Setting the Stage

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2008-02-21 Print this article Print

Procter & Gamble and other mainstream companies aim to overcome their hierarchical, individualistic ways to make room for flexible, open and unstructured technologies.

Setting the Stage

P&G is not alone when it comes to culture clashes resulting from new and emergent technologies. The open nature of the tools—just about anyone can write a blog regardless of expertise—means that previously unheard voices have an opportunity to be heard and that senior employees will be held more publicly accountable to make contributions, according to Euan Semple, a London-based consultant who has worked with dozens of large companies on the cultural and technological transition to social software tools.

When the British Broadcasting Company deployed a blogging platform in 2003, a junior employee at an outlying radio station in the broadcaster’s network started posting programming ideas that caught upper management’s eye, according to Semple. At the same time, senior employees who weren’t contributing to the public conversation began to be perceived as hiding behind their titles. “These tools are the cultural and organizational democratization of the workplace,” Semple says. “They upend the perceived power structure.”

That power structure has been an obstacle, particularly to the widespread adoption of wikis at P&G and other companies, Semple adds. (Wikis are Web-based applications that let groups create and collaborate on documents, as well as post and store subject-specific content, such as project updates and external links.) In some corporate cultures, taking collective responsibility for work is a dreadful proposition, Semple says.

Even in a company like P&G, which Schueller and outside experts like Davenport cite as having a collaborative environment, wikis have been slow to take hold, Schueller says.

Content creators—those who draft documents—feel accountable for final products and are therefore reluctant to cede control to a group of editors. Then there’s the flip side: Making edits can be seen as culturally sensitive. “You need to adopt a culture of participation and collaboration,” Schueller explains. “Any company with more than 500 employees that has figured that out would be pretty impressive.”

Successful P&G wikis tend to contain mostly neutral service-oriented topics, such as security best practices and local recommendations for business travelers. Schueller hopes wikis will one day be used among small and large groups of dispersed workers to maintain pieces of information, like competitive and market intelligence. So far, the demand is not there, a frustration for Schueller, who says there are probably 10 team spaces on the corporate intranet dealing with the same topic and that contributors may not know one another.

The most successful social software implementations emerge when there is a clear demand, as was the case at MWW Group, a public relations agency based in East Rutherford, N.J. Client teams there were accustomed to collectively editing press releases and other collateral, but their primary mode of editing was in file attachments sent by e-mail, according to Tom Biro, vice president of digital media. Version control was problematic, as was size and number of e-mail attachments. In August 2006, MWW Group implemented wiki software from SocialText.

Currently, about half of MWW’s 250 employees use the browser-based tool to collaborate on client documents. Account managers notify team members via e-mail when a document is ready for review. The server-based application, which costs $11,000 per year for the lease and licenses, can also be configured to automatically alert team members when updates are posted. Coworkers can edit the text, and a history of all changes is readily available.

The wiki has reduced e-mail attachments by 25 percent and boosted productivity, although Biro can’t say by how much. It’s faster and easier to search than a server, he says, and when employees travel to any of the company’s 10 offices, they don’t have to start up a laptop, log into the network and open a software application to view a document. Instead, they can hop on a conference-room computer and log into the wiki.

But wikis aren’t just for internal collaboration. In late 2006, call-center software maker Angel.com created a wiki for customers and business partners to exchange information about products, including likes and dislikes. Angel.com also posted technical documentation, including troubleshooting tips to which customers contributed, according to Sam Aparicio, the firm’s chief technology officer.

The unanticipated result has been a reduction in formal technical support and a 10 percent jump in productivity for the McLean, Va., company. The boost, Aparicio estimates, is equivalent to an annual saving of $500,000, while the hosted wiki cost less than $10,000 during the same period.

Social media, at their best, offer serendipitous interactions with people or information that spark an idea, answer a question or create a connection. Online community sites like Facebook and MySpace have grown exponentially in the past few years because people want to keep up with their “tribes,” according to Harvard’s McAfee, who says, “It’s a very deep part of our wiring.”

Schueller suspects that P&G’s employees share this basic instinct. Last December, his team deployed a beta version of an intracompany social networking tool built with open-source software Druple. Those who have tried the technology like it, he says, although he concedes that the test group is self-selected and may not reflect the computing habits of the larger organization.

He has little doubt that experimenting with social software has already yielded benefits for P&G, but so far they have been quixotic. “I have to be completely honest and say that we have not yet seen measurable results,” Schueller says. “But we’re extremely hopeful.”

Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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