Month: February 2012

Socialising your factory: how social networks can help manufacturers

Social media can be used to engage not just with your customers; but with your employees, competitors, partners in other countries and senior level colleagues – leading to increased efficiency and profits.

It may be the case that when someone says social media to you, you either switch off completely or you partially switch off and think about how much attention it gets these days. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ are reasonably familiar ‘social networks’ – Facebook recently announced that half of all people in the UK use Facebook on a monthly basis or more.

In an online journal published by social scientists Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison, social media is defined as:

“Web-based services that allow individuals to 1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, 2) articulate another list of other users with whom they share a connection, and 3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others in the system”.


Social media, then, encompasses much more than just a collection of websites that allow you to post comments on your friend’s walls and play integrated games.

I want to try and dispel a common misperception about social media. Social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are not essential for a manufacturing business by any means. You can make a Facebook ‘brand page’ for your business, but it won’t necessarily increase sales and it most likely won’t make your business run more efficiently or generate larger profits unless you target people and plan and implement marketing campaigns.

As mentioned in Mr Boyd and Ms Ellison’s definition of social media, you could design and implement a web-based service for your business that allows your staff to engage with each other on a number of different levels, and develop an environment where ‘mass collaboration’ takes place. Mass collaboration is the ability of large numbers of people, who may have no pre-existing relationships, to effectively collaborate around a shared purpose.

The soap and cleaning products manufacturer PZ Cussonrecently implemented software to deliver a more user-friendly intranet platform, aimed at encouraging all employees at the firm to engage in mass collaboration, discussing and formulating plans to deal with fluctuating raw material prices and problems in the company’s supply chain displayed as a live feed.

PZ Cussons digital technology manager Mark Cadwaladr explained the benefit of the new interface: “Bringing information such as costs of raw material and products into [our social network] means that fluctuation in prices can be monitored and acted upon to make important business decisions”.

A 'Facebook friendship' world map, buy Paul Butler

A 'Facebook friendship' world map, by Paul Butler

There are other examples of manufacturers benefiting from the mass collaboration brought by social networks – be they external or internal. Cemex, the world’s largest cement company, took a similar approach to PZ Cussons and installed an internal social network called Shift. The network consisted of 500 people, and the first strategic initiativethat Cemex shared with the users was to try and increase the use of alternative fuels in its plants. Cemex provided guidelines for users, and left it to them to discuss and formulate a plan to achieve the aims of the initiative. With every user’s suggestions and ideas, Cemex accomplished in six weeks what would normally have taken two years.

If every other energy-intensive industry in the UK implemented some sort of social network with the aim of improving the environment, surely carbon emissions from manufacturers would be reduced to at least some degree? It could be that it is just the proactive nature of the workers at Cemex, but I believe this success is attainable by a company of any size.

Made in the Midlands is a great example of how this kind of success can be replicated in SMEs. The organisation created a social network consisting of about 250 local manufacturing firms. The members are able to discuss problems, share knowledge and market intelligence. If a similar network was set up for manufacturers all over the UK, and enough companies actively contributed and collaborated with other users, there is the real potential for mass collaboration with manufacturing as a shared interest on a nationwide scale.

Of course, ERP systems are nothing new and many of them perform similar functions. Neither is social media – internet forums have been around for many years. The purpose of this blog is to show that if you’re not already at least paying attention to social media and the effects it could have on your business, maybe you should! Social media is becoming more and more important for businesses of any sort, and jumping on the bandwagon now might not be a bad idea.

The rise of social networks

Here are five reasons why manufacturers should consider implementing an internal social network, and use it to achieve mass collaboration between employees:

  1. • Users of different age groups can learn to communicate effectively using the system, which is cited by many is a hindrance to communication.
  2. • Any person at a company, from the directors of multi-nationals to apprentices at an SME can communicate and contribute to the effective running of the business through discussion and debate.
  3. • Contributions are visible to anyone – so the user is able to access a potentially huge pool of information regarding manufacturing and related topics. This benefit is amplified if the social network is open to any manufacturer in the UK (or even anywhere in the world!)
  4. • The network’s community self-regulates itself as well as self-directing itself, so it will constantly evolve and innovate. Users may suggest certain ways in which the network itself can improve, alongside suggestions for the more effective running of a factory for example.
  5. • Depending on the network implemented, users can use the network – what is termed as ‘anytime, anyplace, any-member collaboration’ – meaning that as long as someone has access to the internet, be it on a Smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC, they can contribute.