How Online Communities Can Help Businesses, Part 3

The cultural impact of online communities on manufacturing's future can’t be overemphasized.

In this final installment of my three-part column, let’s look at how online communities can have a positive impact on, and support, your business’ strategic development and initiatives.

The cultural impact of online communities on the future of manufacturing can’t be overemphasized. As young students, engineers and manufacturers enter and move up the ranks of manufacturing companies (including yours), they’ll be bringing with them expectations to communicate in the ways they are most comfortable. Open social networks like Facebook and the numerous private online communities that permeate modern academic life are shaping those preferences. They are altering how information is found and digested and how individuals and companies collaborate among themselves and with customers. Here are some examples.

• More and more, engineers, designers and buyers are using online community features and elements in their daily tasks. Collaborative online conferencing, networking (a la LinkedIn), Wikis and even blogs are spreading into corporate manufacturing at faster rates each year. Companies like Eli Lilly, General Electric and Procter & Gamble have embraced online communities to drive efficiencies into their organizations and develop new products and revenue streams.

• Many manufacturers are using online communities to engage their customer base to refine existing products and sometimes create new products and revenue streams.

• Second Life (www.secondlife.com) has emerged, which is the online “metaverse” that lets individuals and companies create virtual entities that interact and function in a 3D, virtual world created by its “residents.” Today, there are more than 50,000 profitable businesses on Second Life—businesses that range from a virtual jeans manufacturer that is helping to redefine the supply chain and customer interaction (www.doublehappinessjeans.com) to CPAs (check out CPA Island at www.cpaisland.com). Many manufacturing enterprises have established “islands” of their own, which allow them to organize virtual conferences and collaboration that transcend borders.

• Flickr (www.flickr.com) is an online community dedicated to networking and sharing files and photos with friends and family. As I’m writing this, the Flickr home page shows that there were 4,185 uploads in the past minute.

Whether your company intends to move into new markets, technologies or industries, your own Web strategies can and should adopt these tactics to engage your audience, attract new business and market your business in a voice that makes sense to this emerging audience.

As adoption gives way to acceptance, and these techniques and methods of collaboration enter the corporate mainstream, we will find online communities to be the norm in engaging markets.

There are two books that I highly recommend that define the impact and potential of online communities on your manufacturing business strategies:

• “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikinomics): This is a popular book seen as a bit of a bellwether of the open community model’s direct value to business. There are very good examples of manufacturers using online communities (and offline examples, too) to redefine their strategies.

• “We Are Smarter Than Me,” published by the Wharton School of Business Press, explains the power of groups to innovate, create and influence businesses and how to engage communities online. Unlike “Wikinomics,” this book is a short read. But the information can be very useful to manufacturers for inspiration alone.

To many of us, the changes taking place from the influence of online communities aren’t obvious. But they are real, and manufacturers of all sizes can use the features to capitalize now and set themselves up for the future. 

Mitch Free is president and CEO of MFG.com, Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at (770) 444-9686, ext. 2946 or at mfree@mfg.com