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Building an airplane (and everything else) with social media

You’re not going to design an airplane on Facebook. But that doesn’t mean social networking tools don’t play a role in the development of new products, from new doughnut flavors all the way up to the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

“We’re not talking about Facebook. We’re talking about building a collaborative model to help advance what people in companies are already doing,” said Amy Kenly, the keynote speaker at Friday’s Collaborative Innovative Networks Conference. The event was sponsored by the Institute for Global Innovation Management.

Kenly, the global director of eminence and strategic communications at Kalypso, an innovation and product-development consulting firm, said the inherently social nature of product development makes it a prime candidate for new technologies. That might mean using existing platforms like Facebook or Twitter to engage with interested consumers or building an in-house platform where developers can post updates and seek feedback on the latest iteration of a product in development.

But, while companies should “think big” about how social media tools could help them advance their corporate or institutional goals, Kenly said, they need to start small.

“Just because you’ve thought about these strategies and your CEO is on board doesn’t mean you should boil the ocean all at once,” Kenly said. “Finding that one starting point with your big goal still in mind is the way to go.”

The conference, held in Raytheon Amphitheater, drew industry and academic experts for a discussion of the networking tools used to foster collaborative innovation and an opportunity to discuss best practices in the emerging field.

“We’ve put together an exciting program with an eclectic group of speakers, and an eclectic audience as well,” said Gloria Barczak, a professor of marketing at Northeastern and one of the conference’s organizers. She serves as editor of the Journal of Product Innovation Management.

That eclectic group featured experts in fields like business, technology, and network science, reflecting the fact that the solution to many of today’s problems is at the intersection of disciplines, said Marjorie Platt, dean of faculty at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

Though social tools are dramatically altering modern workplaces, the disruption they’re bringing isn’t necessarily new. Assistant professor Cuneyt Eroglu, whose work in the business school focuses on supply chain management, said that even though the personal computer entered the workplace in the 1980s, management didn’t change much for nearly a decade. It wasn’t until the 1990s, Eroglu said, that businesses started to realize that PCs required a massive organizational change to fully capture their productivity potential.

“It’s like a dance between technology and organizations,” Eroglu said. “First technology will take a step, then the organizations will . . . take a matching step.”

Sebastian Fixson, an associate professor at Babson College, studies innovation and rapid prototyping with Northeastern assistant professor of technological entrepreneurship Tucker Marion. At Friday’s conference, Fixson argued that new social tools are bringing about perhaps the greatest shift in product design, manufacturing, and development since the Industrial Revolution. He said consumers could play a much greater role in the development of what they’re looking to purchase, while companies are able to collaborate on a scale never before possible.

Take that Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example. Despite the technological issues that delayed its rollout, its development saw Boeing work with companies around the globe, with new communication tools allowing the company to find the best sources for each component of the plane. Technological advances didn’t just allow Boeing to build a revolutionary new aircraft, but changed the way they were able to do that.

“It’s not just the technology, but it’s the question of how you organize all that information,” Fixson said.