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An Interview with Dr. Suna Polat

by Jackie Cooper, Management Roundtable   (Originally published on our CoDev Blog)

Suna Polat, CIMdata

Suna Polat, CIMdata

As part of our series on Open Innovation Leadership, I was eager to interview Dr. Suna Polat, Director of Collaborative Innovation & Social Product Development at CIMdata (Ann Arbor, MI). I first met Suna many years ago when she was at Procter & Gamble leading strategic innovation and productivity capability implementations. Though already way ahead of the knowledge curve at P&G, she continued to seek and share new insight at conferences. I have always found her to be humble and gracious — open in the truest sense of the word.

Her recent move to CIMdata is an outgrowth of her work at P&G with technology providers and her own subsequent consulting practice. Her current interests include PLM (Product Lifecycle Management), connectivity and collaboration in large organizations and networks, the effect of organizational culture on innovation output, and the influence of communities and social networks.

Since she just led a workshop adjacent to CIMdata’s PLM Roadmap Event, and will be leading an in-depth session at the CoDev 2015 Conference in February, I thought she’d be the ideal person to ask about the whole “social product development” phenomenon. I knew she would have fresh insights to share.

JC: Tell me about the workshop you just led…who was there? What was discussed?

SP: There were roughly 30 attendees from a mix of industries, organizations like Coca Cola, P&G, Boeing, Honda, Accenture, Purdue University, and others. We had keynote speakers from Chrysler and P&G. The topics were collaborative innovation, social product development, PLM sustainability and integration. We also had an interactive panel session with solution providers from Jive, Imaginatik, Siemens PLM, Geometric, and Tata Consultancy Services.

JC: When you say Collaborative Innovation and Social Product Development, what do these terms mean exactly? Why should companies care?

SP: We define Collaborative Innovation as the discovery, development and commercialization of new ideas, products, technologies, processes or services with a joint effort from diverse individuals, organizations, and networks — both internal and external. Social Product Development is the application of social technology features and processes (such as comments, “likes” and gaming) to innovation and product development.

Companies are looking at these technologies and practices for competitiveness and efficiency — to make better decisions and get to market quickly with the most-likely-to-succeed innovations. They want to reduce the amount of time wasted on emails and unproductive meetings as well as to bring out the best insights and ideas from the massive amounts of data that’s been collected. Many companies have geographically distributed teams, and these tools enable both asynchronous and real-time remote collaboration. The best ideas emerge when everyone’s insights are combined and order ranked (as Google Search does with first-page results), and correlations are drawn. Finally, companies need to minimize knowledge loss when employees leave or retire. These technologies and practices capture, preserve and analyze knowledge – creating accessible and searchable content.

JC: How do the various commercial solutions and tools compare? What specific capabilities do they offer and how do you decide which, if any, to implement? Are some better than others for Collaborative/Open Innovation purposes?

SP: Tools today leverage the major technology trends – social, mobile, analytics, Cloud. The new tools or features are being introduced frequently and this will likely to continue. Some tools are interoperable, which is really important to users and allows companies to link the specific capabilities they need such as ideation, product data management and intelligent search. The idea is to have easy-to-use common interfaces so everything is intuitive and knowledge workers can focus on their jobs, not on system learning curves. Search is really important. The more able users are to find what they need, and the more that is intelligently aggregated, the better. Plus the technology keeps evolving so you want the ability to upgrade without disruption.

For open innovation, there are social technologies like Imaginatik and Spigit which are well-suited to ideation and front-end problem solving. Traditionally PLM providers have focused more on how product data is managed, but they are now bringing in more social technologies and intelligent search, some through organic development and some through acquisitions. Some of the category leaders in Enterprise Social include Jive, Imaginatik, Salesforce Chatter, Microsoft SharePoint, TIBCO tibbr and IBM Social Business, as reported by Gartner. In PLM the leaders as measured by CIMdata include Siemens PLM, SAP, PTC, Dassault Systèmes and Oracle.

If we make an analogy to the “Knowledge Pyramid” (see diagram below), Social starts at the top. It makes it easier to collect people’s ideas and insights (tacit knowledge), and capture explicit knowledge (like reports or files) on a given need. Connecting diverse ideas improves innovation, and Social makes it easier to do so with large crowds. Now people realize that Social also makes collaboration among and across teams easier. Penetration of Social into the Product Development space, more towards the bottom of the pyramid, is therefore a natural progression.

Social and PLM Linking Ideation, Innovation and Product Development (Courtesy of CIMdata)

Social and PLM
Linking Ideation, Innovation and Product Development
(Courtesy of CIMdata)

JC: What are some of the top trends you see happening? What are people actually doing?

SP: With the increase of social environments people are collaborating much more. There’s more open ideation using social platforms within a company. These approaches are also being used for collaboration with customers and partners. Often the innovation outcome is better. In one experiment at P&G we found that 7 out of 10 ideas that were ultimately chosen for evaluation were from non-traditional sources, such as manufacturing, which were not typically invited to contribute to product ideation.

Smart technology makes it easier to participate in this type of collaborative ideation and innovation activities. For example, as you enter your idea, ideas similar to yours are brought up, or you can sort ideas based on keywords, or on “most liked” or “most commented” status. There are also tools for the facilitators, for example, they can push certain ideas out to their network to get feedback, easily correlate and monitor submissions, and facilitate decision making with a smaller group based on agreed-upon criteria.

There are various platforms for ideation. Some features are quite common but some are differentiated. Are you familiar with IBM jam sessions? Typically large groups, in some cases 50,000+ people participate. IBM uses its leading-edge search and correlation technologies in these sessions to identify trends and provide guidance to their facilitators to engage the crowd more intelligently. These sessions are incredibly powerful.

JC: How do these large-scale collaborations actually work? What processes and practices do you need to have in place? And how is intellectual property protected?

SP: The typical process for ideation is that a core team organizes the event, extends invitations and sets the agenda. The tools provide the ability to implement a desired process, and “intelligence” to ensure ideas gain broader exposure for the crowd’s input. For external IP sharing, agreements need to be in place — these can be as simple as an ‘Accept’ checkbox like those on software downloads, as long as there is understanding up front. In cases where collaboration among the employees is enabled through social platforms like Jive, there is not much concern about IP protection. Regardless, it helps when people are trained and coached on what to share and how to share in social platforms, internally and externally.


Transformation Considerations Strategy and Culture Ahead of Process and Technology (Courtesy of CIMdata)

Transformation Considerations
Strategy and Culture Ahead of Process and Technology
(Courtesy of CIMdata)

JC: How are social technologies specifically enhancing innovation? Are there industry examples that others might learn from?

SP: Ideation has been happening for a while; more agility is needed, but there are many good tools and systems to manage that part of innovation. More important than any technology, however, is having the right culture and processes in place to support collaboration. At P&G we had systemic knowledge sharing and collaboration practices decades before we implemented social technologies. Social was about increasing our reach to diverse groups and making it easier for people to participate. To select the right platform and tools we benchmarked a number of other companies and experimented with a few solutions. One big key to successful adoption was making sure tools are intuitively easy to use.

Innovation builds on synergies and the system needs to help people make connections to create the synergies. One part of system-enabling connections is “search” and the other part is “recommendations” – similar to Amazon recommending books to us based on our purchasing behavior in the past. We learned from Corning that people liked when search results were displayed visually. It reduced the number of clicks to review the results. We also learned that scale effect is important. Google’s algorithm is successful due to the volume of participants in the system: searching, publishing content, linking content, spending time reviewing results… there’s lots of input. Even within a very large company the number of participants cannot compare to Google’s scale. Therefore this deficiency needs to be managed by other means, such as having systemic processes to publish content, tagging content with predefined keywords, implementing intelligent search algorithms and assigning people to monitor search activities. After a few searches when people cannot find what they are looking for, they give up and don’t continue the search. This is the biggest risk and will lead to more silos.

JC: It’s often said that you can automate a process, but if your organization’s process isn’t right, the tools will only go so far…What role does organizational structure play in successful adoption of these technologies and the ability to leverage them for innovation?

SP: In large companies it is important that R&D and Engineering work closely with IT at a senior level. There needs to be a joint vision and strategy. IT needs to understand both how innovation gets done and what the big picture is – all the tools being used, how they are being used and possible synergies that can be created. The system architecture — both tools and how they are managed, i.e., organizational aspects — needs to be designed to enable these synergies to occur easily and more holistically. Incentive systems should also be aligned so that checks and balances are in place to support synergies as well. In my corporate career, I have seen many examples of organizational design creating silos around databases and tools because of the way they were managed. This should no longer be acceptable to corporate leaders.

Everything is changing so fast; the time to transition is compressed. Processes, regulations and other external factors are always in flux, and there’s little time for learning curves. Therefore, the technology must be seamless and intuitive so the new tools can be integrated as needed, while the old ones are retired without disrupting ongoing business. Corporate leaders and IT professionals need to deal with this new reality.

JC: It seems like social technologies are becoming more and more essential to collaborative innovation. How should companies decide what to do, and what challenges should they be prepared for?

SP: Social technologies are a part of everyday business now, whether consciously and intentionally or not. Leveraging them is key, or it can get out of control. In our recent workshop, participants talked about their biggest challenges. These include:

  1. Email proliferation — email creates a silo effect in terms of knowledge. Though email has benefits in creating awareness of activities, the knowledge content is not searchable.
  2. Culture — people need to have an open mindset and a supportive management structure. NIH syndrome is still big.
  3. The multi-generational workforce – there are knowledge transfer challenges and differences in experience with technology.
  4. Data density– there is so much information, but often insight is lost.

Overall companies need to examine their strategic goals – tools are available and can be combined in many ways to achieve results. Look at your current information flow, both internal and external, and determine what insights and knowledge you want to capture and share, and where your pain points are. There are technologies and communities to help once you know where you want to go.


Suna Polat will be leading a half-day workshop “Strategies, Tools and Technologies to Maximize Connectivity, Collaboration and Innovation” on February 9, 2015 at the CoDev 2015 conference in Scottsdale AZ.

Contact information:
Dr. Suna Polat
Director, Collaborative Innovation and Social Product Development, CIMdata
phone: 734 668 9922

Jackie Cooper is Executive Director and Chief Content Officer at Management Roundtable, Waltham MA. She may be reached at

Cheryl Perkins is chair of CoDev 2015. Check out CoDev2015: Launching Products and Businesses with Partners, Customers & Ecosystems, to be held February 9 – 11, 2015 in Scottsdale, AZ.

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