If large companies are looking for evidence that a social networking strategy can work, Booz Allen Hamilton may have given them some.
BAH showcased its Hello application -- in essence an enterprise version of Facebook -- during a presentation at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston Tuesday.
The portal, which incorporates blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS feeds, personal profiles and other familiar social networking tools, was launched in August 2008.
While the technologies themselves may not be anything new, Hello's rate of internal adoption suggests enterprise social networking can indeed become the pervasive force pundits and vendors have long proclaimed it will be.
Since the launch, more than 40 percent of BAH's roughly 20,000 workers have added content to Hello, and the portal contains about 350 subcommunities devoted to various topics, even though participation is voluntary, BAH senior associate Walton Smith said. "We're excited we're growing that fast and there's no mandate."
BAH had historically used Microsoft Outlook for collaboration but needed a better way to connect workers and information, according to Smith.
The US$4 billion company is growing quickly, expecting to bring 5,000 new workers aboard this year, according to Smith. In addition, its offices are far-flung, and more than 55 percent of BAH's employees work on clients' sites, with many doing so their first day on the job, Smith said.
In search of a better collaboration framework, BAH looked at various vendors' tools but found they were not flexible enough, according to Smith. The company subsequently decided to build Hello in-house using a wide variety of technologies, from PHP (hypertext preprocessor) for user interfaces to Confluence for wikis.
Now in alpha, Hello is being developed through an agile methodology, with new versions created every couple of weeks.
"The majority of [new] functionality is driven by users," he said.
A team of just four developers is putting the software together, Smith said in an interview after his presentation. While BAH has so far spent about $US1 million on the project, most of that sum has gone toward change management and internal communications about the project, he said.
To help drive adoption, Hello is being used as part of BAH's employee orientation process.
BAH's newer workers "live and breathe" social networking, so BAH is particularly focusing its evangelism efforts on middle managers, who "have the knowledge and power to move the firm forward," but are still wedded to legacy tools and work styles, Smith said during his remarks.
But overall, the Hello project has succeeded thanks to strong sponsorship from the top levels of BAH, according to Smith.
It was also crucial for the Hello team to cooperate with BAH's main corporate IT staff because the portal depends on the company's underlying network infrastructure and pulls in information from data warehouses and applications, he said.
To that end, programs like Hello aren't meant to replace other software, Smith suggested.
"[Microsoft] SharePoint is great if you know who you're working with and want to manage a document," whereas Hello is meant to help workers seek out information from colleagues they don't know, he said.
Hello is important because it represents "a big user with deep pockets" that was able to bring a range of social software technologies into a cohesive whole that serves business needs, said analyst Denis Pombriant, managing principal of Beagle Research.
"I think you'll see other enterprises looking at it, and you'll also see other vendors looking at it as an example of how to bring their products to market," he said.
Nonetheless, one company's social networking strategy may not be appropriate for another's, according to collaboration software consultant Oliver Marks.
"A lot of people try to find a framework or case history that has worked in another company and graft it on," Marks said in remarks prior to Smith's presentation. "But this is really like a bespoke tailored suit. You have to try it on and see what works for you."
That philosophy is reflected in the fact that, according to Smith, BAH is not planning to sell Hello to its clients.
Instead, the company is using the software "to get a conversation started" around enterprise social networking, and subsequently put together something that matches the customers' IT infrastructure, which may be heavily oriented around a particular technology like .NET or Java, he said in an interview.
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