This summer, if you were an employee at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, you might have stood by the winding Lazy River at Sea World in San Antonio and watched as 5,000 rubber ducks were set loose -- each painted in Southwest colors, each representing an employee who paid $5 to "sponsor" a new hire and sent him or her a small good-to-have-you-here communiqué known as a "LUV note" (LUV being Southwest's stock symbol). The "Duck Derby," as it was called, was Southwest's creative twist on onboarding, with the $5 donations going to pay for a T-shirt and a lanyard for each new hire.
But if the sun was too hot or the shores too crowded, you could just as easily have caught the results of the Derby back at work. You wouldn't miss much, because there were many employee-contributed photos posted on Southwest's Flikr account, and several articles and threads of comments on the "Nuts About Southwest" blog. Just so you'd feel truly in on the action, Southwest Airlines TV had an online video of the event. Or, you could just wait to read the results of the Derby when they came to you via the daily intranet portal newsletter, Today@SWA.
The recent proliferation of inexpensive and easy-to-implement Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs, podcasts and online video, has given the airline a bevy of ways to reach out to its scattered 33,000-person-plus workforce -- and more importantly, to allow those remote employees to "experience" Southwest's unique culture even from a distance by encouraging everyone to participate and share content.
"The same kind of clever advertising that goes out to our customers also goes to our own people," says Jeff Lamb, Southwest's executive vice president of people and leadership development, adding that the company's ability to maintain its fun-loving atmosphere internally is a key component of retaining and engaging employees, keeping Southwest's turnover at less than 5 percent. "Southwest has been really great about allowing us to dabble with all of these new tools to see what's a good fit."
That's what some progressive companies seem to be doing with Web 2.0: dabbling. The tools comprising this family of interactive technologies are so new that their usefulness in business is largely unproven. Does maintaining a blog engage employees? Can the use of social networking on Facebook or LinkedIn solidify a company's team spirit? Do online videos and podcasts sufficiently convey the "feel" of an organization to a geographically dispersed workforce?
The answer to all of the above is, "Nobody knows for sure -- yet." But the companies that are using Web 2.0 believe that it makes a big difference. And a growing number of HR software companies have begun harnessing Web 2.0 to their own products, convinced that these tools are the wave of the future.
Redwood City, Calif.-based Serena Software has been around for 27 years, making it an old-timer in Silicon Valley. And unlike many tech firms, Serena itself is not millennial-dominated -- the average age of its employees is in the mid-40s.
Yet, when CEO Jeremy Burton, 41, took the helm, he realized the company -- which had undergone a series of acquisitions -- hadn't quite come together as a cohesive unit. Despite the fact that employees may have been working together for years, few really knew each other -- so Burton decided Serena should use the social-networking Web site Facebook.com as its "people" technology.
"Facebook was a perfect tool for folks inside Serena to get to know each other," says Burton. "There are a lot of things that you'd never find out about certain people if we didn't have Facebook, because it's not the kind of stuff you put in an e-mail and send around."
Without Facebook, for example, employees might never know that their CEO is into racing and soccer. Yet Serena employees do know those things, because Burton posted videos of himself racing cars -- and crashing them -- on his Facebook page. He's always taking photos with his BlackBerry that he posts in his "mobile uploads" collection.
And they know what he's up to because Burton, like most of Serena's senior executives, is diligent about updating his "status" -- a small Facebook one-liner that follows his name: Jeremy Burton is heading to Spain. Is in Spain. Just lost his 273rd phone charger.
Some people might ask: Who cares?
Burton admits that a lot of this may seem trivial. Truthfully, a decent chunk of Web 2.0 as a whole can appear trivial -- even narcissistic. But changing status and uploading photos isn't a look-at-me move on Burton's part. He says it's a way of "opening his office door" as far as possible and encouraging employees at every level to bring him their concerns and suggestions -- something he says now happens far more freely and frequently than before.
"What you've got with Web 2.0 is the opportunity for folks within the company to find out that the CEO is a real person," he says, recalling his days working at Oracle and the day he shared an elevator with its CEO, Larry Ellison. "It would have been kind of nice to say, 'How's the boat?' or that sort of thing, but I didn't know any of his interests. I think you've got to have your employees be comfortable with who you are. If they feel they can communicate and voice an opinion, that's really valuable."
What's more, since Serena hopped onto Facebook, its sales force has begun using it to get to know their sales contacts. Keying in on a few common interests in sales situations, says Burton, helps break down the resistance and awkwardness common to many of those situations.
And because 35 percent of Serena's employees work from home -- mainly in the collaboration-centric areas of engineering and sales -- the ability to get to know colleagues from a distance becomes essential to the teams' success. "Most folks will tell you that, every time, the guys with the team spirit get the most done," he says.
To "bang the drum" for the Facebook initiative, Serena instituted "Facebook Fridays," during which workers are asked to dedicate an hour of work time to create, enhance and maintain personal Facebook profiles. While the company did run things by the legal department and adopted a set of fairly intuitive standards for Facebook use (Burton tells employees not to post anything on Facebook that they wouldn't put in the front window of a store, for example), the rollout was quick and easy compared to most technology implementations. Cost was not an issue, since Facebook is free.
Today, more than 90 percent of Serena's employees are on and appropriately networked ("friends" in Facebook parlance) with each other. Burton says people feel the old barriers to communication are gone, forging the way for what he says will be even better and deeper ways to for Serena to take advantage of its employees' combined brainpower by helping them collaborate and network together more effectively. Further use of blogs and wikis -- which Serena dabbles with currently, mainly in R&D -- would get knowledge and solutions to problems into a searchable format.
"I want to develop a real Web 2.0 knowledge culture within the company whereby, if you know something, you write it down and post it," says Burton. "I firmly believe that 99.9 percent of the problems that people encounter have been solved before -- the answers are just in someone's head."
The Fear Factor
Serena's initiative flies in the face of many companies' IT policies, which block access to social-networking Web sites. Some employers fear that workers will waste time socializing when they should be working, or else damage the company brand by posting something inappropriate in a public forum. Allowing employees to post their own content -- and to walk that line where work can look like play, and vice versa -- is an issue of trust, says Burton.
"Those things are absolutely risks," he says. "We're going to make mistakes and some guys are going to mess up, but I'd much rather encourage it and find out what it can do for us and become wise about the use of Web 2.0 in the enterprise than to try and fight it and pretend it doesn't exist."
Jason Averbook, CEO of Knowledge Infusion, a technology consulting firm in Minneapolis, says the fear of new technologies comes from having an improper perspective. Like anything, technology can be abused -- and, as with anything, a few bad apples can spoil an otherwise great bunch.
"Whenever something bad happens, all of a sudden technology is disruptive," says Averbook. "What we miss is the 99 percent positive that can come from this technology and only focus on people who are misusing it."
Averbook notes that technology is only an enabler -- that it allows functions to happen faster, easier and over longer distances. "The business issues of engagement, setting goals and alignment are still big gaping holes in most companies," he says. "Because of technology, it's easier to solve these problems." For example, he says, networking is generally considered to be a good thing. What sites such as Facebook do is allow people to network easily, quickly and globally.
"Now," he adds, "where this really becomes interesting is in what we refer to as 'Enterprise 2.0.' It's where you take Web 2.0 technologies and blend them into the enterprise -- not just in a way where you're chatting, but in a way where you drive business behaviors."
Software vendor SuccessFactors in San Mateo, Calif., has begun rolling out some of these Enterprise 2.0 integrations, including social networking.
Dave Karel, SuccessFactors' director of products, describes the Employee Profile module in SuccessFactors' latest talent-management suite as if it's a cousin of Facebook. An employee's profile contains all of the information the company has on any employee (competencies, job history, etc.), as well as information that the employee has chosen to add. Many employees include personal interests in their profile, such as adding "jazz" as a searchable tag so that other aficionados can get in touch if they want to borrow some music.
Employee Profile operates like a cross between social software and a souped-up organizational chart, with users able to jump between co-workers with the same interests, to a person's chain of reporting, to maps of that chain's physical locations. In an individual profile, users can view an employee's photo and vital information, find her talents, and see who's in her workgroup. There's even a seating chart that employees update themselves, with the ability to move themselves and their co-workers around on a floor plan to show where everyone's desk is.
"This is the way people like to share information," says Karel, adding that the more employees like and use a tool, the more time they spend looking at and thinking about information pertinent to the company. "You have formal ways of communicating in an organization, but Web 2.0 applied through technology is breaking down barriers to communication implied by hierarchy or physical location," he says.
Larry Dunivan, vice president of global HCM products for Lawson Software in St. Paul, Minn., agrees that the key to success for any organization is to get more employees talking and working together, and using the HR tools more. If that increased use takes the form of casual interaction, so be it.
"There's no question that employees networking with one another, sharing experiences, and sharing expertise is advantageous," he says. "If you can break down the barriers to helping people find each other, then positives will come from that."
That extends to finding new talent outside the organization, as well. In the latest version of Lawson's software, for example, data is "taken to" recruiters and job seekers thanks to a "widget" (a small chunk of software code) called "Come Work With Me" that recruiters can add to their Facebook pages. The widget ensures that job openings flow from the Lawson database onto the page, and recruiters get a referral in the system whenever one of their Facebook friends follows a link and applies for a job.
Murry Christensen, director of learning technologies at JetBlue University, the training organization for Forest Hills, N.Y.-based JetBlue Airways, agrees with Burton that younger workers want less stratification and more transparency.
Because more young workers enter the workforce every year, JetBlue feels it's only common sense to work with their preferences, not against them, he says.
"It's about non-hierarchy, transparency, and being as straightforward as possible," says Christensen, adding that JetBlue University's demographic "runs young."
To get JBU's faculty talking more and to give each staff member the ability to contribute to a collective pool of knowledge and best practices, it turned to blog-based collaboration software from supplier Awareness Networks in Waltham, Mass., earlier this year. Non-hierarchy and straightforwardness have been the rule. To hear Christensen talk, you'd think the blog was as much a chat platform as a piece of business software.
"We wanted to provide a better, more focused communication system to discuss various topics. That includes process improvements in delivering training, but it also includes people talking about their dog or what Broadway show they just went to see," he says. "The work around here is very serious, but that doesn't mean you have to be authoritarian or straightlaced."
Discussion on the blog (which actually operates more like an online forum) has, in Christensen's mind, done an excellent job of uniting the JBU faculty as a more cohesive team while simultaneously allowing for an easy exchange of knowledge. JetBlue is on the same page as Serena and Southwest: There is a strong but hard-to-quantify benefit to trusting employees enough to allow them to communicate in a way that is comfortable to them.
Joining the Bandwagon
If this all seems a bit too trendy to have a true business purpose, Knowledge Infusion's Averbook points out that Web 2.0 is the way younger workers grew up and the way they best work together, and that the workforce isn't going to get any less tech-savvy as time goes by.
"This is a bandwagon that most HR people should be on, because the workforce isn't going to all of a sudden turn around and say, 'Well, no more digital media,' " he says. "This is a pure value-on-investment play: having an aligned workforce by getting information out to the masses, getting employees to share what they know, getting people engaged in their day-to-day jobs. That's what's going to keep people in the organization."
Southwest's Lamb, age 45, has three daughters and laughs when he admits that he relies on them to keep him technologically current. But he's dead serious when he says that a company that's dated in its methods will have a hard time winning over a generation that grew up with texting and wikis.
"As an employer, if you really want to be outdated and not be attractive to the next generation, then don't communicate in the way they communicate," he says. "Bring out the No. 2 pencils and have them complete their applications in your lobby."
Southwest chose to embrace the technologies that make newer generations feel at home. They want to see everyone from temps to the CEO using these tools to share information about themselves with co-workers.
"The guys coming into the workplace don't respect hierarchies," says Serena's Burton. "They think that work is what you do, not where you go. What you see right now is just a glimpse into the way the whole world will be 10 years from now. So rather than trying to protect the past, try to understand what the next generation wants, because that is the future of the company."