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The Importance of PLM Education


PLM Education

Morag Ashworth has worked in the apparel industry for nearly 30 years and has served as a freelance PLM consultant since 2008.  Today, Morag is a key advisor for WhichPLM, and in this article she makes a case for the role of education in underpinning and enabling successful PLM projects in businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Experienced project teams will tell you that PLM is complicated.  Retailers, brands, manufacturers and PLM vendors themselves will all concur with the relative complexity of a project – a complexity usually linked to the size and intricacies of an organisation, its product range and locations. All of which will be linked to pre and post implementation tasks and timing.

Selection projects should not be taken lightly; no matter which direction you turn, someone will be there to warn you of the complexities inherent in shortlisting, selecting and implementing a successful PLM solution.

Considering this, why is it that so few people talk about PLM education?  I believe that effective, impartial education is as important as any other piece of the puzzle when it comes to a PLM project – perhaps more so, since a lack of it can quite easily be the difference between success and failure.

Understanding to whom and by who that education should be delivered is a different matter.  PLM, for me, is about more than just software.  Unifying people, products and processes, a successful PLM implementation will serve as the backbone of modern product development, driving change from design to delivery.  A modern PLM implementation can – and will – touch every stage of the product lifecycle, and make its impact felt in virtually every role; the designer and the CIO alike will need to understand the goals of your PLM project if it’s to achieve its aims.  The right approach to PLM is one that acknowledges the fact that people are just as important as data, and is equally concerned with “how the business works” as with “what is being created”.

But if PLM touches everybody, does this mean we need to educate everybody?  The short answer is yes, but not equally.

PLM education, delivered by experts, represents a valuable opportunity for inexperienced project teams – and most teams lack experience, whether they like to admit it or not – to learn from the hindsight, expertise, and best practice knowledge of independent professionals.  In the same way a company would seek out qualified counsel in the event of a legal problem, rather than attempting to solve it themselves, retailers and brands should be willing to acknowledge their inexperience, and turn to professionals for advice.

In the broadest sense, any business considering a PLM project will want to learn: how best to evaluate and select a PLM solution; how to schedule, plan and sequence the various PLM implementation processes; and how to quantify the success of their implementation in clear, measureable terms to arrive at a Return on Investment (ROI) calculation.

These are not simple tasks to execute – each requires an intimate understanding of the business in question, as well as a range of other external factors and considerations.  Without wishing to hammer the point home too forcefully, education should be the first port of call: the place that your project team goes to learn the complete history of PLM and how they can maximise the value of their project, before they even begin to approach the market.

Luckily, that extensive level of education is only necessary for core project team members and executives.  Whilst I do believe that there should be some level of PLM education provided to everyone within a company (setting expectations) that has chosen to adopt a solution, the focus and depth of that education should vary depending on the individual’s roles and responsibilities within the organisation.

With that in mind, my experience and that of WhichPLM, suggests that any PLM education project should begin at the executive level.  Since these people will eventually approve the business case and oversee the key performance indicators and eventual profitability of your implementation, it’s crucial that they understand the basic premise of PLM and the value it can potentially bring to the organisation.

A PLM project truly lives or dies on the basis of the buy-in it receives at the executive level, and without that kind of senior sponsorship, it can prove difficult to drive tough decisions through the business, or to convince busy departments to adopt the new (re-engineered) processes that will be required to achieve the desired success.  Likewise, it is up to those executives to help sell the benefits of PLM to the rest of the business stakeholders, helping to secure their support and to give their PLM project the best possible chance of fostering best practices across the entire global supply chain.

Executive education also addresses another prominent concern: many PLM implementations have failed purely because the board set unrealistic expectations that were founded on misunderstandings of the scope of PLM (what we all know as ‘sales spin’).  One thing experience certainly tells us is that no PLM project ever failed because the executives were too educated!

Beyond the C-level, the next destination for PLM education should be the project team itself.  Since these are the people who will be conducting the real work of shortlisting, selecting, implementing, promoting and working with PLM, it is vital that they have a complete understanding of the following:

  • Why the business is embarking on the PLM journey in the first place;
  • What key challenges the organisation wishes to address through this project;
  • Which PLM vendors should be considered as potential partners, and why;
  • What the broad implementation plan and proposed timeframe should be;
  • What process improvements and re-engineering efforts are being envisaged to overcome the current business challenges;
  • How best practices and process maturity assessments can help transform the “as-is” into best practice “to-be”’
  • How the implementation is to be conducted and what the key milestones to success are.

None of these is a straightforward task, and each relies on a base of knowledge and expertise that can only be built from hands-on experience of the steps that precede any PLM project.  For example, without knowing what challenges the business seeks to address through its PLM project, how can any team member be expected to make an informed selection?

PLM vendors can tick every box in your RFI/RFP, but does that make them the perfect partner? Do you or your project team have the experience to measure the process maturity of one vendor’s process versus another? It takes a seasoned expert to flush out the ‘smoke and mirrors’ that are often found during a typical PLM solution selection.

Education can help to establish that baseline knowledge, and ensure that each project team member is aligned in their opinions.  After all, a motivated team without the requisite education may select and implement rapidly, but speed is irrelevant without direction.  And we should always remember that training must be both topical and timely; team members can forget what they’ve learned when that learning is not translated into action in quite short order.

The same consideration should be applied to users across the extended supply chain, who are often overlooked when considering PLM as a whole, and education in particular.  Thought should always be given into how end users across the extended enterprise (internal and external) will be educated and trained, lest we create a situation where only a select few at brand headquarters understand the why and wherefore of PLM, while their supply chain partners must rely on assumptions, or worse, guesswork.

This is another area in which education can deliver real, tangible benefits.  A complete return on investment requires that any successful PLM project should be used across the extended supply chain, while all too often we see people buying PLM and in truth implementing PDM.

Although this article has focused primarily on the educational needs of prospective customers, I also believe that the PLM vendors themselves – particularly their pre-sales and demonstration teams – can benefit significantly from a better understanding of what their customer is seeking, allowing them to tailor their approach to meet common and unique needs. All too often we come across untrained and inexperienced vendor representatives who are running PLM implementations and, sadly, I’m sure you can imagine the consequences for the customer.

Aerial Reading

Last but by no means least, let us not forget your I.T. department, who will serve as one of the main points of contact between the chosen PLM vendor and your internal teams.  Their dedication and commitment will be required to ensure that all hardware, networking and infrastructure meets current and future requirements – something that, as with the steps that have gone before, is only truly possible when they have an understanding of when, how and, most importantly, why PLM is being implemented.  In the event that your I.T. professionals lack this kind of understanding, they may just see PLM as another routine piece of software to be installed – running counter to the much more expansive goals the executive team will have for the project. You don’t want to implement PLM only to find that you require serious hardware up-grades that were never fully understood or hadn’t been budgeted for. You need to understand the volumes of data that will come over the next few years and plan for a ‘future safe’ implementation.

Whether it’s I.T., supply chain partners, project teams, executives or end users (or, as it ought to be, a combination of all) education and experience can help to pave the way for a smooth and successful PLM project.  All too often, training and communication are relegated and become low priorities, falling behind the likes of selection and financial return, when in fact the right education can help to safeguard these and all other aspects of your implementation.

And education shouldn’t stop once PLM is in place.  Pre-chosen super users can work to continue user education long after the initial project phases have been completed, bringing end users in a range of different roles fully up to speed.  And as your chosen PLM product changes over the years (through the addition of new capabilities and functions) these super users, along with other educational efforts, can work to ensure that your business gets the most of its investment in PLM.

A great deal of time during PLM implementations is spent pointing the finger: at the vendor for creating software that doesn’t work correctly; at the business itself, when unexpected delays force products to fall behind trend; at I.T. when it emerges that something architectural was missed during scoping.

Whatever the problem, I can guarantee that someone is blaming someone else for it.

The way things are today, I routinely hear people saying, “This software is slow” or a certain process “isn’t good”, but almost never, “I wish I had more training so I could become a better user”.  And while the user experience certainly is paramount, sometimes it really is up to the people choosing, implementing and working with PLM to take a frank look at their experience and knowledge base before embarking on a project as potentially costly and difficult as PLM.

In most instances, that examination of the gulf between their own experience and their desired outcomes will lead everyone, from the designer to the CEO, to realise that a little education can go a long way.

*WhichPLM provides educational and advisory services to retailers, brands and manufacturers seeking to get the most from their technology investments. 


Morag Ashworth With more than 30 years’ experience Morag Ashworth has firmly established herself as a prominent industry figure. She has been an independent consultant since 2008, and contributor to WhichPLM and WhichERP. Morag is a passionate clothing industry practitioner who has realised the benefits of applying technology to assist in adopting best business practices. This has enabled her to assist companies to successfully select and implement both PLM and ERP systems.