December, 2016

While recently speaking with the CM manager at an A&D site I asked what type of users did they have of their CM software.  The response was that there were some doing a lot of work, but most didn’t do much at all!

After my shock from this answer, it took me a moment to realize this was not about the work habits of his team, but how users worked – or not – with their CM software.

At this site, typical to many others I have visited, there were a relatively small number of CM specialists – the masters and superusers – using CM software to create, update, and check configuration data all day long. They did the “heavy lifting” of the CM profession. Not surprising, most of these practitioners were quite experienced and well trained, often with certifications from CMII or CMPIC.

Yet, most CM software users are not CM experts in product engineering but casual users from engineering services, quality assurance, procurement, field service, logistics, and sub-contractors. Their job function requires them to use CM software tools, but perform very little CM work per se. As example, they may want to find configuration-related data quickly, trace the history if needed, navigate relationships of the as-is configuration, and assess impact of changes to future states. They are, however, not doing the type of CM work that someone in engineering or manufacturing using PDM software typically performs.

This exchange reminded me of what CMstat learned long ago as we developed our CM solution PDMPlus; most CM users are not CM experts at all, nor should we force them to be.  Most are “read only” types; searching for, viewing, and consuming configuration-related data to do their job, which for the most part is not doing configuration management.

As we in the software industry all know, but few are willing to admit, any software can be declared “easy to use” if there are enough expert users constantly working in the product. No matter how unintuitive, antiquated or abusive a software user experience may be, over time it can become comfortable and trustworthy, sadly in the same way hostages often relate to their captors.

These experts who eventually can make any software easy to use for themselves are only a small percentage of the larger user community who may not have the same patience. The real test of usability comes from the population of poorly trained, or even untrained, casual users who want to log in, search for, then retrieve their desired information, and get out. The best user experience for them is a short, almost nonexistent one, where they did very little work.  Any time spent slogging through navigation screens, help tutorials, or seeking other users out is time wasted.

The challenge with developing specialized industry-specific CM tools – like those required by the A&D supply chain or after-market service providers in MRO – is to satisfy the deep functionality required by the CM specialist without sacrificing the intuitive ease of use for the occasional, non-expert user. Over the years we at CMstat have struggled like most software providers with adding new functionality that our more expert customers wanted, but without adding complexity for the occasional user. Our focus on serving customers in just a few key industries has made resolving these conflicting requirements easier to balance, but it remains a diligent work in progress.

This delicate balancing act is where homegrown and customized CM software, often developed by user organizations and then bolted on to enterprise solutions by their IT support groups, struggle the most. The code developers dutifully listen to the precise yet frequently changing requirements of their primary users, as they should. It is no surprise they produce a solution expertly designed for expert users, and then run out of time and budget to make it usable by anyone else. This also explains why enterprise PLM solutions and industry-agnostic PDM software struggle with CM for industries that have their own set of standards and best practices. These solutions are so obese with general PLM functionality that occasional users rarely feel comfortable or confident.

The best commercial-off-the-self (COTS) industry-focused solutions for CM should address all the functionality required by configuration management specialists while still providing an instantly instinctive experience for the casual user. After all, while there are many benefits of CM for the user, the ultimate value accrues to the enterprise because the work produced is accessible to many others throughout the organization.

We’d like to hear an estimate of the ratio of routine expert to occasional non-expert CM software users at your site. Leave us a comment below or send an e-mail to information@cmstat.com. If you would like to see a demonstration of how CMstat’s PDMPlus balances functionality with usability, give us a call at +1.877.537.1959.

Tom Tesmer, CEO