Nuts and Bolts

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2011-09-28

The buzz over social media has reached deafening proportions. But behind the glitzy façade of Facebook and Twitter—and a near obsession over consumer facing strategies—there’s a growing realization that social networking can pay enormous dividends within an organization. Not only can it help employees connect and collaborate more effectively, it can take knowledge sharing to a new level.

Among the organizations sold on this concept: the United State Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 2009, it formalized a mentoring program, now called the Open Learning Network, which allows approximately 4,500 people to connect across the federal agency’s Office of Regulatory Affairs. It handles imports, inspections, and enforcement policy globally. Using a variety of tools, including threaded discussions, messaging, task lists, polls and learning resources, employees are able to share information and expertise like never before.

“We were looking to develop people’s knowledge and keep it institutionalized within the organization,” explains Brooke Mullican, a training specialist in the Division of Human Resources Development at the FDA. “We needed a system that could provide asynchronous capabilities and span geographic boundaries. We realized that in the digital age we had to move beyond face-to-face interaction.”

The system, powered by Triple Creek software, is taking the FDA to a new level of connectedness. It has helped the agency break down silos, improve productivity, and boost employee retention. It’s allowing staff to connect to technical information, practical expertise, and human knowledge in a way that simply wasn’t imaginable only a few short years ago.

Social Studies

The ability for a social networking system to connect people to the data, information and knowledge they require is a powerful thing. Social networking applications can break down hierarchies and radically redefine interactions. “The technology is also a huge driver of change management,” Mullican points out.

The FDA initially considered building its own online system. A committee, consisting mostly of senior level managers, weighed an approach that would have plugged into Excel spreadsheets and an Access database. However, the team quickly realized a DIY approach wasn’t robust enough for the organization’s needs and building an internal system would have taken two years or more, Mullican notes.

Once the FDA settled on the Triple Creek system in August 2010, it began building the foundation for sophisticated social interaction. The development team worked with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to identify 100 mission critical competencies for its employees. Today, the underpinnings of the social network are based heavily on these competencies.

Here’s how it works: participating staff member create a profile and catalog their areas of skills, competencies and expertise. They also rate their level of ability in a particular area—say human resources or law—so that others searching the system for a match connect to someone who closely matches their needs. This ensures, for example, that someone with little knowledge or experience doesn’t wind up matched with someone who’s too far above or below to provide optimal value.

Once a staffer creates a profile, it’s possible to seek out engagements or have the Triple Creek system suggest matches. A person begins a search by entering desired competencies—everything from leadership and innovation to contracts and legal issues — and selecting other criteria. The system uses an algorithm to suggest matches. A user can view a basic summary of suggested connections but also drill down for more information about the person. Once a connection is established—or a group is created—participants share notes, documents, links and other resources. Users designate whether a group is public or private.

The end result? “If you need help on that particular issue or situation, you can access someone virtually, very quickly, as opposed to a one-to-one mentor/mentee match, where you’re just talking to one person,” Mullican notes. “The system provides an enormous amount of flexibility and helps users get the information they need in an expedited way.

An engagement may last a few days or for months and each one can take on a very different shape and form.”

Beyond the Watercooler

One major goal of the program is to nudge staff outside their comfort zone and expand their thinking and options about sharing knowledge. So far, Mullican reports that the agency has established 57 formal one-to-one mentoring relationships covering administrative processes, technical program areas, leadership, negotiating and other topics. Hundreds of other groups have assembled and dissolved over days or weeks. The OLN has also helped the FDA identify potential changes to workflows that boost efficiency and trim costs.

The biggest challenge, Mullican notes, has been getting staff to create profiles and populate their competency lists. The number of participants is now approaching 700 but the FDA expects the figure to grow rapidly now that the system has moved from a pilot phase to general use. She and the OLN team have made it a point to provide training and manuals to help employees get up to speed. Evaluations indicate that most employees find the system valuable, she says.

The FDA is now looking to expand the system agency-wide (and eventually with its counterparts around the world) and it’s looking for ways to further define competencies and other components. It’s also working to build a more robust system that can tie into talent management and succession planning systems—and map competency strengths as well as skill and knowledge gaps. “This will enable us to identify, develop, deliver, and track proper training and career development opportunities that an employee would need from hire to retire,” Mullican says.

“The Open Learning Network is a cost effective, low risk way to achieve results,” Mullican concludes. “It’s helping build a culture of knowledge sharing and making change management safe.”