Social Networking Behind the Firewall

Microsoft calls it TownSquare. Deloitte hosts D Street. IBM has its Beehive, and Best Buy its BlueShirt Nation.

No, it's not a real estate explosion. In industries from retail to high tech, banking and manufacturing, companies are increasingly building networks behind the firewall where employees can create profiles and connect with one another in ways first demonstrated by LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace.

"The whole Web 2.0 explosion has moved from the consumer and college student world to professionals in the business world," says Amy Shuen, author of Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide . (O'Reilly Media, 2008). "Employees are seeing this as a way of enlarging their sphere and interacting with colleagues."

It's more than an electronic water cooler, she says. Companies may start with the idea of helping employees feel more connected, but that's just the beginning. With easier and faster connections among people, suddenly cross-division collaboration happens more naturally, leading to greater innovation. "People don't just chat; they connect with people and end up talking about things that have an impact on the business," Shuen says.

Forrester Research Inc. agrees that 2008 is a time of rapid adoption of internal social networking, citing software suites that include social networking features, such as Awareness Inc.'s Enterprise Social Media, Jive Software's Clearspace, IBM's Lotus Connections and Microsoft's SharePoint.

Here are three companies that are already seeing benefits from early adoption of internal social networking.

Deloitte LLP: D Street

The idea for Deloitte's D Street began when the firm's talent organization wanted to make a large company feel smaller. In addition, it wanted to create an environment that would appeal to its mostly younger workforce. At a company where the average age of employees is 28, "we knew we had challenges to win the talent war," says Patricia Romeo, the leader of D Street. But in January 2007, when the group began to create the business case for the social networking environment, it also started to envision some of the side benefits the initiative might engender.

For instance, by enabling connections among employees, the company could more easily offer flexible work arrangements, establish virtual teams, bring new employees up to speed, improve collaboration and increase retention among people who hadn't felt a strong sense of belonging.

After getting the support of Deloitte leadership and partnering with internal IT, communications and knowledge management groups, the team launched the alpha version of D Street in June 2007, basing it on a commercially available collaborative platform. The initial rollout was to 1,500 employees.

Romeo describes D Street as having capabilities similar to Facebook's, except that profiles are prepopulated with basic information, including name, job title and contact information. Employees can personalize the profiles with things like photographs, resumes, work and community affiliations, and former employers. D Street enables workers to introduce colleagues to one another, list external social network memberships and write blogs. There's also a "guest book," in which visitors can leave comments.

And D Street helps people connect. An employee who searches on "Web 2.0," for example, will find other people interested in that topic, as well as their connection to him.

Since few employees personalized their profiles initially, early adoption was slow, Romeo says. "People aren't going to go in as readily when the well is 75% empty," she explains. But with the encouragement of leadership, more people got involved, and they were soon demanding access to the rest of the organization.

Tweaking the System

Next, the development team tweaked the system with enhancements such as reporting capabilities and launched it this year to Deloitte's shared services organization. Currently, all 46,000 members of the organization are in the system.

According to Romeo, 400 to 500 employees have been personalizing their profiles each week, meeting a goal of involvement by 25% of staffers in the first eight weeks.

Avinash Jhangiani, a senior consultant at Deloitte Consulting LLP, says D Street has helped him expand his internal contacts at the company, which is especially helpful because he's a mobile worker. For instance, he says, the organizing committee for Deloitte's community service initiative found him on D Street via a simple people and keyword search.

"From there, I was asked to join a volunteer project that allowed me to share my passion with nonprofit organizations and help them build their online presence," he says. "What a cool way to enhance my personal brand within the organization."

A gap still exists between collaboration evangelists and those for whom "it's just not part of their DNA," says Romeo. To encourage reluctant people, the team will continue educating employees about the value of collaborative technology, and it plans to expand the technology to increase D Street's value and utility.

That brings up another challenge: to not be diverted by some users' desire to add new features. "We're going slower than what our users would like, but we want to be strategic" about making enhancements, Romeo says.

Romeo's advice: Continue to build leadership support, even after the early-stage buy-in. "Make sure support is there throughout the organization," she says. Once the platform begins filling with valuable content, she adds, "it's really about viral adoption."

IBM: Beehive

Eight years ago, IBM created BluePages, a Web-based corporate directory that includes profiles with contact information, employee photographs, name pronunciation, experience, self-descriptions, bookmarks and blog entries, as well as "friending" and information-tagging capabilities.

"Very early on, we recognized the importance of connecting people within IBM and moving beyond a static view of the individual," says Jeff Schick, vice president of social software. The heavily used directory includes 450,000 employees and gets 6million lookups per day.

With an initiative called Beehive, IBM is experimenting further. The application uses the code base of BluePages, which is based on Lotus Connections, but it's a separate system.

Beehive is intended as a collaborative platform that emulates the physical work environment, where employees display personal items like photographs and trophies and chat about last night's game. "We've added new dimensions to the profile capability to create the old-fashioned camaraderie of the office," Schick says. The idea is to discover whether what Schick calls "the water cooler effect" will help people build stronger relationships and thus create a more effective organization.

For Michael Ackerbauer, a manager in the CIO's office at IBM, the results are already in. He learned about Beehive a year ago, and "I quickly got hooked," he says, especially since he manages a team of developers who work remotely. "It's valuable for the team to get to know me on a personal level, and I like to get to know them."

Ackerbauer says he can now connect with people on a social level that's typically absent when working remotely. Such connections help his teammates relate to one another like human beings and not just as resources or assets. Just recently, Ackerbauer says, he ended up speaking at a technology leadership conference, thanks to a connection he made with another employee who wouldn't have otherwise known he had expertise in the subject area.

Despite its experimental status, Beehive's user population has grown to 38,000 in nine months, mainly through viral adoption. "People find it through word of mouth, when others blog about it or bookmark it," Schick says. Adoption is strongest in the areas of product management, HR, talent management and the global services consulting business.

Because Beehive is behind the firewall, Ackerbauer says, people feel free to discuss internal business topics. For instance, he has used Beehive to explain his views on the topic of breakthrough thinking. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'I didn't know you knew all that stuff. Can we talk more?'" Ackerbauer says. "The connections lead to collaboration, which leads to innovation, which leads to transformations in the industries IBM serves."

Schick's advice: Be aware that one size does not fit all. To increase involvement, you need to explain the story of social software from multiple perspectives.

"What appeals to some will make others almost cringe," he says. For instance, new employees may want to use social software to increase their visibility, while veterans may be motivated to keep people informed. Similarly, he says, focus more on why than on how in your training program.

"Knowledge workers today have no time to add new activities to their day; they're looking for how to work smarter," Schick says. "Poor user adoption is rarely because users didn't know how but rather didn't see why."

Best Buy: BlueShirt Nation

Two years into implementing BlueShirt Nation (BSN) at Best Buy Co., Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt see internal social networks as organic entities. Many of the goals they had for the platform in 2006 had to be scrapped once the site -- which now hosts more than 20,000 participants -- took off.

Now senior manager of social technology, Koelling was a creative director in Best Buy's advertising organization when he and Bendt first thought of using technology to harvest marketing ideas from store employees. "The promise of being able to go out and tap into 140,000 employees and use computer magic to do it was really attractive to us," Koelling says. He figured it was a matter of gathering support, getting funding and laying out the steps to meet that goal.

Instead, "we got schooled quickly that not only did we not know about [technology], we also didn't know how people would react to a planned social network," he says.

For instance, instead of providing answers to Koelling's and Bendt's questions, participants preferred to talk about World of Warcraft or something funny that happened at work.

BSN is based on open-source software, and since internal IT lacked those skills, Koelling hired a development firm. The network was promoted virally; all participants found it through referrals or word of mouth.

On the site, employees can create their own profiles and host forums on topics of their choosing. The result, Koelling says, "is more scrumptious than what we hoped for."

Now that employees are connected, the site is rich with idea exchanges and discussions that have even helped change company policies. For instance, when one employee posted his thoughts on why it would be beneficial for all full-time employees to have e-mail access, it sparked a conversation that eventually led to a shift in policy to enable just that.

To Nick Pfeifer, a retail associate in one of Best Buy's Colorado Springs stores, the site provides a social outlet, a protected place to discuss work- related topics and a way to close the gap between store workers and corporate employees. "As with any big company, it's easy for the message of the customers to be lost when you don't turn your attention to the people who interact with them on a regular basis," he says. "Until BSN, there's always been a schism between the two."

To help close that gap, the site now includes an application called Loop Marketplace, where people can post new ideas, with the hope that a Best Buy executive will notice one and fund it. The challenge is to encourage more execs to visit it, Koelling says. "We're trying to find ways to make visiting the Loop Marketplace a part of their workflow."

There have been plenty of mistakes along the way, Koelling says. For instance, some users wanted to adopt a system in which people received points based on their participation on the network. But once he initiated that, Koelling learned quickly that most people thought it was elitist.

Koelling's advice: Understand that on a social network, everyone shares equal status, even the person who runs it. "When the user tells me, 'This is how I want to use it,' I have to do whatever I can to accommodate that," he says.

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter

Comments