When social tools go viral

It says something when powerful and popular social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter become the template for an entirely new form of workplace collaboration.

While many CIOs struggle with the question of whether or not to allow these tools into the workplace, workers have flocked to them in droves, to the point where Facebook now has more than 10 million Australian users.

Whether companies allow use of these tools or not, the reality is that workers know how to use them. And it is for this reason that a new generation of workplace collaboration tools are being so readily adopted.

Enterprise social tools feature the rolling update style of Facebook along with features such as document sharing that are found in more traditional collaboration tools, backed by enterprise-grade security and management.

The market is led by Yammer, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2012. The company reported 80 per cent growth in Australia in 2012, with more than 400,000 local users. Other examples include the National Field, Mindjet, Salesforce.com's Chatter and Citrix's Podio.

What makes these tools different to more traditional collaboration tools such as Cisco's WebEx or Citrix' GoToMeeting is that they are designed to be used on an ongoing basis, rather than for discreet interactions, and have interfaces and functionality that is similar to consumer tools.

According to the research company IDC, these enterprise social tools now make up 11 per cent of the collaboration software market, up from 3 per cent in 2008. Overall, collaboration software sales grew by 15 per cent last year.

What is intriguing about the growth of these tools is the viral nature in which they infiltrate organisations. For example, at the shopping centre operator Westfield the use of Yammer grew from nothing to more than 1000 users in a year, with no formal encouragement from senior management.

A similar uptake pattern has been witnessed at National Australia Bank, which has been using Yammer for four years.

The CEO of NAB's Health Industry Claims and Payments Service (HICAPS), Simon Terry, first became aware of Yammer while in the role of dean of customer experience at The Academy, which is NAB's internal business school.

Terry remains a 'champion' for Yammer within the bank, and has watched it spread virally from humble beginnings with the banks' technology innovation team.

"Our innovation team in technology identified Yammer when it was highlighted in the Tech Crunch 50, around the time of its launch," Terry says. "They began to experiment with it in an early version and were trialling what could be done. Over time, they introduced early business users, around the business innovation opportunities in NAB, and it grew from there."

Terry says that once Yammer was identified as a key tool within the bank its technology security team conducted a full review, and subsequently adopted an enterprise licence. Today more than 13,000 users are registered to use Yammer, although Terry says this translates to between 2000 and 3000 active users at any one time. Usage stretches from senior management to the bank's operations and technology teams.

Most commonly it is used to solve common search tasks and connect people with others who have required expertise, as well as to share messages out across the organisation. One of the benefits of Yammer is that all conversations are recorded and searchable, meaning the same conversations do not happen over and over.

In a large distributed organisation such as NAB, Terry says that Yammer creates a sense of connection for people to know what is going on.

To this day the use of Yammer has not been promoted or mandated within NAB beyond a handful of business units, with users generally finding their own way to it.

"And we are still seeing growth in the kinds of things they are using it for," Terry says. "Primarily it has been user-led discovery. It works not because the organisation imposes it, but because users take it up."

The fact that Terry does not occupy a technology role is not atypical among the managers that are driving the use of enterprise social tools within large organisations.

According to University of Sydney Business School's associate professor and chair for the Business Information Systems discipline, Kai Riemer, it is common for sponsorship of these initiatives to come from functions such as communications and Human Resources, as well as other lines of business.

"In some cases it can come from the oddest of places, because they were the ones who took an early initiative."

He says it is also common for social enterprise implementations to spread rapidly even without a formal executive mandate, as has occurred with NAB and Deloitte, where uptake is close to 100 per cent. However, Riemer says early legitimisation by senior executives is crucial, as this gives certainty to workers that it is OK to use the tools as well as providing models for ideal behaviour.

He likens the approach to successful uptake as less like building a house and more like gardening, as it must be allowed to grow. Riemer says, however, there are many ways that senior management can encourage and help in the adoption process, such as by collecting and sharing good examples and success stories.

"What it takes is many baby steps and a lot of experimenting, which is letting it happen rather than driving it and being in charge. We see a lot of attempts to engineer from the top, and a lot of these attempts to use technology are not very successful because largely these technologies have to be placed into the work practice in a way that makes sense to the people carrying out the actual work.

"Because they are so flexible and can be used in so many different ways they have to be adopted from the ground up and be made sense of by the people on the ground."

These tools will not work everywhere, however. Riemer says if an organisation has a culture that is highly competitive internally, it is unlikely that workers will ever share information and collaborate.

For the outsource salary package management company Smartsalary, use of Salesforce.com's Chatter collaboration tool has followed a similarly viral and serendipitous path. Smartsalary's chief commercial officer Dave Adler says use of Chatter started when Salesforce.com Sales Cloud was implemented for 30 staff in the company's leasing business in 2010.

The company immediately noticed an improvement in the team's efficiency.

"The leasing team started using Chatter within their own group to update each other on new cars that were coming to market, or changes to employee policies or processes," Adler says.

Later that year Salesforce.com's Service Cloud was deployed in the company's call centre, extending the footprint of Chatter, and today it is available across the business.

Adler says there was never any formal rollout program, nor any formal training.

"We said, 'Let's see what happens and how people interact with it'. And it is effectively becoming the main way people communicate within the business, replacing a lot of our internal email.

"People are used to Facebook and are used to social tools, and Chatter is really a corporate type of Facebook."

While the company is yet to conduct any formal analysis of the benefits that Chatter has delivered, Adler is satisfied that it is meeting goals of improving information flow and breaking down silos within the organisation.

"And you can start seeing who is generating ideas, and generating followers and influencing stuff," Adler says. "And it is not intimidating. We are seeing more people doing things they would normally not."

But it is not just the enterprise social tools that can benefit from a viral deployment strategy. At Medibank the deployment of Citrix's enterprise collaboration suite to assist in the remote training of nurses in its Health Solutions business back in 2008 has now spread across the organisation to cover more than 400 users.

"I had already started looking at collaboration tools, but in this instance we were looking at flying some nurses from Christchurch up to Wellington for a couple of weeks for training," says technology services manager Dave Buckmaster.

"I identified that the cost savings in implementing a collaboration tool to enable some of the training to take place remotely would provide the return on investment that we needed to bring a new product in.

"It has grown from there to now being used across Medibank and other lines of business."

Today Citrix is used across the organisation, including senior leaders, often to eliminate travel. Buckmaster says HR is investigating its use as a recruitment tool for candidates who cannot easily get to the company's offices.

"Because I only had limited licences I purposely didn't make a big announcement about it. And it just literally proliferated through word of mouth," he says.

Buckmaster believes this approach has been successful because the use and benefit of these tools is often not best appreciated until users see them for themselves.

"We've had people who have been sceptical about it until they have used it, but we have never forced the product on anyone," Buckmaster says. "But the sceptics have always been won over. Ultimately we will be looking at how we can make tools such as this available to everyone, because we do see the value in it."

Perhaps it is fitting that these social tools are being adopted via a highly social process of peer-to-peer recommendation. At NAB, Terry says the use of social collaboration has also assisted in helping staff become more engaged by enabling them to share more of their life in a social context. Even so, he says that 95 per cent of conversations relate to work -- something that he rates as better than what happens around the proverbial water cooler.

"The future of work is going to be more social," Terry says. "We have already made significant investments in our external social media, so it is a natural alignment to say this sort of internal social capability is going to drive improved collaboration and a better experience for our people internally, and a better experience for our customers externally.

"We see this becoming part of the fabric of the future of work, and the more we can make our people social internally, the more these things will deliver for our shareholders."

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