The PLM Old Fart Paradox

PLMCrusadeKnightSometimes it feels like Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is the sole territory of greybeards, just a bunch of old farts locked up in some long-forgotten enterprise cloister, going on and on about information holy grails, and dutifully defending the grand PLM vision, blissfully unaware that somewhere on the outside -on the other side of the great seal- are the technologies, ideas, and unique perspectives necessary for transforming PLM for the modern age. A special irony not lost on Jim McKinney in his entertaining article Is PLM Just a Bunch of Old Guys?, where he laments the dearth of young talent under age 40 in attendance at a typical PLM conference.   Anyone with similar experience can attest that his observations are accurate. And to some degree it’s not just age, it seems PLM in general is suffering from larger diversity issues. So why is it that PLM thought leadership continues to resemble a coffee club extension of the Knights Templar? Have we chosen… poorly?

Jim recognizes that young talent in particular is crucial in understanding how newly emergent communication and collaboration technologies can be brought into the PLM fold. Any of these technologies can prove to be both transformative and disruptive to PLM as we know it. He goes on to appeal for solutions to resolve the status quo:

“These younger engineers will show us how to engage with these new collaboration paradigms. In my opinion, we need more young people involved in PLM. How can we do this?”

Trying to understand how to restore diversity to PLM involves understanding how we got here in the first place. Then and only then can we hope to resolve the PLM Old Fart Paradox. Below are some of the dominant factors perpetuating our present dilemma:

The Perspective Leap

PLM necessitates a “big picture” view, especially one devoid of emotional attachment to any one particular practice, department, function, or methodology. While such an attitude is definitely not solely guaranteed with time and experience, having both under your belt certainly increases the potential to make the Perspective Leap.   The leap is a bit of a Neo “Whoa” moment, where individual problems are understood as indicative symptoms of thematic macro-level deficiencies. In English: you learn to look for global solutions, not local Band-Aids. Whether all the walls start to look like green Chinese math scrolling by is up to you, YMMV.

As a stark contrast, young engineers are most likely working in the trenches, where the myopic focus is all about the immediate problem at hand, the fire drill of the day. Ironically, visibility in the trenches is critical to solving the larger problem, but human nature prevents proactive thinking from unfolding naturally. It’s more about reacting to get things done today, then solving them permanently for the future. The former attitude is reactionary, the latter is visionary. Typically, we are evaluated more on our reactionary actions than our visionary ones. It’s shortsighted, but one is dramatically easier to measure over the other. Transitioning from one mode of thought to another only comes with time. The bottom line is the opportunity to participate in the PLM space comes with the wider view granted by experience, and consequently age.

Diplomatic Immunity

Like it or not, junior engineers often feel vulnerable in their careers. If they make too much of a splash and it’s the wrong kind of splash, they’re out the door. Whether the danger is real or imagined is irrelevant. PLM is not just about adopting technology, it’s also about adopting and transforming culture. If you’re trying to change things that always have been, congratulations you’re rocking the boat, you’re leaping from the lion’s head. And while that can lead to rewards, quite often it’s very treacherous for a conventional career, as the divide between success and failure can be very fine. At the very least you will encounter opposition, especially from those with much more experience and seniority. Most younger engineers have difficulty dealing with this not only because of the risk, but because it’s not engineering. It involves a different skill entirely: diplomacy.

Somewhere along a natural career progression, you reach certain levels of confidence and security. Your authority has been established, your financial situation is more stable, and, for some, that consequently translates into caring more about making things better than just holding on to a job. The moment you can forgo that safety blanket is the day you earn diplomatic immunity. Immunity gives you the wherewithal to exclaim “it belongs in a museum,” right before you get punched in the face. And in disrupting PLM which itself is a disruption of culture, quite frankly you’re going to get punched in the face a lot.

The Conference Economy

The PLM conference scene unfortunately is chiefly advertorial, designed to perpetuate the status quo. PLM is lost in its own museum. Most PLM conferences are either run by a specific vendor, or a for-profit analyst firm looking to attract vendors motivated to promote existing products. This isn’t a condemnation of the PLM community in general, but rather an unfortunate reality that affects IT conferences as a whole, and enterprise IT in particular. It’s an artifact of the money at stake and the relative enormity of the market players. While interesting conversation and compelling ideas do take place by participant attendees if only by sheer force of will, they occur under a larger dog-and-pony umbrella that distracts introduction of new ideas. Whatever’s left is specifically targeted towards senior leaders, with pricey far-away multi-day jaunts to beautiful venues, with more focus on cocktails and vendor case studies than innovation. It’s not surprising that attendance ends up homogenous and self-perpetuating.

The PLM Identity Crisis

Finally, PLM has an identity crisis. Talking PLM at a random networking event tends to engender one of two reactions. The first is from anyone who recognizes the acronym, spent 5 years consulting for company X, and begins a vigorous head-nod that instills fear their neck may unhinge in agreement. The other reaction is quite the opposite, you can almost sense a capillary dilation of the so-called blush response. Fluctuation of the pupil… Involuntary dilation of the iris… it’s the Voight-Kampff test for interest expiring at the mere utterance of the acronym. You don’t get this kind of reaction when you talk Cloud or Internet of Things, which while overused, tend to at least solicit questions and interest among the uninitiated. There’s public relations work to be done.

With all these factors combined, it’s no wonder young engineers aren’t particularly attracted to PLM. But identifying the problem is just half the battle. What should be done about it? For some suggestions, you’ll have to wait for the next installment. In the meantime, you can say your peace in the comments below.

  • Uh… let’s ask the young engineer “Do you wanna be a data manager or design rocket ships??? The only reason any engineer is in PLM is “Hey, we need to put someone in-charge of this crappy PLM system that some idiot vendor talked management into.” “Ed, you are in-charge of PLM” We used do this to the engineers that couldn’t work within groups!! LOL

    • Hi Joe, it’s easy to make the cynical conclusion when bad examples abound, and there certainly are many cases of companies who make poor technology decisions and then double down by assigning whomever is available regardless of their skillset or suitability to the role.

      But I’ve also seen examples were young engineers have indeed been energized to both participate and succeed in PLM activities. I’ll be writing more about this in Part II.

      • Hi Ed,

        I remember the fellow that took over the Computervision CADDS 4 file management at Williams International in 1982. He was a contract shopper like me. He never drew another line. He went on to make a very successful career of file management ending up managing a Pro/e system.

        But you have to understand data management was not part of engineering pre-PLM. It was done by an outside department call Document Control and manned by low paid admin folks maintaining a very tight controlled standard process. Like I have told you many times we released Blue prints. They were the easily duplicated deliverable.

        We did engineering. We would walk out to the airplane and look at our work. Today, I walk through my customers shop and see my work, hold it and have a feeling of accomplishment.

        Please forgive me for not thinking data management is the dream of a young engineer. I can’t imagine looking at a project with pride and say “I was the data manager on that project”

        I have been doing design for almost 50 years and it is beyond my reality that a industrial mechanical or aerospace engineer would even think of wanting to do data management.

        Do they teach PLM basics in an engineering curriculum? Why not just have PLM degrees. why waste an engineer. Actually the more I think of it you could probably use non-degreed personal, I mean it isn’t Rocket Science.. LOL

  • Chris Thaxton

    Excellent article. PLM does have an identity crisis, which is causing many people to not understand it…to not see the real ‘power’ behind PLM. Your article identified part of the problem and a commenter expanded on that. PLM is not sexy when compared with many other engineering disciplines. However, this is part of PLM’s perception problem. PLM really isn’t about engineering. It’s about Knowledge, Information, Intellectual Property, etc. I By limiting PLM to engineering, many, including most PLM vendors and consultants, have severely limited the breadth and power of PLM and thus it’s true power.

    When implemented fully and properly, PLM is as critical to the life of a business or organization as the circulatory system is to our physical bodies. Empowering PLM to intelligently manage and distribute Business Information and Intellectual Capital throughout an organization and enabling those information delivery processes to work with all other business processes can be very exciting. It is possible to see information and knowledge become a significant business asset and differentiator.

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  • Ross Bernheim

    Getting buy-in is the problem. Explaining the benefits to the different people in multiple positions throughout the company and many times beyond. The last group to get on board in my last company were the engineers.

    Don’t put an engineer in charge of the PLM. A senior technician will do a better job and has a better perspective.

    • “Don’t put an engineer in charge of PLM” is an interesting perspective, what background would you classify as a senior technician? Are they apt to know the business better and if so, why?

      I’ll be talking more about this an an upcoming post.