potential leak of IP outside of the company.

5- There is no real Excel replacement on the web. There are many products that trying to mimic Excel. Microsoft SharePoint made lots of work converting spreadsheets into online data services. However, there is nothing online yet that can take a full flexibility of MS Excel spreadsheet and put it online.

What is my conclusion? In the world of web and social networks, engineers remain one of the most conservative group of people working entirely on the desktop. Desktop remains a comfort zone for most of engineers. How to get engineers out of this comfort zone? This is a question many CAD and other engineering software developers are thinking about. New design and collaboration tools are coming these days to make engineering to cloud transformation happen. It will come as a combination of new design tools, shifting paradigms and influence of new generation of engineers. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


PLM, Engineers and Collective Memory

January 24, 2013

Many years ago, one of my mentors told me that "the worst pencil is better than the best memory". I liked it. Since than, I have no trust in remembering things. I started to take notes. I switched to be completely paperless 4-5 years ago. The biggest problem on my way to become completely paperless was the ability to capture information at the time you need it coming from multiple sources. Finally, iPhone and combination of apps allowed me to create an environment where I can keep track of my activities and get access to this at any time.

Engineering people are bad organized (please, don’t take it personally). Processes and work planning are not going well with engineers designing and creating new products. Companies tried to create innovation process management software, but in my view it was very unsuccessful. At the same time, I can see a need of engineers to capture information alongside their everyday activities.

One of the products I’m using to capture the information on a daily basis is Evernote. It supports many ways to capture notes using web and mobile versions including capturing of videos, pictures, website links and many others. Combined with search function, it helps to keep things organized. Evernote is not alone in this market. Two additional notable companies in this space – Clipboard and Snip.it. The last one was snatched by Yahoo few days ago. Watch the following two videos if you are not using similar products in your life.

From Personal to Collective Memory

I found a total absence of tools that can help engineers to capture their everyday working activities. Of course, engineers are not prohibited from usage of Evernote, Google and many other tools. At the same time, one of the key elements in capturing the activity is contextual relationships to information. In case of Evernote, it is photo, voice memos, videos, etc. To make engineering and design context capturing can be an interesting opportunity, in my view. They key element is efficiency. Engineers won’t tolerate even additional 30 secs of their working time. However, to memorize design idea, concept or decision can be extremely powerful.

The next interesting step can come with the ability to provide information around a particular item, drawing, product, customer, etc. collected by different people in organization. Such type of clipboards can become a sort of collective memories. The potential value can be significant – lost ideas, forgotten decisions, potential customer problems and many others.

What is my conclusion? Our memory is not efficient. To be able to capture information around engineering and design activity is still very untapped place. Usability is a key. Vendors can learn from tools like Evernote and others how to create a tool you can use in your everyday life in any environment. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Image courtesy of [keattikorn] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


How to get engineers, to do PLM?

December 5, 2012

Enterprise software is a complicated beast. PLM is not an exclusion from the list. Despite demands to be simplified and become user friendly, the majority of PLM implementations require long preparation, planning and implementation phases. However, this is only a visible part of the iceberg. The invisible part (and probably mostly important) that many people are rejecting to use data-management software. If you speak to engineers, they can tell you how they hate everything that makes their lives very complicated. Here is the question I can hear many times in industry discussions, conferences, dispute and blogs – how to get engineers to use PLM software?

I’ve been thinking about different approaches. The following TechCrunch article caught my attention – Ways to get people to do things they don’t want to do. Read the article and make your conclusion. The analogy with kids is pretty funny. At the end of the days, engineers like kids… (excuse me, engineers, but it was a compliment :)). This is my favorite passage:

Unfortunately, the corporate norm remains drawing up a long list of what needs to get done and throwing it over the email wall to be completed… or else! There will always be tasks people don’t want to do. But there are better ways to motivate others, principally by designing conditions where people actuate themselves. Fundamentally, people resist being controlled and both the carrot and the stick can be tools for unwanted manipulation. Instead, designing behavior by putting in the forethought to appropriately stage tasks, providing progress indicators, and finally, offering celebratory rewards under the right circumstances, are easy ways to motivate while maintaining a sense of autonomy. Whether in the doctor’s office or the corner office, it is the job of the person inflicting the pain to do their utmost to ease it. Not doing so is intellectually lazy, whether to a kid or to a colleague. Considering how the receiver could more easily comply with the request is at the heart of inspiring action.

Here is my 3 ways of how software vendors can reduce the pain and to simplify the way for engineers to be involved into PLM activities:

1. One step at the time. This is a fundamental change, in my view. Most of PLM activities looks like multi-year journey, which involves the transformation of company business processes and activities. To make flexible software capable to be adapted to company processes. Then make a change "one process at the time" is the future of PLM software.

2. Improvements KPI. To develop tools that can demonstrate improvements indicators. These tools can be used by company to promote and appreciate people involved into the implementation of PLM programs.

3. Social Features. Implement "social features" and tools that can help people to promote what they do in the company. Imagine PLM software can help people to become more visible in the organization can help to develop additional incentives to use PLM software.

What is my conclusion? Technology is simple. People are hard. I’ve heard this conclusion couple of years ago from John Gage’s keynote at COFES and I like it very much. It precisely explains why software programs and IT projects are failing despite brilliant code and amazing technological achievements. PLM vendors need to think how to connect their software to an individual engineer to make it more successful in the future. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Image credit Angry Engineer.


How To Stop Searching for PLM Killer App?

March 12, 2011

Are you familiar with the "Killer App" syndrome? In my view, conversations about a "Killer App" are very popular when some technological device or broad technological innovation needs to be proven. Killer App becomes so popular that return on the technology becomes obvious. I can bring some examples of Killer Apps in the past:VisiCalc on Apple II or Lotus 1-2-3 for IBM PC. However, in my view, talks about "killer app" are also a good indication about problems with a product or technology.

The following article caught my attention yesterday: What is the Killer Application for a Modern Engineer? I missed it when it was originally published in January. Chad Jackson, my colleague in the PLM Blogosphere, is talking about CAD, Collaboration and Mashups as examples of killer applications for Engineers. Where I disagree about the "notion" killer application in the context of engineers, I found analyzes Chad made in his post interesting.

Examples of Killer Apps?

CAD App
Personally, I think CAD is a mainstream technology. It was proven by many years. I don’t think, somebody today is designing any product without CAD system. History of CAD passed many waves of technological innovation that moved CAD between 2D, 3D and different computers platforms. I found surprising the fact SolidWorks wasn’t mentioned in the list of CAD products, but the choice of CAD was always somewhat "religious" and Chad’s selection didn’t surprise me.

Collaboration App
The history of various "collaborative applications" in the engineering space, in my view, started by introducing of data management to a wider company audience and following trial to expansion into PDM and PLM. The discussion about what is the killer app for collaboration is on going even today. My favorite collaboration tool for many years is email. Since I moved to Google App, I found it as a good addition to my email experience. PDM and PLM applications are constantly trying to replace email without visible success, in my view.

Mashups
The story of mashup is funny in my view. The word itself came to us from the Internet and Web space where applications (mostly running in the browser) "mashed up" the web content and making it more valuable for end users. The most successful mashup application, in my eyes is Google Map. I wrote about mashup on my blog before (Will Mashup Grow Up in PLM?) In my eyes mashups are interesting, but too vague and unclear from the standpoing of end-user who trying to get a job done.

PLM as a Killer App

In the beginning of 2000s PLM was introduced as a next big thing for engineers and manufacturing. After almost a decade of debates and different technological and product development attempts, I can see Product Lifecycle Management more as a "business and technological strategy" rather than "application".

Product Development: One Size Doesn’t Fit All?

Now think about design, engineering and manufacturing. It is all so different from various perspectives. Industry specific needs, departments and roles are different. Finally, every manufacturing shop is developing their own strategy for how to compete in the modern world and what can make it unique. If you ask me what application can fit everything, my ultimate answer is simple – Excel. Yes, Excel rocks when it comes to the flexibility and user adoption. The cost of customizing Excel to fit your needs is huge and the cost to support it even bigger (remember my Do you need chief Excel officer to manage BOM?)

What is my conclusion? PLM software vendors and analysts need to stop searching for a next "Killer Application". Flexibility and granularity are two important directions software vendors need to follow to gain next level of PLM software adoption. Just my opinion, of course. YMMV.

Best, Oleg


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