Context is King – virtual collaboration in product development

The past two months have given the topic of virtual collaboration an enormous boost. The Corona crisis has forced everyone to deal with this topic. And the conclusion is consistently positive!

In the first few weeks, the main task was to create the possibilities for virtual collaboration. Now it is a matter of continuing to use the potential of these possibilities after the return to “normality”. What’s even more: many companies are taking the experience they have gained as an opportunity to rethink their structural and process organization and to further digitalize business processes.

Special case product development

While common office solutions in combination with video conferencing are easy to use in areas such as administration, marketing or sales, they often reach their limits in product development. One reason for this is, among others, the high level of interdisciplinarity in this area. Many different specialist teams have to work together at the same time and on several projects. Added to this is the high complexity of the work objects, which are often developed as structures and have many different relationships with each other. In order to work together productively under these conditions, the possibilities of the usual IT tools are not sufficient.

New requirements for IT tools

Intelligent platform solutions for collaborative product lifecycle management (PLM), which enable context-related interdisciplinary work, provide a remedy here. Context-related means that all work objects are linked to each other and can be called up at any time in the work process and from any context. Analysts like Gartner speak of content collaboration tools. This means that you can navigate from one work item to all neighboring work items without having to search and ask questions. This guarantees efficient and valid collaboration, especially in distributed teams.

Intelligent platform solutions offer yet another advantage in collaboration: a common environment in which all project participants can inform themselves and view changes directly. Cross-team chat functions, so-called activity streams, support the consistent exchange of information on the current status of the project. Especially in virtual collaboration, this guarantees a continuous flow of information, which in most cases more than compensates for the lack of “office grapevine” or the meeting at the coffee machine. Gartner has a term ready for this, too, which is Workstream Collaboration.

Another key component of intelligent platform solutions is the use of integrated task boards, which allow development teams to organize their tasks independently. In the past, task lists with several hundred entries were often used. Today, task boards allow only important milestones or quality gates to be set, but leave the individual tasks within the milestones to the teams themselves. This allows an interdisciplinary, distributed team to carry out a joint weekly planning on screen in virtual sessions, e.g. via Zoom.

The main advantage of integrated task boards is the direct linking of to-do cards on the boards with the work objects. This avoids not only the time-consuming search for the appropriate work objects, but also error and version risks. These additional expenses and risks usually occur with purchased individual solutions.

Conclusion:

The Corona crisis has prepared the ground for the continuous expansion of virtual collaboration – also in product development – from now on. Product development places special demands on IT tools for efficient virtual collaboration. Especially working in context is a decisive productivity factor here. Selected intelligent platform solutions for collaborative PLM already meet these requirements today.

20 years of PLM: Why do many still doubt the benefits?

In the meantime, I can look back on several years of consulting for Product Life Cycle Management. A topic whose popularity has fluctuated considerably over the years and is currently on the rise again in the wake of digital transformation.

Despite the increasing attention for PLM again, I notice that the term continues to have a large, cumbersome, tedious, and uneconomical taste. Amazing, because the effort that many companies put into ERP projects, for example, was and is significantly higher in most cases. Nevertheless, the necessity and benefits of – expensive – ERP projects are discussed, but rarely questioned, see Haribo and Lidl.

How do these different perceptions come about? One explanation could be that the benefits of PLM for management and employees in companies have not been sufficiently exploited over the years. This was mainly due to the fact that the scope and visibility of PLM projects in companies was often very limited.

A closer look shows that many of the earlier PLM implementations were in fact PDM implementations. PDM, Product Data Management, focuses on product descriptive data, primarily CAD models and drawings. “PLM” was therefore limited to the core areas of product development, very often even to Mechanical Design. Although beeing avilable in some PLM solutions for years, Change Management, Document Management, Project Management, cross-departmental collaboration or communication with external parties have not been used. Instead, solutions based on Excel, Outlook, the file system or SharePoint were often created on their own. Tools that everyone in the company knows. And for those one can very easily find someone to “optimize” these tools by macro programming. In addition to that, the negative attitude towards PLM was certainly fuelled by the overloaded, highly compressed “engineering user interfaces” of the 1st and 2nd PLM product generations.

So it’s no surprise that PLM was seen in the company as an expensive, less useful and exotic application!

In the current PLM renaissance, companies now have every opportunity to learn from the deficits of the past and to take advantage of the impressive potential of Product Lifecycle Management. Many obsolete and discontinued PDM and PLM solutions are currently or soon to be replaced by modern 3rd generation PLM platforms, which also support the use cases around the Digital Twin and the Internet of Things. They breathe life into the PLM idea by effectively and efficiently supporting processes across phases, departments and company boundaries. New, web-based HTML-5 user interfaces significantly increase acceptance among all user groups in the company by making even complex relationships clearer and handling them more efficient.

Now there is a chance to realize “real” Product Lifecycle Management! Against the background of new, digital business models, which put the use phase of products much more in the foreground, this becomes all the more important. PLM solutions play a central role here, as they lay the foundation for data relating to the Digital Twin.

But in the end, hard facts also count when it comes to benefits and ROI: If PLM is actually used company-wide with all its possibilities, high economies of scale quickly result from the significant minimization of non-value-adding activities. This alone often enables a return on investment after just one year. Regardless of the additional revenue potential from new, data-driven business models that PLM will enable in the future.