Over the last five years or so, more organizations have used social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with customers. Now many organizations are taking a cue from those sites to deploy more socially minded communication and collaboration tools. Does taking a more social, collaborative approach work?
"We all work virtually, spread over three states. Email can be cold, and we miss out on water cooler conversations. Social networking allows us to get to know colleagues as people, with kids, pets and interests beyond business requirements."
CIO.com: How have Facebook and Twitter changed the way organizations, like Vanguard and HBA, look at collaboration?
John Marcante, CIO, Vanguard: Employees now expect companies to provide the same kind of collaborative technologies they experience at home. Providing the tools that enable employees to share, connect and collaborate is something new for many enterprises.
Embracing this from a technology perspective is important. Quite often, the company's culture needs to change as well--to embrace the ideas of sharing information, connecting virtually with people you don't know and collaborating on documents in a virtual space outside of email.
CIO.com: Why is social networking within the enterprise important? Has it helped you improve communication and collaboration?
Carol Meerschaert, MBA, RD, Director of Marketing and Communications, Healthcare Businesswomen's Association: We all work virtually, spread over three states. Email can be cold, and we miss out on water cooler conversations. Social networking allows us to be social... to get to know colleagues as people, with kids, pets and interests beyond business requirements [which helps build a sense of community].
Marcante: Social networking provides the opportunity to increase internal collaboration, productivity and crew engagement. All of these benefits eventually translate into increased business value. Our social networking initiative is referred to as enterprise collaboration.
Vanguard continually looks to improve its process, reduce costs and provide innovative products. Enterprise collaboration is an opportunity to leverage the crew's knowledge, by connecting crew to crew and crew to content. Enterprise collaboration increases the crew's effectiveness by providing a platform to share and grow their knowledge. It is becoming the new normal for how we do business.
Also, as Vanguard has expanded globally, enterprise collaboration has enabled [the company] to maintain its unique culture. It helps keep [employees] connected and engaged, and increases our ability to share and capture knowledge.
CIO.com: How did you go about implementing social networking? Did you have a pilot program?
Meerschaert: We jumped in. It takes time to build a following so we got staff involved, then our members and corporate partners. [We encouraged employees to] follow and like [so] then others will follow and like you back.
Marcante: Three years ago, Vanguard chartered an Enterprise 2.0 initiative to provide the goals and direction to implement E2.0. Instead of only looking at enterprise networks as part of this initiative, Vanguard decided to define it by asking:
" How can we enable our crew to be mobile and be as effective as possible?
" How can we allow the crew to communicate more effectively virtually or in person?
" How can crew collaborate more effectively, especially in a 24/7 global world?
"Technology like email will continue to serve a valuable function, but social technologies help redirect some behaviors to more effectively capture knowledge."
A quick win for our crew was providing the ability to share personnel information, such as the "About me" section of crew profiles. They can also use video collaborative technologies and internal Crew Chat (IM) to connect instantly with other crew members.
Another success was the launch of communities of practice within the IT division. The site is called the IT Hub and it enables crew with common skills to share their knowledge across multiple divisions. We spent a significant amount of time on behavioral changes and the change management process to encourage the Hub's adoption. Creative marketing tools were employed and ambassadors were introduced at the grass roots level to encourage participation. Due to the Hub's success, communities of practice are expanding to the business.
CIO.com: Did the new system replace an existing system/technology? (How did employees primarily communicate/share information beforehand, via email?)
Meerschaert: I'd say augment, not replace. Email is still incredibly important. We Skype, too. A Skype message to us means urgent and can lead to a Skype call if text is not cutting it. But we have moved to replacing a few conference calls with Tweet chats, we've added tweet chats to our marketing mix too.
Marcante: The correct word would be supplement. Technology like email will continue to serve a valuable function, but social technologies help redirect some behaviors to more effectively capture knowledge. Some conversations need to occur in private and email may be the best platform. Previously, email was used to ask a question and get an answer.
Now, employees use enterprise collaboration for those functions. In the future, when someone else has the same question, the first place to look will be in our collaboration platform. Complete adoption should occur once the enterprise collaboration tools are integrated into the business processes and applications, maximizing business value.
CIO.com: How was buy-in both among executives and the workforce? Are there generational differences? That is, did younger workers embrace the technology while older ones did not, or not as quickly?
Meerschaert: Our staff is a brave lot, full of energy and willing to try almost everything with a smile. I think the idea that old = timid is not true.
"Give it a shot and give it time. It can take months for it to catch on. People need to feel safe to go play, so keep it fun. Post things worth reading. If folks follow you on Twitter give them something to actually follow."
Marcante: Our executives support the enterprise collaboration initiative. During the pilot, the crew's response was very strong. They saw how it could improve on-the-job effectiveness. The most successful collaboration sites are those that were grass root efforts.
Our primary challenge was to explain why enterprise collaboration benefits the organization. Generational trends were not observed. The adoption of a tool, or a method of collaborating, was more dependent on the user's personal preferences (i.e., introvert vs. extrovert). Often, if parts of a department or team started to share and collaborate, the rest of the department and team would follow.
CIO.com: Has using social networking-type tools improved collaboration and communication within your organization?
Meerschaert: Every tool adds to the mix. Everyone has favorites. I know our CEO sees all of our tweets and is quick to respond with a note of encouragement. Now she would do that in person or via email but this saves her a bit of time.
Marcante: In the organizations that have adopted enterprise collaboration, we are seeing more collaboration and increased knowledge retention. Success can be measured by a myriad of stories of how various organizations leverage the enterprise collaboration tools. One team moved from a completely email supported model to a community of practice, engaging in discussion forums and rating content based on quality and usefulness. Their content is retained and their internal clients search and discover content on their own. The team completely changed its own--and their clients'--behavior.
CIO.com: What advice would you give other IT executives/companies looking to implement social networking within the enterprise?
Meerschaert: Give it a shot and give it time. It can take months for it to catch on. People need to feel safe to go play, so keep it fun. Post things worth reading. If folks follow you on Twitter give them something to actually follow.
Marcante: It is not about the technology. It is about taking a collaborative and sharing environment and increasing its strength. To introduce enterprise collaboration, a company should start with the why--the business value that can be gained from enterprise collaboration.
Introduce the how slowly. Focus not just on the technology but on the cultural change. Understand that you are engaging in a marathon, not a sprint! The business value it will bring to your organization is well worth the effort. Persistent energy and a consistent message are needed to affect this cultural change.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.