Social networking behind the firewall

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

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, 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.

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