Locutus of PLM

PLM_LocutusAdoption and implementation of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is a daunting challenge across three dimensions: technology, business strategy, and culture.  Such dramatic change is often perceived as an ordeal, and one that can be terribly disruptive and upsetting for a business.  Transformative change is hard.  So it’s not all that surprising that many organizations receive PLM about as well as a Borg invasion.  Viewed from the bottom up, a PLM initiative appears like a force of nature, churning up everything in its path.  It’s not long before the Borg assimilation jokes get loose.  We are the PLM. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.  You can imagine that everyone isn’t always so keen with dramatic change.  I mean what could be better than being abducted, handed a Captain Eo outfit, and turned into a soulless automaton toiling away in “workflow” into what amounts to a giant space cubicle?

Of course, that’s a little dramatic.  Although when you see companies like Dassault use marketing terms like collective intelligence, you have to wonder… just a little.  Especially with all that dramatic music.  But even the Borg knew that their “business strategy” would be less than popular.  OK, they probably knew everyone would think it totally sucked, and would constantly be throwing Bat’lehs and antimatter-spitting saucer sections at them all day.  Sound familiar?  The Borg knew they needed some serious PR, and so they abducted recruited someone familiar with the business to serve as a voice:

Your archaic cultures are authority-driven. To facilitate our introduction into your societies, it has been decided that a human voice will speak for us in all communications. You have been chosen to be that voice.”

Picard/Locutus was around to help everyone understand the value in the change, both personally and for the company as a whole.  He had ties at the executive level, a solid grasp of the technology involved, and conveniently remembered what it was like to be human.  Emphasizing the short commute times and free cable associated with being part of the collective, he would answer questions and solve problems.  If you still resisted, he would disrupt you in the head or thoughtfully rip your ship to pieces whilst quoting Shakespeare.

“Capt. Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.”

And so it is with PLM.  A commentary by Bill Poston from consulting firm Kalypso captured this rather concisely:

“For now, let’s say that strategic PLM is not a bottoms-up proposition. And it takes more than just executive “sponsorship” to achieve real results. Overcoming organizational antibodies to change requires an executive champion or, better yet, a cross-functional team of executive champions. Small doses of leadership won’t deliver the desired results.”

Business transformation is like a door.  Some people willingly walk thru the door, others hold out their hand and ask for help through the door.  The last few need their ass kicked all the way through the door.  At the doorway is the champion(s).  It’s certainly useful if the champion is 900 ft tall and can shoot lightning out of his or her eyes, but it’s not a hard requirement.  What is required however, is a solid tie to the business vision and the executive level, in depth understanding of what the technology can do, and (last, but not least) a ground level understanding of what people actually do in the business and why.  Champions need to not only understand the business – they must translate strategy into something the common man can understand and rally behind.

Finding a single person with the right qualifications to operate in each of those domains is virtually impossible.  So usually a cross functional team is required, but therein lies another problem.  What business has enough time and money to remove the entire team (usually the best and the brightest) from productive effort?  Despite calculated ROI, removing key individuals from the revenue stream can be devastating.  Often compromises are made and people are loaned out on a part-time basis.  Let me ask you this, was Locutus still playing poker and decoding alien metaphorical languages while on the Borg project?  Nope.   He was fully invested in giving assimilation speeches,  conducting knowledge transfer, and pressing the puree button on the Borg laser.

Finding people that are both willing and capable of such a challenge in any given business is very, very hard.  Many companies mitigate by using a consultant as a champion, which only gets you so far – they should not be relied upon as the sole driving force.  While consultants can clearly work the vision at the executive level, and certainly have the technological background, their connection to users in the trenches will be variable, dependent on their personal experience.  People in the trenches are also naturally suspicious of such change agents, which can become an obstacle to success.

A PLM champion should be someone who’s truly experienced the business in some aspect at the ground level.  Only through that lens,  can the champion judiciously enable a company’s internal vision of PLM and not someone else’s vision (or best practice) of what PLM should be.  That internal champion shouldn’t ignore external sources, but needs to balance that wisdom with the real life experience of the business.  Because the truth is in-between.  That subtle understanding is essential to discern the instances of “We’ve always done it this way…” yet not ignore underlying systemic problems that might be otherwise overlooked.

Who speaks for your PLM?

Special thanks to Ryan McVay for inspiration on this post.