Best Buy getting results from social network

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 on to the network may hurt participation.

Koelling noted that the intent of the developers was to create a network that cold 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 help find out what customers are saying about Best Buy products and services. Store associates "live and breath the same air that our customer's 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 capablities.

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.

Early on in the process, Koelling and Bendt asked senior managers to scale back initial funding plans for the netwrk. The pair only needed money for travel and t-shirts. The travel funding was used to spend three months visiting Best Buy stores to hand out T-shirts and get feedback on their plan from sales assiciates. 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 company has built tools in a vacuum "without talking to our employees, without understanding their problems, without understanding who the user was," Koelling noted.

Koelling and Brendt, who spoke at Computerworld's Premier 100 conference this week in Orlando, Fla., 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 among regular users of site, compared to turnover of about 50% among all of 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 qquite 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's was being talked about. That's not really how it works," Koelling.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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