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Manufacturing social media software: Where it makes sense

While social networking has become a part of daily life for many people, manufacturing organizations have been slow to add social media to their businesses.

Social networking has radically altered the way individuals and corporations communicate, and Nokia Siemens Networks, for one, is charging into the fray with a new user interface that mirrors the popular social networking sites. Employees of the European telecom company create MySpace-like personal pages, fill out profiles and post messages to a community bulletin board. And there’s talk of extending the network to customers.

From Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn, it’s now common -- and somewhat expected -- to be able to broadcast news instantly to friends, family and even customers. But in a sector that has traditionally been slow to try new technology, companies like Nokia Siemens are rare, and adoption of manufacturing social media software remains in its infancy.

There are signs, however, that manufacturers are beginning to catch on.

In a survey by Boston-based Affinity Research Group and ERP vendor IFS North America, 24% of manufacturers reported that adopting software that has collaborative and communicative functions was “very important” or “extremely important.” The number of manufacturers looking for tools labeled specifically as “social media” was smaller, at 12%. The majority -- 58.5% -- saw potential value in embedding social networking in an ERP system.

If these numbers are accurate, then manufacturers’ interest in social media is increasing -- but how many have actually implemented it in their ERP or supply chain management software? Is this sort of implementation even feasible when IT budgets have shrunk over several years of economic turmoil?

According to Matthew Davis, principal research analyst at Gartner Inc. (Stamford, Conn.), some companies have taken baby steps, but there is still a long way to go before these applications can equal the size and data-processing capabilities of mainstream social networks. Gartner also recently completed a study on social media trends.

“The idea [of manufacturing social media] is of interest, but right now there isn’t a tool for feeding all that data in” from an ERP system or other enterprise applications, Davis said. “Anything around predictive analytics is difficult, because there’s too much volume.”

While he hasn’t seen much social media movement from vendors, Davis said he thinks many manufacturers are using Facebook- or Twitter-like custom portals internally. Manufacturers that have a presence on mainstream social networks tend to take a marketing or public-relations-driven approach to reach out to consumers, he said.

“Some companies are using these networks to listen to customer chatter, to track topics being talked about and for demand sensing,” Davis said, adding the people in charge of managing the social media presence are often referred to as community directors.

Dell is one manufacturer that is using social media to find out what its customers want. The company’s IdeaStorm site is an interactive message board where users can submit comments and suggestions, as well as promote or demote the posts of other users.

Procter & Gamble is also trying to forge connections with customers but has taken a different approach. The maker of consumer goods allows anyone to submit product, technology or business ideas to its Innovation Network. The website lists the company’s current needs and encourages outside parties to send in their solutions.

“The ability to aid what feels like a one-on-one conversation with a customer and a user is important,” Davis said.

Social networking software requires an engaged audience

Manufacturers who are considering deploying a social media strategy need to decide what information they want to share, what their goals are and how much audience interest there is.

Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO of Constellation Research Inc., sees potential in manufacturing social media. “Social networking can augment ERP systems by expediting how information is delivered, shared and communicated to suppliers, partners, employees and, of course, customers,” said Wang. “It starts with collaboration tools for internal and external users.”

Social networking doesn’t have to be run exclusively by marketing or PR, according to Wang. Marketing can be used to promote products and reach out to customers, while service and support cases can be funneled through customer relationship management and then ERP managers.

Social media projects can deliver a long-term return on investment, but it’s critical to decide beforehand what is to be accomplished. Wang suggests asking three questions: what is the problem today (or what areas need to be improved--for example, payment cycles or product development), how can social media play a role, and is it a cost-effective and realistic solution?

There are a number of scenarios in which social media could solve manufacturing challenges, Wang said. Improved collaboration with suppliers or partners could help to get a product out faster or improve supply chain efficiencies. Accounts receivable could be reduced by improving communication with customers.

“The implementation process starts with defining the metrics, identifying the core business processes, seeing where social media can augment or replace existing channels, and aligning that with roles or personas,” Wang said.

Above all else, a successful social network must have an audience that wants it. “[Manufacturing social media] is only as real as the audience,” said Wang. “Your network is only as good as who is in it and if they are willing to engage and share.”

Nokia Siemens builds 'godlike' social media application

Nokia Siemens forged a successful social network from the built-in social media functions in the business process management suite, Appian BPM, creating an internal user interface known as Hermes.

According to Nick Deacon, global head of BPM for Nokia Siemens, Hermes works like Facebook and consists of seven areas that individuals can customize, including the profile, message board, files, tasks, and communities.

Users are directed to Hermes automatically upon signing onto Appian BPM. Inside, they can view and respond to messages and post to their community message board.  The My Space area is very similar to the mainstream social network of the same name, allowing users to create their own pages with pictures, text and feeds. Hermes’ most Facebook-like element is My Profile, which displays the employee’s background information and is linked to the competency management module that lists work experience.

While Hermes is an internal application, Nokia Siemens has moved to apply the data to other modules in Appian BPM that could make the data visible to external viewers. In particular, data from Hermes could be fed into the company’s global network implementation centers, according to Deacon.

“This is currently in the stabilization phase while the users gain confidence in its capabilities,” he said. “Once complete, we will be providing additional functionality to allow the external customers to benefit from the system and have visibility into network activities. This will allow them to communicate and collaborate, improving customer relationship and overall satisfaction in the company.”

Though Hermes is considered a success, not every Nokia Siemens employee has been quick to embrace it. “In a work environment, users are reluctant to completely let down their guard and to collaborate as they would with personal social networking systems,” Deacon said. “There is a natural mistrust and unease which means that Hermes has yet to realize the potential that we thought it would. That said, it's gradually being seen by the business as a benefit, and wider adoption is hoped for in time.”

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