Caterpillar Tractor, formed in 1925, sells big iron: earth movers, bulldozers, and off-road dump trucks. The Ford Motor Company, formed in 1903, pioneered the use of the assembly line and makes its products out of glass, rubber, and steel. Johnson Controls traces its origins to 1885 and the Johnson Electric Service company in Milwaukee, which made automated temperature control systems. It serviced buildings made from bricks and mortar then, and it services them today.
While all of these companies predate the Internet by about a century, today they are dealing with a torrent of data coming in multiple formats and different speeds, and embracing connected technologies in a variety of ways. Ford, headquartered in Dearborn, Mich., has been at the cutting edge of bringing cloud-based, on-board applications to the low-priced car market. Johnson Controls is still based in Milwaukee, but the data it collects and processes from thousands of buildings lives in the cloud. Based on these innovations, Ford and Johnson Controls were picked by U.S. News as one of America's Most Connected Companies; Caterpillar joined the list because of its broad adoption of social media.
"Volume is probably the biggest element of big data today," says Laura Farnham, vice president of building technology and services at Johnson Controls. "But regardless of the other issues—speed, formats—it's really about being able to collect it and make it meaningful. That's the secret sauce of big data."
Johnson Controls is bringing connectivity to firms ranging in size from those with a single building to those with a global presence. They're applying their own solutions to manage a dizzying array of data and deliver it wirelessly. Panoptix is Johnson Controls' new cloud-based suite of applications that services connected buildings, tackling energy waste and helping the buildings perform more efficiently.
Ford is leveraging its Evos concept car as a laboratory-on-wheels that will influence the Ford line-up inside and out, from design flourishes that will be seen in future years to on-board applications that can be personalized by the driver. These new enhancements will be driven to its lower priced models, moving Ford's cloud-based, on board applications throughout its line-up.
Caterpillar, among the most conservative and blue-collar of manufacturers, finds that social media can play well in Peoria, Ill., (its hometown) and elsewhere, using it to sell everything from its line of boots and overalls to those big yellow vehicles found at construction sites throughout the globe. Caterpillar has acquired about 30 companies in the last decade, and there's not a tech start-up among them. Yet social media is becoming a part of the fabric of the company, from the truck-design process to the way it engages customers.
Kevin Espinosa, social media marketing manager at Caterpillar, says adapting to new technologies is essential to remain competitive. "Social media is going to be like the telephone" was 50 years ago, he says. "It's the first channel and the last channel customers use to reach out to us." More and more, he says, "They don't go to the dealers first, they go to Facebook or Twitter." The task at hand now, Espinosa says, is to service those channels, because their content is a matter of public record. "If there's a tweet or a Facebook post that's not being answered, everyone knows it."
Still, selling the products of heavy industry online remains challenging. Buying a Barbie Doll or a case of Coca-Cola online at Walmart is still more practical than buying an industrial-strength HVAC system at a similar venue. While Caterpillar and Ford both use social media to sell products and maintain websites for initial inquiries as a gateway to sales, both maintain worldwide dealer networks that are about as old as the Model T. Putting the curb appeal of this year's model on display at the dealer's showroom or lot still matters.
At a Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) Webinar last April, Caterpillar's Espinosa acknowledged that there is still skepticism about social media among senior management and some customers. To win them over, Espinosa suggested that companies look to what's already being said about them.
"You can show them real, live examples of how the company is made to look," on the Internet, he said. The convincing case to act will be made once they see that their firm can be shown in an unflattering light—or that it's being misrepresented. In these situations, he said, "You can see examples of what people are saying about your brand. How you respond is up to you."
Corrected 06/06/2012: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Caterpillar’s founding year. It is 1925.