Engineers Not on Board with Social Networking for Work

Ann All

Some months ago I wrote about the growth of social networks geared toward specific professions. Among the examples I cited: a network devoted to data governance and another network for business process management practitioners, both launched by IBM, and an HP-created network for IT professionals.


One group of technology pros, engineers, doesn't seem too interested in using social networking for professional purposes. A recent Design News survey found that while nearly half of the engineers surveyed logged into Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter regularly, only a quarter of them used the networks for work-related activities. Only 15.7 percent of those who did sometimes use such networks for work logged on every day.


The reasons respondents cited for avoiding the use of social networks for work: fear of exposing critical company intellectual property, mentioned by 58.5 percent of respondents; loss of productivity (40.1 percent); and company restrictions on accessing such networks (29.3 percent).


But the bigger issue seems to be that many engineers just don't find networks like LinkedIn or Twitter all that useful. A report about the survey quotes David Willis, PMP, engineering group manager for Agile Engineering, a manufacturer of precision electromechanical systems:


It turns out a lot of the discussions turn esoteric or philosophical and are not really things I found to be useful in the day-to-day functioning of the business or my day-to-day engineering efforts.


Paul C. Czarapata, deputy division head for the Accelerator Division at Fermi National Accelerator Lab, says he gets more value out of traditional engineering forums where participants concentrate on solving a particular engineering problem, trade tips, and help troubleshoot engineering software.


That isn't to say engineers aren't interested in more active collaboration with their design partners. Chris Crowley, engineering design and project management at contract engineering firm Table Mountain Innovation, mentions his own experiments with 37Signals' BaseCamp collaboration platform, Google Docs and instant messaging. IM, in particular, proved to be "a very valuable communication medium," says Crowley, who found it "more immediate than e-mail and less intrusive than a phone call."


He calls IM "the gray area between true social media and personal communication." (I wonder if its relative lack of transparency might make engineers worried about IP more comfortable with it.)


Because of those concerns and the specialized nature of their work, engineers are probably more likely to opt for design tools that incorporate social features. The article mentions one example, PTC's SocialLink, which uses Microsoft SharePoint 2010 to deliver social networking functionality like activity feeds, blogs and presence detection within PTC's Windchill product lifecycle management environment.


The more general, one-size-fits-all approach of networks like Facebook and Twitter (and even more specialized networks like the ones I mentioned in my first paragraph) just may not suit certain professions, as the Design News survey and follow-up interviews with engineers show. They may find far more value in collaborative tools embedded in the applications they already use for work.

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