Social collaboration platform dos and don'ts from HR Tech 2013

Emma Snider

At the start of the 2013 HR Technology Conference & Expo, held this week in Las Vegas, keynote speaker Don Tapscott said the world is heading toward a state of "radical openness." He broke the concept into four characteristics -- collaboration, transparency, sharing and empowerment -- and recommended companies "undress for success."

However, openness on all four levels is difficult to achieve in complex organizations, and human resources (HR) leaders often look to social technology for help. But deploying a collaboration platform can open its own can of worms if not done thoughtfully, and many managers fear negative consequences, such as inappropriate use or leaking of classified information.

While some HR leaders remain skeptical of deploying social technology in the enterprise, others have taken the plunge. During sessions on enterprise collaboration platforms, attendees heard two HR leaders present lessons learned from firsthand experience. They also heard two different value propositions of collaboration platforms: group learning and more efficient communication.

Social collaboration platform user adoption slow at first

Better knowledge sharing was a key driver of the decision to revamp the employee collaboration platform at Cigna, a health services company headquartered in Bloomfield, Conn. Karen Kocher, Cigna's chief learning officer, said the company originally had two separate self-service intranets in use; but "in use" was somewhat of a stretch: Out of nearly 50,000 content pages, fewer than 500 had been used by more than 100 people.

The company aimed to replace the two intranets with a single system and change the model from passive self-service to active collaboration. Today, the new SharePoint-based collaboration platform, called "My Cigna Life," has been up for a year and a half. Kocher said landing pages are personalized, and each of Cigna's 40,000 employees can post blogs for everyone to see.

But workers weren't exactly diving in when Cigna rolled out the system. Kocher warned the shift to active collaboration isn't second nature for employees, and HR leaders should be prepared for a push instead of a pull.

"People don't understand the value. We think because they [use] Facebook, [employees] will naturally become collaborators in the workforce. It doesn't happen," Kocher said. "It's so different from anything we've ever expected of people or enabled them to do that they just don't naturally do it." For that reason, Kocher said HR leaders should set reasonable adoption goals and avoid judging the initiative's success by initial participation.

Another hurdle to adoption was that employees found the platform to be too open at first, since blogs could only be published on a company-wide scale. Employees "[were] uncomfortable posting to everybody, [but] initially we didn't have any way of doing it less big," Kocher said. Cigna remedied this issue by creating smaller collaboration communities and allowing employees to post items only to desired areas.

And even though all employees retain the ability to post whatever they want to the entire company, Kocher said Cigna doesn't exercise significant oversight. During the planning stage, Kocher sought advice from other large global companies who had deployed similar systems, and found that several launched successfully with little governance and oversight. Despite this fact, none of Kocher's references reported any epidemics of inappropriate use -- only a few isolated incidents.

Another tip she picked up from reference conversations was to prohibit anonymous posting. Employee names are pulled from the company's Oracle PeopleSoft system when they log on to My Cigna Life, so all comments are attached to names.

Although Kocher "isn't ready to ring the success bell," she did cite a few important benefits. For instance, the time spent vetting learning content has fallen drastically thanks to user ratings.

"You know how many people I used to have to see if [content] was accurate, current [and] interesting? Now we do a basic screen and make sure it meets the objectives and put it out there," she said. "Very quickly the user community distills down … program [options] into the one that's best, and they give you details as to why." Kocher said she also learned the importance of not neglecting the search function, as content will only be used if employees can find it quickly and easily.

The system has also enabled collaborative problem solving. "An employee in a very remote office needed to find a piece of information [because] they were going on a customer meeting that afternoon. They put a blog item out, [and] 37 seconds later the response came … and the person that sent [it] was someone they had never met," Kocher said.

Today, Kocher said the company is working on beefing up waning executive sponsorship and identifying change agents through network analysis.

Collaboration platform decreases email burden

Although Alexandria, Va.-based financial services and media company The Motley Fool scored consistently high overall on the biannual Gallup employee engagement survey, there was one area for improvement: communication.

To address the problem, The Motley Fool's Chief People Officer Lee Burbage decided to roll out a new collaboration platform to the company's 300 employees to replace the segmented system it had -- an official intranet built in 2001, plus assorted applications used by various departments. The company chose vendor Peoplefluent to create the customized platform, named "Jingle" for the sound of the bells on the hat worn by the court jester in the company's logo. It has now been in use for two years.

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Burbage listed five steps in the deployment process: shutting down the existing systems, preloading content into Jingle, orchestrating content for the first 60 days after launch, guiding individuals on how and when to use it, and providing continuing education. In addition to choosing to place enticing "can't miss" content exclusively on Jingle early on -- such as invites to an office pizza lunch -- Burbage also said he intentionally launched the system at bonus time and forced employees to use Jingle to find bonus information. These measures served to drive adoption, Burbage said.

Similar to Cigna's collaboration platform, landing pages are personalized for users with news, frequently used items and group updates. Employees also have the ability to construct a personal page that displays their self-defined purpose and objectives.

But the biggest win is the increased communication efficiency from the reduction of email.

"With email, I'm just pushing it out. [But] everyone [has] different levels of tolerance about what you want to get with email. There are people in the office that really don't want to know that the printer is down in the south corner," he said. "With this tool, we're able to have you choose what you want to get signaled for. It's an opt-in process."

Burbage said managers are actually able to send more communications through the collaboration platform, since they no longer worry about items getting lost in an email deluge and employees have the ability to define their own bandwidths. Videos of executives explaining company issues or ideas help inform the workforce of important happenings in near real time.

Another parallel to Cigna's approach is in governance. "We are fast and loose -- governance by community," Burbage said. "If you post or do something that's inappropriate, you'll hear about it from the people around you before [HR]."

And although he analyzes activity through built-in reports and Google Analytics, Burbage has a clear anecdotal measure of success. "The day I knew we were winning is when I heard 'Jingle' used as a verb."

Emma Snider is the associate editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter @emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

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