Engineers and Social Networks? Oil and Water, or Oil and Vinegar? (part 1 of 2)

Alan Belniakbusiness, Social Media, technologyLeave a Comment

Screen capture to Knovel's 'Engineers and Social Networks' webinar

(cross-posted over at PTC’s Social Product Development blog, where I’m also a contributor)

I recently had the pleasure of serving as a panelist for a webinar sponsored by Knovel titled Engineers ‘Professional Use of Social Networks Today and Where It Is Heading.  Knovel has graciously made the replay of the webinar available free (registration required).

In a nutshell, Knovel is a web-based application integrating technical information with analytical and search tools to drive innovation and deliver answers engineers can trust.  It can help engineers do their jobs faster and better by having the right information available to them at the right times.  Knovel was keen to understand how engineers work in collaborative environments to get their work done as well.  One of the panelists, Kate Worlock, walks through some recent survey data of engineers and their use of social networks.  Overall, the webinar was great, and I learned a lot not only from my co-panelists, but also the questions asked.

We didn’t have time to answer all of the submitted questions, but I did take a few moments and address some of the more common ones and some of the ones where I think the answers can provide some real value to engineers.  Perhaps you have one of the same (or similar) questions.

Q: What programs are being used for the social networking, and how are they being used by engineers? What kind of proprietary information sites can be used for knowledge transfers?

A: Traditional, web 1.0 discussion boards tend to be popular among engineers.  A site like will help locate these that are relevant to your industry.  Also, Googling ‘social network site {your industry}’ (minus the quotes, and substituting your industry where appropriate) will yield some interesting results.  If you are looking to keep knowledge sharing private, encrypted, and confidential, do not use sites like Facebook.  Review all sites’ terms of service to understand how that information can be used.

Q: How can you assure your privacy when you sign up for a social network?

A: Assume for the moment that you have no privacy.  Keep the conversations light and topical.  Do not share trade secrets.  If the conversation needs to move to a medium where security is of the utmost importance, the real issue at hand is no longer social networking sites but rather ‘encrypted data communication’.  Email is only secure to a certain extent; the same for the telephone.  What’s the threshold of data security you wish to achieve?  Common sense should trump technology in this case.

Q: After collaboration through a social network, what kind of structure is recommended for the follow-up process of consolidation, capture, and use of data (e.g., business process management applications, document repository, etc.)?

A: Wikis are great for multi-author documents.  They are fine for one author, too, but a simple notepad.txt file does the trick as well.  Pick the right tool for the job.  The structure that’s recommended is the one where the barrier of adoption is lowest.  A simple file share with MS Word docs may suffice in one instance, where a system of interconnected wikis addresses another situation.  Let the need dictate the tool, not the other way around.

Q: How can this tool be used for recruiting talents? How can this tool be used as an interactive communications tools for special groups and special interests?

A: Search for ‘recruiting social media’ (minus the quotes) and you’ll see that there are already myriad presentations on how social networking is being used in the recruiting space.  Also, the book Groundswell is a great primer for how social technologies are affecting business.  In the book, there is a case study of how Ernst & Young uses social channels for its own recruiting efforts.

Q: Should the output of our employees be monitored for accuracy and company guideline compliance? Where is the line drawn between networking and selling through these venues?

A: It should be monitored to the same degree that each phone conversation and email is monitored.  After all, those are forms of communication.  If the reaction to this statement is, “Well, we don’t have time to monitor all of that”, then it comes down to an issue of trust in the employees.

The line for networking and selling draws itself.  If one “sells” too much in the social channels, the amount of activity, comments, members, fans, likes, followers, or whatever will reflect that.

Q: Do engineers really form a vibrant exchange of ideas, or is it just a series of one-way posts that no one responds to? How do I encourage engineers to get involved, and not just blow it off as another management fad?

A: This is best observed on a case-by-case basis, and any blanket response is an oversimplification of the question.  One way to get engineers involved is to show an example or two or three of this practice in action: find an idea mentioned, the discussion that ensued, and the result achieved.

Q: What kind of proprietary information sites can be used for knowledge transfers?

A: Yammer is a tool that lets people interact within a company’s walls to trade information.  There is botha free and a pay option.  It is proprietary in the sense that it is not open source, and the for-fee option adds a layer of data security/encryption.

Q: How can a new startup-business in technical consultancy can effectively use social networking tools?

A: Go onto LinkedIn and search for discussion groups that discuss your industry space or topical area.  Join those groups.  Answer the questions.  See what people are talking about.  Expand your network.  Repeat this exercise on Xing and Facebook.  Repeat a modified version of this exercise on Twitter.

Q: How was the PlanetPTC Community promoted?

A: Among other things, e-mail, other social networking sites (like LinkedIn, Facebook, Xing, and Twitter), telephone conversations, and good old word of mouth.  The point is, it was (and is) a multi-channel strategy.

Q: How critical is face-to-face networking in our world today?

A: I don’t think face-to-face networking is any less valued today than it was six years ago.  But imagine starting a networking relationship online, trading messages, and getting to know someone.  Then, when you actually meet them face-to-face, you feel like you’ve known them for a while already.  The networked connection is now ‘warm’ rather than ‘cold’.

Q: How do you recommend handling informal communication guidelines?  How do we set guidelines for company employees who participate in social media?

A: Identify who in the company can communicate externally (depending on the industry, etc., this might not be everyone).  Then, create a positive, open communication plan for employees.  Don’t recreate the wheel – find an existing one online, and modify it to suit your needs.  Iterate on it.  Run it by a few people. Post it openly on an internal company site for all to find.

Q: Have company’s polices been considered as a barrier to uptake in use of social networking?

A: I don’t have direct evidence, but I suspect yes.  If these ‘policies’ are written as “don’t do this […], or you’re fired” versus a “we’d love for you to help spread the word about our company, so when you do, keep this in mind…”, then I can imagine two vastly different responses.  It’s semantically different, but important.

Q: Part of the reason management is hesitant to support social networking is job searching. How do you overcome that hurdle?

A: If I understand this correctly (“opening access to social networking sites at work means that people will start looking for jobs”), the larger issue isn’t social networking – its company morale.  No open or blocked access is going to change that.  That needs to be addressed first, and the technology can be put aside.  And if that’s really the case, people will search for jobs at home.

Part two of the questions and answers are coming in a follow-up post. In the meantime, I’d love to read your reactions or see if you have similar questions (or different answers!) to what I’ve shared here.

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