Working smarter

Powerful new tools make technology work for everyone

Dora Laîné
26 October 2013

7 min read

An automotive supplier uses a social innovation tool to unite its employees worldwide in dreaming up the automotive electronics of tomorrow. A mining company “explores” unmined ore deposits in 3D. A global economic development lender uses a dynamic search tool to “mine” past projects for insights that will make future projects more successful. From New York to New Zealand, innovative companies are employing intuitive digital tools to increase their operational agility and empower employees to serve customers better.

As the pressures on business increase, companies across a host of industries are applying powerful new technologies to the challenges of connecting their employees, partners and customers to concept and deliver the memorable customer experiences that build loyalty and preference. From process industries to mining and from dashboards to online collaboration, these digital pioneers are transforming raw information into actionable intelligence and competitive advantage.


Business success starts with understanding the challenges a company’s customers need to solve. It requires asking the right questions and analyzing reams of information for answers. However, as data sources proliferate, companies risk being overwhelmed. Dashboards, which organize and analyze inputs customized for each user, is proving an effective “listening post” for companies to spot emerging customer needs and market trends.

Véolia Water, a France-based global leader in environmental businesses that include water, waste and energy, uses dashboards to bring order to the mass of information it sifts for business intelligence. “An abundance of data will not necessarily help us make better and more accurate decisions because not all the information is important or relevant,” said Michèle Champagne, who leads the company’s Expertise Management and Monitoring department. “This is why we decided to design and implement an expertise management and monitoring approach to identify only the knowledge and know-how that is essential to our activities. We then use this information to assess our ability to respond to market trends and to measure where we stand against our competition.”

Starting in 2007, Véolia Water implemented a program to identify and manage strategic knowledge for competitive differentiation, including technology watches and patent services that help the company anticipate technological developments and environmental trends. Véolia Water’s dashboards collect and sort information from specialized sources – including databases, websites, institutional sources and competitors – with the aim of identifying targeted information for its experts to analyze.

Monitoring networks are organized by technical topics. Dashboards filter and present the most promising information, which is then analyzed by subject-matter experts in collaboration with the company’s engineers. When an action item is identified, it is added to the engineers’ work plans.

“A dashboard can contain up to 250 information sources, representing an important corporate asset,” Champagne said. “It provides us with a pool of credible data we can rely on and which saves us time when we need to find answers to important issues.”


As data proliferates, finding the infor­mation for a specific task becomes a significant challenge. The World Bank, a lender and advisor to development projects in emerging nations worldwide, tackles that challenge with a powerful search engine that sorts and prioritizes internal information much as Google, Yahoo! or Bing sift through Internet sources.

“The bank performs so many roles that finding data has always been a challenge,” explains Raman Pugalumperumal, senior business solutions officer with the World Bank and one of the search project’s main architects. The bank’s data includes fiduciary and project management tracking, economic data sets, regulatory enforcement, research reports, publications and reports on the lessons learned from development projects in the bank’s history. The collection also includes bank-organized symposia proceedings, reports from the bank’s many original research activities, and the annual World Development Indicators – to mention only a few of its resources.

“Search aggregates all that infor­mation,” Pugalumperumal said. “Financial data, technical data, project data, lessons learned from similar projects to provide guidance so that mistakes are not repeated and good ideas are replicated. Search as an aggregator has become a huge data service provider. We get 7 million hits per week on our application program interfaces.”

Providing context that adds meaning is a central goal of the project, Pugalumperumal said. “It’s not enough to simply give a list of results. Context is very important. So when you run a search you might also see on one side the name of the bank expert who knows the most about the topic you searched, or anything else that will point you toward resources that can help to accomplish your goal.”

Search remains a work in progress at the World Bank and probably always will, Pugalumperumal said. “We have huge amounts of data, 11 million records, 100 million files in network file shares. The more we offer, the more people ask for. We’re such a diverse organization that the tool needs to see where you sit in the organization and tailor the search to your needs. We have good anecdotal evidence that shows we’re making significant progress. It is a step-by-step process, not an elevator ride.”


Not all of a company’s knowledge resides in databases. Each employee’s knowledge is even richer, but more difficult to tap as teams become globally distributed or isolated by function. Social innovation technology inspired by Facebook but tuned for business helps leverage each person’s unique knowledge regardless of location or role.

When automotive parts supplier Visteon assembled a cross-functional global team to develop a new concept automobile, for example, it employed a cloud-based social innovation application that facilitates collaboration, idea sharing and progress tracking. The application also provides numerous sub-communities to support side projects, allowing each geographic region to customize the design for its specific market.

“This project is focused on a vision of mobility in 2020, a truly futuristic vision of the occupants’ experience of a vehicle,” said Tim Yerdon, Visteon’s global director of innovation and design.

“To enable our innovation process we wanted to involve people from around the globe and every function, but we’re often not on the same IT system. Using social innovation online allowed us to create one source for information, ensure that everyone had visibility into every communication, and aggregate everyone’s intelligence to make the right decisions with speed and efficiency.”

Visteon started with a small group of users but quickly expanded. “We wanted to eliminate the boundary between upstream innovation, conceptual design and actual delivery, so we had R&D, engineers, designers, communications and marketing teams all brainstorming together,” Yerdon said. “We found that issues that used to take an hour to discuss were resolved in minutes. It was very exciting to see the benefits of having everyone play in the same sandbox. Social innovation enabled the culture that we needed to succeed.”


Day-to-day work also requires collaboration. At Eaton, which designs and manufactures hydraulic and electrical parts for OEMs in the transportation, industrial equipment and aerospace industries, online collaboration allows designers and engineers in Europe, the Americas and India to share workload around the clock.

“We have 20,000 users of online collaboration, including 4,800 engineers who collaborate globally, following the sun, passing work from one center to the next as the local day ends,” said Henri Seynaeve, vice president of the Engineering Center of Excellence for Eaton’s industrial sector. “It’s an important part of our design-anywhere business strategy to accelerate new products to market. Now that we can support our Virtual Design Center globally using online collaboration, we’ve been able to increase our design velocity by more than 200% with no increase in hiring.”

Eaton’s platform allows it to assign work where resources are available, without regard to physical location, Seynaeve said. Because all designs are accessible online with a simple web browser, the solution also eliminates the challenges of diverse engineering tools introduced by Eaton’s aggressive acquisition strategy.


Eaton’s engineers can pass work from employee to employee without losing speed, Seynaeve said, because 3D is a universal language that communicates information in context at a glance – an advantage being harvested in multiple industries.

In mining, 3D models developed with data from drill-bore samples help geologists visualize what lies hidden below the ground before excavation begins. Such insight helps them to plan how a site should be mined and clearly communicate that plan to everyone involved, from mine investors to front-line workers.

3D is moving beyond product design and is now being used in the natural resources industry. This 3D visualization shows where the ore lies beneath the surface, so engineers know where and how to dig before they begin. (Image courtesy of Mincor Resources)

“Communication is the biggest reason we rely on 3D,” said Mark Muller, chief geologist for Australia-based Mincor Resources. “A 3D model gives us a way to effectively communicate the plan to people who don’t have a geological background. You can turn it around and zoom in, zoom out, slice into the model to show the detail at any point, or scale instantly. Instead of trying to conceptualize from hundreds of 2D paper plans, you can look at the holistic picture in one hit and instantly understand what the data is telling you about the orebody’s characteristics.”

3D models also update instantly as new data become available. “To test a gut feel or intuition, to discover what will happen if you change your approach, there’s no option that can match the power of 3D.”

At the opposite end of the energy spectrum, Switzerland-based Alstom Power supplies equipment that generates approximately 25% of the world’s power, with applications for every energy source from natural gas to solar. Helping its customers keep those installations up and running 24/7 is one of the responsibilities of Joerg Ackermann, Alstom Power’s training director, whose programs and materials train both Alstom’s field service personnel and its customers’ service employees.

After years of using 2D training and maintenance manuals, Ackermann’s team introduced 3D animations that illustrate how to assemble, disassemble and service Alston’s equipment. “Almost immediately we were overloaded by requests from our instructors for additional animations,” Ackermann said. “The same was true for our customers. After they saw that the 3D animations were available, it took only a few days for them to leave behind the 2D materials and concentrate on the 3D.”

3D also eliminated most written instructions – and the need for language translations. “To write that you have to turn this around and then insert that here and then flip it 90 degrees takes a lot of words and is difficult to visualize,” Ackermann said. “With 3D, the need for all of these words is eliminated, so we have nothing to translate.”

Being able to see an assembly come apart and go back together in 3D also helps customers to disassemble, service, and reassemble equipment faster. “The entire time that you are servicing an assembly, the unit is not productive and the customer is losing money,” Ackermann said. “By showing the customer the process rather than telling them we save them time that translates into profits. It also improves safety, because people can see the risks in a procedure before they do it and take the proper precautions.”

As these examples illustrate, the latest digital solutions are changing the way business gets done in the 21st century, allowing companies to collect, interpret, share and collaborate to deliver better experiences to their customers.

Related resources


Register here to receive a monthly update on our newest content.