When brewing company MillerCoors realized it was struggling to retain female salespeople, the company turned to social tools to turn this trend around.
Executives at the country's second-largest brewing company, known for producing brands like Miller Genuine Draft, Coors and Molson Canadian, wanted to make far-flung female sales reps feel less isolated and more a part of a cohesive team. But how could they do that when their workers are spread across the country -- often on the road -- and working odd hours?
That's when Chicago-based MillerCoors, a $7.5 billion company with about 8,500 employees, turned to Triple Creek, a Denver-based company that makes enterprise mentoring and social learning software.
"I wouldn't say it's the equivalent [of working physically near other people] but it gets the job done," said Samantha Morris, an associate industrial organization psychologist with MillerCoors. "I think the women are having an opportunity to connect with other people in the business who have similar work roles, similar concerns, maybe similar aspirations. It gives them an opportunity to connect with each other more than they had. They get a personal connection."
Morris explained that last summer a regional sales executive noticed that the company was losing women in sales positions at a much faster rate than it was losing their male counterparts. Working alone was an issue for some, while others, mothers in particular, were having trouble with the hours, which require them to make sales calls at bars at night or on weekends. It was a problem the company wanted to quickly curb.
She noted that MillerCoors is also trying to attract more women companywide, so sales was a good place to start.
"One thing is we realize that demographically we're at a disadvantage," Morris said. "We have 24% women overall. For most of the best companies -- the top 100 companies -- the average is about 48% women. We want the different thinking styles and abilities that women can bring to the table. We want to make sure our company is representative of the best and of the marketplace."
MillerCoors decided to provide mentors to some of its saleswomen, connecting them through Triple Creek's Open Mentoring software. The software is designed to let mentors and workers connect one-on-one or in groups. The software also enables people to share documents and post comments. As part of the program application process, it also matches workers with mentors who have experience with issues the workers are dealing with.
Jim Ebert, a leadership development manager at MillerCoors, noted that the company had already used Triple Creek for one-on-one mentoring and decided to expand its use to include efforts to mentor groups of saleswomen.
Last October, the company launched a six-month Women of Sales mentoring program. Forty-five female sales representatives were split into three groups of 15. Each group had two mentors, either female executives or leaders from within MillerCoors.
Members of each group used the social software to connect with one another, to figure out discussion topics, such as developing a personal brand and work/life balance, and to share documents or articles that pertained to their discussion threads.
"I do feel that they're more connected," Morris said. "Just having the opportunity, not just to speak with other women sharing the same struggles, but to have the chance to hear from a female executive was really valuable. The women were really excited about that. The mentors enjoyed it as well. They felt they learned a lot from the other women."
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, noted that social networks can easily help employees feel connected with their co-workers.
"If the workers are, by their job situation, isolated, I think social platforms can be very effective in building group cohesion," he said. "There's nothing necessarily artificial about relationships mediated by networks."
Gottheil also noted that using social networks to build connections can save a company a lot of money. Workers can log in rather than buying pricey plane tickets to fly to meetings. And if employees feel more connected with one another, the company might see a decline in turnover and would therefore save money on rehiring and retraining new people.
"In terms of building up real relationships among people who are far apart most of the time, social platforms are not only cheaper, but they're more effective," he noted.
Both Morris and Ebert said they haven't fully calculated the benefits of the program. Early numbers, according to Morris, show that there was a 1.85% decrease in turnover from the six months prior to the Women of Sales mentoring kick-off to the six months after the program ended. Both said they've received positive feedback about the program, and most of the 45 women who were in the pilot program have remained connected.
As a result of the success in the sales group, Ebert said MillerCoors started a group mentoring program for women in marketing in June and is about to launch one for leaders in the company's supply chain unit in late September. A second program for women in sales is set to kick off this fall.
"I say we want to be a learning organization where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and they're inspired to innovate," Morris said. "We want to develop our people and grow the business from within. That's very important to us."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.