More than a year ago, the chief executive officer, the executive committee and the board of directors of Wells Fargo & Co. decided that the company should move beyond ad hoc use of social technologies. Individuals, project teams and business units across the San Francisco-based global banking company had been adopting blogs, wikis and other social media tools for a variety of specific needs or experiments, without much thought about broader uses. Then company leaders decided it was time for a more consistent approach, one that aligned social media tools with business goals.
"Social tools do not exist for their own sake," says Kelli Carlson-Jagersma, Wells Fargo vice president of collaboration strategy, one of three executives leading an enterprisewide social initiative mandated by the board. "We want to know how we can use them to enhance business strategy."
Wells Fargo executives would likely agree with a key finding of a recent survey of 3,500 business executives conducted worldwide by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte LLP. Fifty-two percent of the respondents said social technologies are already "important" or "somewhat important" to their business.
Social technologies are still in the early phase of business-use adoption, but, in some cases, they are already transforming enterprises by flattening hierarchies, creating previously unthinkable networks of employees, spurring wider collaboration aimed at business objectives and even democratizing workplaces.
Corporate executives are "looking for ways to extract business value from social technologies," says Steve Boese, director of talent management strategy for Oracle Corp. in Redwood Shores, Calif., and a longtime user of these tools. "Think about business issues first, and then talk about technology second."
Many organizations use Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking websites for external activities such as branding, marketing and recruiting, often with positive results. Fewer have adopted social business platforms, also known as enterprise social software, for internal collaboration and to connect employees, information and digital assets throughout the organization. Grassroots use of individual tools has grown more common.
"In many organizations, including ones where I worked, we saw two or three groups adopting ad hoc similar technologies usually organized around connection, collaboration and trying to be more efficient, but lacking any broader strategy and without the awareness of central IT or HR," Boese recalls. He encountered "a wiki here and there" and knew of employees who would sign up for a free version of Yammer, a private cloud-based social network for businesses.
Getting to the Next Level
Times are changing, though. Some leaders "are starting to recognize that these tools can be used inside the organization to make improvements, to talk about plans, to focus on a challenge and to get employees collaborating," says C.V. Harquail, a professor of technology management at Stevens Institute of Technology.
She identifies three levels of use of social technologies:
Incremental, local improvement in a current process—for example, customer relationship management.
Incremental, systemic process improvement end to end in a particular value chain—for example, building social networks between customer-facing employees and internal employees.
Systemic transformation throughout the organizational ecosystem—for example, finding ways to change how employees think about what they do and how they work together.
"Most companies are still at level one," Harquail says.
The 300,000 employees of General Electric Co. have moved well beyond level one. When HR Magazine last interviewed Julie Grzeda in summer 2010, the senior HR manager for IT sourcing and initiatives was working on GE Connect, a first-generation social business platform launched in 2009.
Since then, GE, based in Fairfield, Conn., has introduced a platform called Colab, with improvements in search capabilities, user interface, management of groups, mobile capabilities and more. As a result, the platform is gaining adoption faster than the previous one, Grzeda says. In a company known for teamwork, Colab has accelerated collaboration within and among business groups globally, which is essential for a technology innovator like GE, Grzeda says.
Results on the Line
In the MIT-Deloitte survey, 80 percent of the executives said social media tools were "important" or "somewhat important" to "managing customer relations." Seventy-four percent gave "innovating for competitive differentiation" the same high marks, and 65 percent ranked "acquiring and retaining employees" in those categories of importance. Some managers, however, are broadening notions of how these tools can be used internally to achieve business goals.
Industrial Mold & Machine in Twinsburg, Ohio, makes custom molds for plastic bottle manufacturers and others. Most of the 40 factory workers and engineers have an iPad with access to the company’s social platform. They use the technology to help optimize the manufacturing process for each custom job. When a manufacturing problem arises, workers use the platform to access design specifications, including 3-D renderings, and communicate with other workers and engineers to solve the problem, according to Michael Idinopulos, general manager of Socialtext Inc., which created the social business platform.
This can be thought of as a twist on total quality management, where the quality of products and processes is a responsibility shared by everyone. In total quality shops, any worker can stop the assembly line when he spots a problem. At Industrial Mold, any worker can initiate activities on the social platform that lead to quick solutions.
"Everyone on the floor and everyone in the front office talks to each other as they get the job regrouped without calling a timeout to huddle in the office," Idinopulos says. Industrial Mold now produces 20 percent more output with 40 percent less labor, he adds.
SAS Institute Inc., in Cary, N.C., develops business intelligence software. Employees found a way to tie together social media tools adopted during its grassroots phase. In 2011, the company launched The Hub, according to Karen Lee, SAS senior director of international communications. Similar to Facebook in function, The Hub is the connective tissue for wikis, blogs and other social media tools previously adopted ad hoc by research and development, marketing and other departments.
The earlier tools produced useful ideas, but they were not easy to share broadly. Now, any blog, wiki or other social media tool can be linked to The Hub and is available to all. Lee says about 9,000 of its 13,000 employees have adopted it.
Crowdsourcing—a form of distributive problem-solving—is one business advantage gained. An employee in Europe posted a question about one of SAS’s competitors and had two useful answers within two minutes and additional useful answers within 24 hours from workers in six departments and four countries. "You don’t get that with e-mail," Lee says.
Like many companies, Marsh Inc., an insurance subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Cos., based in New York City, made budget cuts during the 2007-09 recession, including to its learning and development activities, according to Laurie Ledford, former HR director for Marsh and now senior vice president and chief HR officer for Marsh’s parent company. When an engagement survey revealed that the loss of learning opportunities was a problem for employees, Ledford sought a low-cost solution.
The result was Marsh University, a social platform-based learning site. "There is expertise and content in the heads of the people working at our company. We wanted to tap into that and make it available to those who want it. Social media seemed to be a way. Peer-to-peer learning on the social platform was the beginning."
Marsh University now offers content, connects individuals, allows creation of groups for learning and collaboration, and lets individuals share through blogs. About 18,000 of the company’s 25,000 employees use it.Ultimately, the goal is to leverage social computing to strengthen connections across the enterprise, which includes 53,000 colleagues across more than 100 countries.
A Coordinated Effort
During the past four decades, many hardware and software tools gained grassroots acceptance before achieving enterprisewide adoption. Personal computers, spreadsheets, client-server networks, the Web and mobile computing devices, to name a few, took this trajectory.
"Early on, some companies were just dabbling with social media, just putting their toes in the water. This was preferred over what other companies did—put their heads in the sand and hoped it went away," says David Rodriguez, executive vice president and chief HR officer for Marriott International, based in Bethesda, Md.
Early dabblers gained strategic benefits sooner. "Social technology was not a fad but a fundamental shift in how business is evolving. We knew the only way to learn was to get in the game. Maybe stub your toe here and there. We went in on that basis, and we’ve come a long way. Now, it is about strategy, here in the HR space and throughout the company," Rodriguez says.
AT&T Inc. in Dallas was an early adopter of a social business platform that has since evolved. "Many companies are still throwing up tools—and not with as much thought as they might give them," says Geoff Engelmeyer, AT&T’s director of emerging communications. "We’ve been able to drive achievement of business objectives by allowing our employees to engage in a collaborative way."
AT&T is yet another company that requires collaboration within and among business units to meet business objectives and revenue goals. Usage of the social business platform has doubled since 2011, including far more interpersonal and cross-organizational connections, which the company measures, Engelmeyer says.
At Wells Fargo, Pete Fields, senior vice president for corporate communications, says the enterprise social strategy team expects to propose a social media strategy to top executives and board members this fall for a 2013 rollout to the company’s 265,000 employees. "What is really new is marrying these tools with core business objectives while still supporting informal communication," Fields says.
The specific objectives were not public at press time, but he says they will focus on team member engagement, productivity/efficiency, knowledge management, sales and services. Some Wells Fargo grassroots efforts are large because some business divisions are large. Fields says various groups in the firm use polling technologies already. For example, the wholesale business unit, with 34,000 employees, has conducted employee satisfaction polls among as many as 2,500 workers at a time.
Wells Fargo has long been a technology leader—for example, with ATMs and more recently in online banking. This requires teams with representatives from various business units, such as technology, software and business process, to work together. These project teams long ago adopted wikis to support this collaborative work. Internal blogs, including several by senior leaders, are in abundance, and there is an enterprisewide tool for crowdsourcing innovative ideas. Still, these are all piecemeal.
"At the enterprise level, we’re finally taking a more coordinated approach," Fields says.
Social business platforms—such as Jive, Socialtext and Social Cast—are technologically similar to Facebook but differ in their users’ intentions.
For example, Facebook and other social networking sites don’t generate the interaction needed to achieve business goals. "If you use analytics on Facebook, you will find the majority of posts have little interactivity," says Nancy Lewis, learning and development consultant and a senior fellow at The Conference Board in New York City. "They are typically one-way posts with nothing beyond information sharing being accomplished as a result."
Facebook is mostly used for casual conversation, and casual conversation on social media tools does not accomplish business objectives any more than does yakking around the water cooler.
"Collaboration without a goal is just gossip," says David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies LLC in San Francisco, a research and consulting firm. "A social enterprise is a great goal, but it is often one that falls short," he continues. His advice: "Make collaboration part of a critical business process."
Coleman has followed the technology and culture of collaboration for more than two decades, beginning with Lotus Notes, an early proprietary software platform for corporate networks. It had features similar to today’s social technologies.
He sees a hierarchy in social media activity, starting with conversation and followed by communication, coordination, cooperation and collaboration. The stronger the goal orientation, the higher the level of required social media activity.
AT&T’s Engelmeyer is of two minds about social networking sites as models for social business platforms. "We keep a finger on the pulse of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and try to grab some best practices as appropriate," he says. Examples include an internal video platform that mimics Facebook and hash tags or topic identifiers on the company’s internal version of Twitter. However, he notes, "We’ve also noticed there are employees who are not as interested in adopting the external social tools, so we also need to distinguish our tools from the outside ones with a focus on business goals." For example, badges on an employee’s personal profile are used to help others identify the individual’s expertise.
The MIT-Deloitte survey found that the second biggest obstacle to adoption of social software was "no strong business case or proven value proposition." The biggest obstacle was "lack of management understanding."
The use of social business platforms "is not as intentional, deliberate and studied as it should be," Lewis says. "Intentional means that someone has been deeply thoughtful about the end goal."
At Colliers International Property Consultants Inc. in Seattle, a great deal of thought has been given to how these tools can support a five-year strategic plan to drive more revenue by becoming more collaborative, says Mindy Geisser, the company’s vice president for global HR.
At Colliers, with 12,500 employees in 61 countries, collaboration means that client referrals between regions become routine and that consistent practices are adopted in every market so a client has the same experience worldwide. "It is hard for someone in Sao Paulo to know what is happening in Singapore without using these tools," Geisser says.
Colliers’ brokers are not required to use the company’s social platform, but it is gaining traction with them because it helps them meet revenue goals, Geisser adds.
It seems abundantly clear that social technologies achieve value in the enterprise when they are clearly connected to business processes and to achieving business goals. Even people who use Facebook obsessively in their personal lives will not use social business platforms without deriving significant value on the job.
The author is technology contributing editor for HR Magazine and is based in Silicon Valley in California.