A recent article in EE Times explored the supposed antipathy held by engineers for social media. Prominently referenced was a graph that showed the results of an EE Times survey from May of 2010 which clearly indicated that the overwhelming majority (85%) of sampled engineers had feelings towards Twitter ranging from indifferent at best to “HATE IT!” (Emphasis was theirs.)
It doesn’t take a CSEE degree to know that engineers are notoriously suspicious of marketing, equating it to spin which equates to lies, or at best time-wasting communication fluff. Since social media is generally considered a form of marketing, the presumption goes, the thread of disgust is easy to understand. However this supposed hatred for social media is certainly not warranted for most engineers and may not be true.
Part of the disconnect lies in understanding what social media is; for most people, and by extension most engineers, it is Facebook and Twitter. Ignorance plays into the cloud of suspicion, as evidenced by some of the comments posted in reply to the EE Times article. Apparently unaware of the irony of responding to a blog post about social media with the opinion that social media is useless, some offered hoary clichés in the ”Twitter is a waste of time. Who cares what you had for lunch?” vein. Others disparaged social media but grudgingly allowed that they found some value in LinkedIn.
If these engineers could merely apply the clarity and careful consideration with which they approach problem-solving, they would quickly understand that they should LOVE social media for the following reasons:
Speed of Information
Nothing fires an engineer’s imagination like a new product, or a new way of using an existing product. They are almost always willing to receive product or capability info because they might be able to use it. Correspondingly, when seeking a solution for a particular problem, they will conduct their research but once they choose a solution or an approach they quickly move on to the next design step. Catching the engineer in the right window for consideration is key. With social media, the engineer can constantly be exposed to a stream of information in near real-time, as well as access to archived info flow via search functionality. This means they can literally have the latest and greatest info from all their trusted sources right at their fingertips.
Without Twitter or blog RSS feeds, the responsibility falls back on them to seek out information. Microblogs and related push technology makes it easy to get the latest and greatest served up on a platter, or at least a pad.
Who invented the BBS, after all? The idea of posting questions in front of a community and having members reply or comment is one of the first instances of social media on the Internet. Engineers of all types routinely seek out the ways that others have addressed problems or determined solutions. Avoiding the reinvention of the wheel is deeply ingrained in the engineering mindset; use what has worked before, because it will save you time and stress. It is very important to be efficient and effective, so proven solutions vetted by others have great credibility. Clearly the many facets of social media facilitate and enable this kind of collaboration, from forums and blog responses to more sophisticated tools and community functionality that can share everything from software code to 3D CAD elements.
Collaboration is built on, and builds, trust, which is the core currency of all social media. The democratization of influence, broken out from the silos of professional reviewers or classic Word of Mouth dissemination, has allowed recommendation to become a valuable function of business social media connections. Research has shown time and again that personal recommendations are the most important factor in the B2B buying decision.
In the same way that Yelp reviewers can influence a restaurant choice, Twitter or blog commentary about a product can influence its specification and use. Expertise is demonstrated in opinion or commentary compared to personal experience, so the reader makes his/her own decision as to whether or not to trust any given evaluation. But again, in terms of efficiency, exponentially more recommendations can be parsed via social media feed than possible through direct human interaction. I look forward to the day when GlobalSpec allows commentary on any given company or product, since they typically qualify their registered users and could guarantee a certain amount of credibility for any participant.
Gadgets and Apps
The first people I knew to get iPhones were not interactive marketing gurus; they were electrical engineers. The bleeding edge is crowded with MSE’s and their brothers and sisters who can’t wait to get the latest toy. This is related to the need for the new described above, coupled with the longstanding geek cred that comes from possessing the rare and the special. Also important is figuring out how it works, and applying it to ones needs in order to be more efficient (as described above as well).
The hottest gadgets are in the mobile device space; iPads and iPhones are natural social media enablers, so by extension as the engineer figures out how to use these advanced devices, s/he will be exposed to the mobile versions of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, and may just realize how they might be worth using. More obvious will be the appeal for dedicated apps published by vendors, consultants, and other resources that meet specific needs and allow quick calculation and specification in the field. EE Times mentions that Agilent offers a Microwave (µWave) calculator to find errors in measurements. I doubt it will rival Angry Birds for number of downloads, but for a specific audience that could be keenly valuable.
Finally, let’s be honest: the engineer wants the world to know about his or her great skills and accomplishments. I did it! is the mantra for all problem-solvers, and the common yearning for efficiency prevalent in any engineering mindset means that others will want to know how they did it, right? The mores of social media not only allow this non-boastful bragging, they almost demand it. Any engineer worth his or her salt needs to hop on Twitter and tell the world how they visualized a particular system’s time response to various inputs. or overcame the limitation of space and load with a judicious brace. Alternately, they can cruise trade media blogs or the LinkedIn groups in their specialty and respond to questions.
I’m sure that every engineer, being rational and open-minded, will take these proof points to heart and open themselves up to the world of social media. In fact I think that it is quite possible that, in the nine months since the EE Times survey, engineers might have been changing their minds all along and are now happily utilizing all social media channels for help, value, and advantage. It’s the smart thing to do.