Singing from the same hymn sheet

Successful product lifecycle management depends on close collaboration, often on a global scale, as John Lamb reports


Product development is a group effort that calls for ideas, plans, data, documents and drawings to flow efficiently between the people involved, wherever they are.

And in a business climate in which time to market is all important, it is imperative that communication systems deliver this information in a timely, convenient fashion so that team members can review plans and make changes as quickly as possible.

Delays can have dire consequences for innovation. A recent study by Forrester Research revealed that 75 per cent of manufacturing organisations regularly see delays in product development projects due to an inability to reach managers to sign-off work.

“A slow response to changing market conditions in today’s hyper-competitive environment places companies at a distinct disadvantage relative to competitors,” warns the business advisory company.

With teams working together in locations that may be scattered around the world, in different time zones, with different languages and cultures, lack of collaboration can become a big obstacle.

Even though mobile communication devices are much more integrated than they were, incompatible systems can result in costly delays and may prevent people from following company processes or from complying with industry regulations.

Not surprisingly, most major software vendors have introduced product lifecycle solutions that specialise in linking members of collaborative teams. Cisco’s Collaborative PLM Solution with PTC, for example, boasts text-to-speech conversion of engineering changes that will work with a variety of phones and handheld devices.

Cisco’s “presence” feature allows users to see which team members are available, what medium they would like to use – e-mail, mobile phone, landline – and to set up ad hoc conference calls. The solution also includes web conferencing tools, such as WebEx and MeetingPlace.

Companies, including aircraft maker Lockheed Martin, have built complex collaborative networks to manage product lifecycles. To support development of its F-35 fighter plane, Lockheed Martin has linked more than 11,000 people, both inside and outside the organisation, in a collaboration network that spans 130 sites.

The company’s collaboration effort is backed up by a storage area network containing more than five terabytes of product information. Units involved with the network store data locally, which means that 70,000 data items have to be replicated each day.

Not everyone needs such heavy-duty computing. Many companies can just as easily collaborate with the aid of free or low-cost social media. Developers of social media software are beginning to wake up to the fact that businesses want to use their offerings to collaborate on projects.

So, for example, Google recently added extra security to Google+ with the idea that workers can create closed communities within organisations or among trusted partners. Microsoft is developing similar features for its SharePoint software.

Effective communication not only ensures everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to product lifecycle management, but that increasingly they can do it with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of output within a private community.