Social networks helpful in improving R&D efficiency?

4 May 2011 Sandeep Mehta

MIT Sloan Review article The “Unstructured Information” Most Businesses Miss Out On has some interesting benchmark information on the role of social networks in driving knowledge collaboration (and hence efficiency) in R&D environments.  The article details an interview with, K. Ananth Krishnan, the CTO of Tata Consultancy Services.  As you might remember, I have not been very impressed with the role of social networks in complex R&D.  TCS seems to have great success using social networks to share knowledge between geographically disconnected employees:

Well, let’s talk about the use of social webs inside the enterprise. Here at TCS, we are having a lot of success in saying that if you’re dealing with a particular problem and you need help, you go into our social platform and you just ask. You type in a question saying, “This is a problem I’m having. Has anybody solved this before?” And you might get five responses in 30 seconds from people who have done exactly what you tried to do, and they have their solutions. 

That is great.  Can we replicate this trend in any R&D environment?  What are some of the challenges involved in using social networks effectively in an R&D environment? Mr. Krishnan points out one:

Of course, three responses might say one thing and two might say something totally different. So you still have to use the intuition and the judgment.

So, one key problem with social networks is not knowing the veracity or accuracy of solution provided.  The other key problem is ability to describe the problem in sufficient detail that someone could suggest a meaningful solution.  Let us dig in:
Mr. Krishnan is in the IT business where a more or less common language / jargon is shared between all employees.  Most physical system require multiple disciplines (mechanical, electrical, etc) that all speak different jargons.  Furthermore, most problems occur at the intersection of different disciplines.  It is extremely hard to describe such multidisciplinary problems in sufficient detail in a social network.  Even more importantly, there are only a handful of people who could understand the problem and provide a realistic solution.  Social media would probably not be the most effective means to reach those people.  We should probably consider project networks?
That said, clearly, homogeneous environments such as software development or ASIC design can benefit from social networks.  TCS seems to be very enthusiastic about it:

We are today probably one of the largest users of the social web inside the enterprise, and we have improved our ability to look at the structured and the unstructured opportunity. In the last three years we have really launched into the exploitation of the social web as a means for ideation, as a means of finding the expert, as a means of learning. We use the web to form groups to look at specific problems and tapping into a collective intelligence.

TCS seems to have a key innovation in the use of social networks here: They use unstructured information from the social network to supplement structured information and to drive discussion.  I think that is a key requirement for the success of social networks in the R&D environment.

All those things supplement the way we look at our structured information, and they get some of these subjective insights into what we should be doing as a business.
For example, I have a blog inside the company, and I just finished writing a blog post which will go live tomorrow morning on the ideation process. There are a lot of things that I as the CTO of India’s largest software company should be looking at. Obviously, I don’t have the bandwidth to look at all of them. So I’m asking my readers to help me find out what am I missing. What are the three things they feel I should be paying attention to? Hopefully I will get a few hundred responses, and then I and my staff will go through and make sure that we pick the top three from there.
I do this quite often to supplement what I’m reading from all the other sources of information. The kind of insights that our business leaders might need for creating a new service offering or going after a new market or whatever, many of those get validated by this softer data.

So, I seem to be coming to the obvious conclusion that all tools can be helpful or harmful.  It depends on how one uses them.  Hence, if R&D managers want to use social networks, they have to get involved, show the team how to use the social network by example, structure the interactions on the social network AND give it adequate priority (probably by using it themselves).

Leave a Reply