The PLM Old Fart Solutions: Perspective

PLMKnightDomainKnowledgeLast time on E(E), we lamented the alarming dearth of young talent with interest in Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), and its impact on future PLM innovation. The PLM Old Fart Paradox outlined how PLM is seemingly lost in its own museum. Long-fortified organizational and political barriers, limited avenues of open and frank communication not colored by established vendor agendas, and a distinct image problem are all troubling obstacles. Entry into the domain is both intimidating and precarious. These challenges are suppressing new ideas, the very fuel necessary to ensure future PLM value. But we’re here to do more than frown disapprovingly and toss a holy hand grenade into the fray and count to 5… er 3. It’s time to talk about how we get out of this mess, and it might take a few more posts. It’s time to choose… wisely.

The first PLM Old Fart challenge involves how to effectively instill a global PLM perspective on young talent, despite the fact that such talent is often buried deep in the trenches of any given company practice. Understanding the PLM perspective is critical. Myopic practices drawn from the trenches are pervasive – it’s why everyone tends to use MacGyver style Excel (and duct tape) as the solution to everything. Pride in those types of solutions are often misplaced, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge gained in thick of battle is worthless. Quite the opposite, it’s invaluable. The challenge lies in balancing that trench perspective with a broader view across various lines of organization and ownership, both real and imagined. It’s about reaching across all the other trenches. While it might sound like some fancy hipster ideal to anyone in a company with hard organizational boundaries, how does one gain such a view?

It’s hard to see the needs of others in the company (or the company as a whole) when output magically disappears across some opaque fence. The solution up to now has sadly wait until you’re old, until you’ve witnessed myriad project successes and failures and then be mysteriously ordained into the order to defend the holy grail digital thread. We know how that one turns out. So the question becomes how do you create the perspective gained by a career in much less time? All without being incinerated, drowned, shot at, and chopped into fish bait?

In the manufacturing industries that dominate PLM, promising young employees instead tend to be assigned a dark corner to toil away on widget A until they totally crush it, or fail outright. The reward for succeeding at widget A is work on a much larger widget B, but still from the exact same perspective. Some have built 50-year careers this way, essentially doing a variation of the same thing, albeit doing it very, very well. Incidentally, they tend to be the ones that most fervently defend whatever it is they have been doing for eternity before change is introduced. And we know that people and change are never on the best of terms. That time is done. Generational views, marketplace demands, and the more fragile, transformative impact of technology across any given business have erased the luxury of that stability forever. The future, it seems, shall be inherited by generalists, so the culture must evolve beyond always assigning specialists into fixed roles.

Solution One is to rethink how we indoctrinate young talent into the fold to align with the generalist objective. It’s quite common in many industries that promising young employees are placed into a dedicated rotational program, designed specifically to instill broad business perspective in the participant by 3-6 month stints across teams, departments, and functions. The programs instill critical thinking and holistic, rather than functional, business views. Not surprisingly, they also do wonders for employee retention. Rotational assignments are a good start, but most are organized along the strict philosophy of ultimate placement within an organization. Taking the typical rotational program as a basis, imagine a program that plants the seeds for developing holistic solutions across organizations. Alternatively, perhaps attaching a cross functional project as the culmination of a conventional rotational program could do wonders – the equivalent of a collegiate final design project, if you will. The trick is covering all the time and expense to make something like this work effectively.

But maybe such an approach is still not simple enough. Solution Two is to provide the opportunity for young employees to take responsibility for their own crap, end-to-end across its lifecycle. But what does that mean exactly? In a specialist oriented industry it’s very easy to be disconnected from the lifecycle of a product, because it moves across so many disciplines and departments. Typically, only a project manager observes a product from the entire lifecycle, and then only from a holistic perspective while relying on specialists for the details. There can be great benefit to having a specialist observe the product throughout its journey personally. Especially a younger observer who’s more likely to question what he or she witnesses. Think of it as assistant project manager of the month (but with a hands on focus). Understanding the problems, measuring the costs, and witnessing the failures firsthand does wonders for gaining perspective on reality. From a logistical standpoint, however, implementing something like this may be much harder than it might seem, because the selected individual will have to spend a significant time outside of their direct work responsibility. Longer lifecycles may make the learning process slow, and complex lifecycles may prove to be more than any one individual can digest. While most companies will view such an endeavor as strictly overhead, one could rationalize the added costs if they result in product or process improvements that yield concrete results. And the pursuit of new thinking to achieve those results is exactly what we’re after. May we go home now, please?

There’s a better option, however. The primary shortcoming of the prior two solutions is a dangerous assumption – that the young talent that can inject new ideas and products into the PLM space already are employed anywhere adjacent to companies in the traditional PLM space. It’s also problematic that we’re trying to instill the wisdom and domain experience of a PLM expert through artificial means – we may not get reliable results. That’s why we have Solution Three, and it’s something we’ve talked about before. The most reliable way to join young talent with PLM domain experience is to create an independent environment where innovation can happen free of both organizational and cultural barriers: a PLM-focused incubator/accelerator. With corporations helping to identify problems and provide sponsorship, the old farts lending their expertise as advisors with some serving as future board members, and young, hungry entrepreneurs dreaming up off-the-wall ideas and hustling towards execution, it’s a win all around. And what will we find then? Perhaps illumination.

We’ll explore further solutions for some of the other issues mentioned in the PLM Old Fart Paradox in a future post in this series. In the meantime, use your magic words in the comments below.


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  • Ed, there is a catch22 in all

    I liked solution 2 as I believe to understand and make wise decisions you need
    to have the experience or magic understanding of the full picture.

    You do not get this understanding from a book although there are excellent books out there however even I fall asleep when reading an academical book related to (old) PLM.

    The third option the incubator plan might be a good idea and I am in touch
    with a few startups that are trying to change the (PLM) world. The biggest challenge they have is that most investors have a short-term revenue model, so
    result need to come fast.

    The reality is, even looking back to current PLM, is that change is going slow within this generation. As I responded to your comments on my blog, I believe and hope, a new generation of management and business models will reshape the way we look at PLM.

    A chance for new generations to define new approaches and if we still call it PLM, I will leave it to that generation.

    • Jos, thanks for stopping by. Regarding investors, they are understandably focused on growth to get a return on initial valuation. But honestly that’s not really the problem… The real problem is that PLM (or PLM like) startups are more scarce than they should be. Most startups target B2C because that’s all they know – but some of that talent can and should be applied to solve B2B dilemmas. They only need the right advisors and relationships to make that happen. As bad as it is for general B2B, it’s worse still for PLM/CAD because domain knowledge across likely startup candidates is scarce. Since it’s not happening organically, a PLM-specific accelerator program could be designed (with some volunteer organizations / individuals providing a seed pool) specifically intended to match PLM-style problems with innovative (and vetted) startups, and give them a leg up on refining their ideas and execution with access to people already deep in PLM industry. Young startups emerging from such a program would then be a prime target for those investors looking for a growth opportunity. There’s little crossover between the PLM stronghold manufacturing world and the startup culture – it’s time to spark a change there.

      • Ed hi, I am in touch with several startups in the domain of PLM.

        Most of the people are younger than me, still there are pretty mature in their business understanding.

        I promote to all of them “don’t call your product PLM as this frames you with the past”.

        The change will come but not named as PLM, but for example through BOM services (Kimonex), Knowledge Based Workflow Services (KE-Works) or CAD data services (Mateos / OnShape).

        The missing glue is not there yet – the platform that connects all

        • Agreed. But there needs to be more than just a handful. In case anyone reading is not familiar with those companies:

 (Already at the VC backed scaling stage with a $30M series C).

          • In particular PLM is not for the masses. If it would have been easy Microsoft or Google or other IT infrastructure companies would jump on it.

            It is also the ambiguous PLM definition that makes it hard to find the golden egg

          • Jos – that’s been the general view of the industry up to this point, that PLM is for specialists. That view can’t continue if PLM or, rather, the essence of it is to survive the transforming IT landscape. Look at what Salesforce did for CRM as an example.

          • Ross Bernheim


            PLM has been thought of as being for specialists, but it is not. If it is to be effective, it needs buy-in and use across the company. Just as the accounting program’s inventory system is in use by more than just the accountant/book keeper.

            Modern businesses are in a vastly more competitive environment that that of a decade or two ago. We need to make use of technology to streamline our business processes and handle the increasing amount of data required for meeting the regulatory processes as well as efficient operation.

            At a minimum, PLM on the manufacturing side and ERP on the business side of the house. PLM should part of the foundational culture of a company from the beginning just as the accounting program is now.

            PLM saves time and money as well as helping avoiding the “dropping of spinning plates” as you put it.

            The one thing I see as missing is the ‘bridge’ between the PLM and ERP. A program that realizes the difference in how the two approach the data and their requirements and will let me enter data once and put it in both. It should also have an interface that as either the PLM or ERP person I can look at and it will show me the missing data that I need to fill in for either the PLM or ERP for each entry.

          • Little late responding to this, but just talked about what some consider to be that bridge – MDM in the latest post:

  • Ryan

    Ed, good article. You do make a comment that is true but is also missing one of the key factors in a business..stock holders! You say “Generational views, marketplace demands, and the more fragile, transformative impact of technology across any given business have erased the luxury of that stability forever.” That may be a true comment but are the stock holders are interested in stability and stability of returns. The CEO is interested in keeping the stock holders happy. So, the question comes down to how do we keep the “business owners”/stock holders happy and still maintain stability? It can’t go away or your company will go away when the stock holders dump you.

    • It’s a great point Ryan – incentive is still largely based on a 200 year old well-proven model for founding and maintaining corporations. A model that has birthed all the great companies of our time. But as the pace of technology quickens, corporate longevity seems to be shortening. Those that stay the course get left behind, those that adapt move forward. Case in point, look at the bold moves Microsoft is doing to be cool again versus their more traditional incumbent behavior under Ballmer. Or what Dell did to return to a private company. It’s not so cut and dry of course, but certainly times and attitudes are changing.

  • Ross Bernheim

    You touch on the problem of perspective. It is endemic and cultural and structural. Large companies are by nature (and quite often legal restraints) top down hierarchal structures highly organized into well defined boxes for control and efficiency.

    The problem is that once so set up and organized, no one high up in the organization has an incentive to re-evaluate things. getting people together to periodically look at the company as a black box with input and outputs. To see if the inputs and outputs are still what the assumptions are and if they need any changes, what within the black box that is the company needs to change as well as with current knowledge can the processes within the box be further optimized.

    This black box input/output analysis leads to the analysis of what’s in the box and how everyone contributes to the overall process from input to output as part of the ‘box’.

    Rotating engineers through various positions helps, but it is still like the blind men and the elephant. Engineers need to understand how engineering fits into the business from accounting to marketing to HR, etc. And how do we get the accountants and sales people to understand how they fit into the system and how what they do affects engineering and vice versa?

    And how do we get PLM and ERP into very small companies before it becomes an almost insurmountable task to deal with the data (and lack thereof) as well as the cultural shifts required.

    • These are tough questions Ross, perhaps PLM thinking should be part of the foundational culture of a company from the beginning… The challenge though is early stage companies are suffering from spinning plate syndrome (too many things to worry about and nowhere near enough people). In the struggle to survive, a few plates are going to get dropped.

      For established companies the only hope for change and cross-functional understanding is through dedicated, decisive, and respected leadership. That’s a department that many companies would do well to improve upon.