Best Buy getting results from social network

Blue Shirt Nation network brings ideas from shop floor to corporate offices

Best Buy Inc.'s two social networking gurus, Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt, knew their plan to create a network for employees would be successful when senior managers at the consumer electronics retailer agreed to fund it. It was a high-five moment for the developers, and a huge turnabout for a project that was launched with a $100 credit card charge for hosting space.

The successful pitch to management also brought trepidation to Koelling and Bendt.

First, said Koelling and Bendt, who share the title of senior manager of social networking, the corporate funding for the social network, called Blue Shirt Nation, was too generous. The pair was worried that a high-profile campaign to get Best Buy's 160,000 employees onto the network could hurt participation.

Koelling noted that the intent of the developers was to create a network that could help flatten the organization, promoting the exchange of ideas among employees at all levels, including clerks on store floors. Such exchanges could help development personnel, managers and other employees find out what customers were saying about Best Buy products and services. Store associates "live and breath the same air that our customers do," Koelling said. "We also wanted to innovate faster, and we thought by creating a network approach, we could do that."

Development work on the social network began in 2006. Today the site has some 25,000 regular users. The importance of the site to the company is reflected, in part, in its technology direction. For example, Best Buy recently added mobile social networking capabilities.

But the success of the network doesn't depend on sophisticated technology, Koelling said. Success has depends on the trust employees put in Blue Shirt Nation. Store associates, he noted, "didn't trust corporate." The target audience was Best Buy's large workforce of sales associates, many of whom are in their late teens and early twenties.

Gary Koelling
Gary Koelling is senior manager of social networking at Best Buy and co-founder of the company's Blue Shirt Nation social network.
Steve Bendt

Steve Bendt is also senior manager of social networking and co-founder of Best Buy's Blue Shirt Nation. (Photos by Craig Huey.)

Early on in the process, Koelling and Bendt asked senior managers to scale back initial funding plans for the network. The pair only needed money for travel and T-shirts. They spent three months visiting Best Buy stores to hand out T-shirts and get feedback on their plan from sales associates. One year into the project, in the summer of 2007, 13,000 employees were regular users of Blue Shirt Nation.

Koelling said the company changed its traditional development process in creating the network. For years, the Best Buy has built tools in a vacuum, "without talking to our employees, without understanding their problems, without understanding who the user was," he noted.

Koelling and Bendt, who spoke at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference this week in Orlando, said that while the site's user base is growing, measuring success isn't simple.

It can be difficult to draw a straight line to some of the site's interesting metrics. For instance, turnover is about 8% to 12% among regular users of site, compared with turnover of about 50% among Best Buy's mostly youthful store associates.

The founders can point to successful exchanges of ideas on the network. For example, when executives announced changes to employees discounts, employees offered quite a bit of feedback on the network. That feedback prompted senior managers to reassess their plans.

Communication works both ways, and the effort to improve senior management participation is ongoing. When the site was started, some mangers "wanted Excel spreadsheets ... they wanted reports of what was being talked about," Koelling said. "That's not really how it works."

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