Starting in the Trenches

 
 
By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2008-02-21
 
 
 

Last fall, Joe Schueller showed mockups of a new software application to fellow Procter & Gamble employees. In charge of deploying the new program, Schueller wanted to know what P&G’s workers thought of the internal social networking tool, a kind of Facebook behind the firewall.

Some liked it—at first. They thought it was great that they could type in a search term—point-of-sale marketing, for instance—and see a list of related profiles. But when Schueller pointed out that they, too, could create profiles, the enthusiasm faded.

“They’d say, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You mean people can find me?’ It’s like, other people’s knowledge and collaboration is great, but my knowledge and collaboration? That sounds like more work,” says Schueller, P&G’s IT innovation manager.

In the past year, there has been a growing awareness among large businesses that popular consumer Web sites like Facebook and social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us may hold benefits for corporate information management, according to Nikos Drakos, a research director at Gartner. Adoption of these technologies—alternately called social computing platforms, social software, Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 applications—has been slow but steady. Last July, Gartner predicted that the social software market would triple between 2007 and 2011, from $226 million to more than $707 million.

For a host of organizational reasons, some companies are better suited to adopt and embrace social software tools, but even for those that get an A-plus in culture, universal adoption and the ability to reap business benefits from social computing remains an uncertain proposition.

Most businesses that enter the fray start with small-scale project-specific implementations rather than enterprise-wide deployments of social software, Drakos says. Companies have effective ways of capturing and storing formal processes and transactions, but when it comes to tracking important yet informal information, such as competitive intelligence, and edits to a collectively created document, Drakos says, businesses need “a place between the rigid and the chaotic.”

Web 2.0 applications may be beginning to meet that need. “We already use our most flexible and user-friendly applications like the phone and e-mail to support informal interactions,” Drakos says, “but that information is not organized or reused and it tends to get lost.”

Over the past seven years, P&G employees have used Web logs and wikis, where users can share and create information collectively, and thousands have created profiles to connect professionally on Facebook and LinkedIn. In January, the Cincinnati-based company began a pilot program that gives employees a single Web-based entry to specialized company content, including news feeds and team rooms, browser-based applications that let groups collaborate on documents. The portal might one day lead to the nascent internal social networking platform Schueller demoed, he says. P&G is also building a company “yellow pages” so workers can find one another by topic area. While Schueller has moments of doubt about the effectiveness of these technologies, he is unequivocal about their role at P&G. “I'm confident that some of these tools will have a permanent place here,” Schueller says. “We have 10,000 people in Facebook and 16,000 in LinkedIn. You can't deny it.”

Starting in the Trenches

As with many big companies, Web 2.0 efforts at P&G began in the trenches, with IT workers blogging about technology on Six Apart’s free Movable Type software for consumers. The rogue operation eventually gained some attention when the Innovation team, the IT division that supports emerging technologies at P&G, began hosting the enterprise version of Movable Type on a company server.

Staffers in other departments latched onto the idea and started their own blogs. P&G now has more than 300 blogs, with authors at all job levels, from summer interns blogging about their research, to senior executives commenting on design and creativity.

Despite the warm welcome social software gets from many mainstream companies and the hype it receives from vendors and media, it remains to be seen whether businesses will reap any tangible benefits from the tools, which promise open, collective and spontaneous communication and collaboration.

Social computing platforms aren’t much different from previous collaborative applications and are no holy grail for business, according to Tom Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and author of Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning. “I don’t see any major change [with these tools],” Davenport says. “The technologies are interesting and it makes sense to experiment, but the [activities they’re used for] could be done with other technologies.”

Electronic forums and bulletin boards—the antecedents to blogs—have been around for years, says Davenport, who characterizes the new breed of enterprise collaboration tools as “old wine in new bottles.” What may be changing, he concedes, is that some companies are paying more attention to the organizational elements required to support collaborative software applications. “With these new tools,” Davenport explains, “unless the right culture, behaviors and organizational structures are in place, they’re not going to be successful.”

99 percent culture, 1 percent technology

Schueller likes to say that his job is to try to get P&G to move from operating like 1,000 companies of 100 workers to one company that realizes the full potential of its 100,000-strong workforce. It’s a compelling proposition: create a small, highly connected community in a huge, dispersed organization. That’s what knowledge management applications—and, later, intranets and portals—were supposed to accomplish. But as collaboration tools, those platforms haven’t lived up to their promise, according to Andrew McAfee, a Harvard Business School professor who studies how enterprises are using collaborative software and other social software tools.

Roughly 600 employees author all of P&G’s 300 blogs, which offer personal perspectives on topics of professional interest, such as design, marketing and emerging technology. Many of P&G’s bloggers were engaged in blog-like activities prior to blogging, such as composing and sending regular newsletters or e-mails to employee groups. However, making the case to trade in e-mail for a blog, even these days, is a call for a culture clash.

When Schueller approaches an employee and suggests that blogging may be a natural extension of the person’s work, the employee typically rejects the idea, claiming that blogging would be an additional task rather than an outgrowth of current work. By contrast, those workers who want to start a blog are the most active authors and early adopters of new technologies. “You could give them the worst [blog] tools in the world and they’d run with it,” Schueller says. “But if you ask someone to blog, they’ll show you every foible in the software.”

The degree to which workers adopt voluntary collaboration tools, he adds, is “99 percent culture, 1 percent technology.” At P&G, some are simply stuck in the culture of e-mail. The human resources division, for example, is still very “1.0” with its communications, according to Schueller, who has been trying to persuade HR staffers to post information that affects large groups of people in the taggable, searchable blog environment, rather than in e-mail.

Getting a huge workforce to open up publicly is a tricky proposition. Web 2.0 naysayers at P&G tend to skew older and be protective of their information: “Their default is to lock everything down,” Schueller says. “You have to show them the value of opening up.”

Younger workers, on the other hand, are more likely to make information available unless something is truly private. Gartner’s Drakos says there are early adopters and experimenters in every age bracket, but adds that workers under 30 are not only more likely to adopt social-computing platforms, but generally expect to use them in the workplace—a factor that businesses must address.

While younger workers are accustomed to freer information exchange than their more senior colleagues, they may also have a looser sense of privacy, raising the risk of exposing confidential or competitive information. The openness of these so-called “millennials”—those born between 1980 and 1995—could lead to inappropriate data sharing, says Drakos. But as with e-mail, instant messaging and other communication technologies, it is up to mentors, managers and company guidelines to establish proper information security.

Social software adoption in the enterprise raises new hurdles—not just for business managers and users, but for the IT workers who deploy the applications. IT departments must focus on how people use or don’t use the technology, something they haven’t historically done, says Mike Gotta, an analyst at the Burton Group. In the old days, it was “plan, build, run,” Gotta says, referring to the habits of software developers. With social media, he says, it’s critical for the IT group to stay involved after deployment, to help users adapt and to observe how they use the tools, so they can respond to immediate needs and anticipate future requirements.

The notion of sticking around to observe what needs emerge while workers use technology is critical to a successful Enterprise 2.0 deployment, according to Harvard’s McAfee, who adds that IT must now behave opposite the way it was trained. In the past, McAffe says it’s been de rigueur for developers to impose a workflow and privilege structure on enterprise applications prior to deployment. With Web 2.0 applications, the key to success is to release applications with limited structures, a practice technology departments often find surprisingly difficult.

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.”