Talk To Me

In today's dispersed global companies, finding a mentor or even an answer to a work-related question can be difficult. Social-networking tools are designed to change all that.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007
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Kevin Bacon has worked with a host of actors -- so many that he's said to be connected to every thespian in celluloid history. Pick any actor, the thinking goes, and through his film roles and co-stars, you can eventually link him or her up with Bacon.

So, let's say you wanted to link Bacon with Humphrey Bogart. "Bogie" may be an iconic actor from an earlier generation, but the two actors are easily connected. Bogart was in 1941's The Wagons Roll at Night with Eddie Albert, who in turn was in 1989's The Big Picture with Bacon. Bogart and Bacon are just two degrees of separation away from one another.

Connecting the nimble Footloose star to random actors certainly makes for a cheap diversion, but the power of connections can be used for something far more important: improving business results. Find the right connection in your corporate network, the thinking goes, and a company can locate a new sale, a new idea -- or a new employee.

Today, new social-networking applications let companies set up proprietary networks specifically designed to encourage employees to collaborate and share information with one another and with select outside constituencies, such as former employees and retirees who've elected to stay in touch with the organization.

These tools, which are modeled after popular social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, include online directories and browsable profiles designed to make it easy for employees to quickly find co-workers with expertise in specific areas. In addition, employees can post work-related questions that can be routed to colleagues based on their expertise.

Companies can also use these networks to obtain candidate referrals from their workforce or reach out to former employees who may be interested in returning to the company. BearingPoint, a management and technology consulting firm based in McLean, Va., recently obtained more than 150 candidate referrals through its corporate network, saving several thousand dollars per candidate in recruiting costs.

Likewise, the professional-services firm Deloitte & Touche saved $1.6 million in headhunter fees, thanks to 31 recruits it found through its network.

Not surprisingly, corporate social-networking vendors tout their products as a natural fit with recruiting. "Recruiting has looked at relationship networks forever," says Antony Brydon, co-founder and vice president of products at Foster City, Calif.-based Visible Path.

Nevertheless, corporate social networking has yet to take the business world by storm. "Companies are trying to figure out how to use it," says Anne Berkowitch, CEO of New York City-based SelectMinds, a vendor that supplied the corporate social-networking applications to BearingPoint and Deloitte. "Social-networking technology is still relatively new."

Sharing Knowledge, Finding People

A few organizations have been using social-networking applications for quite some time. Nearly 10 years ago, IBM introduced Blue Pages, a sort of internal MySpace page that provides profiles of each employee. Since then, it has added other applications, many of which are designed to harness the combined intelligence of the Armonk, N.Y.-based company's 355,000 employees, says Chuck Hamilton, director of IBM@Play at the company's Center for Advanced Learning. (IBM@Play uses play-like methods for corporate learning, such as creating virtual worlds that mimic real-life environments.)

IBM has provided employees with expertise tracking, which finds experts on particular topics in the company, and social bookmarking, which saves and shares the key words that fellow employees use to describe helpful Web pages. IBM even creates virtual spaces for meetings. Employees can set up a virtual office with pictures and a desk, and they can interact virtually by using digital personas, or "avatars."

"The better connected people are, the more constructive they are," says Berkowitch of Select Minds, which includes IBM among its clients.

The list of external contacts is also a big plus for recruitment. Instead of an ad hoc collection of referrals obtained from employees, social-networking applications can create an organized and far-flung list of contacts. "You can cast a wider net," says Rick Fletcher, president of HRchitect, an HR technology consulting firm in Frisco, Texas.

Through social networking, companies can reach passive job candidates. That way, companies can avoid the often desperate scene of the job boards, where candidates, perhaps recently fired or laid off, troll for work, says Fletcher. "My heart goes out to [job-board candidates], but they'll tell you anything you want to hear," he says. "I prefer a candidate who is very selective. I'm not a big fan of job boards."

For HR leaders thinking of using social networking for recruiting, Fletcher suggests they first try vendors such as LinkedIn, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based firm that operates a social-networking site with approximately 11 million registered users, most of them business professionals who use it to find answers to work-related questions or search for job openings.

Members who are thinking of switching jobs often consult other members to see if they have any contacts at the companies they're interested in, while LinkedIn itself encourages firms to look for candidates on the site.

"Try it out," says Fletcher. "Drop your toe in the water." If the experience proves useful, he adds, then consider building a proprietary network for your own organization.

A Network for Life

Social-networking tools can also help companies keep in touch with a potentially valuable resource: former employees.

KPMG, a New York-based professional services firm with some 113,000 employees worldwide, recently launched a social-networking system to connect with its corporate alumni, whom it hopes will serve as mentors to current employees, refer prospective candidates to the company and serve as goodwill ambassadors for the firm.

By August, only a few months after launching the site, KPMG had about 7,400 former alumni registered. It hopes to reach its goal of 10,000 registered alumni by the end of the site's first year, says Phil Sollecito, KPMG's executive director of human capital management.

The firm is measuring the success of the initiative in three ways: career development, recruitment and relationship building. Even at this early stage, it has seen action on all fronts, Sollecito says. Alumni have agreed to lead classes for employees, which will bring a different educational perspective than the use of in-house instructors. The firm also has received job referrals through the site, and employees are adding new business contacts.

Goodwin Procter, a Boston-based national law firm with about 1,700 employees, also makes an effort to keep in touch with former employees. "Modern technology gives us the ability to do that now," says Scott Westfahl, Goodwin Procter's director of professional development.

The firm's alumni can register at a Web site that has a career transition guide, searchable directories, alumni profiles and job postings from clients, alumni and friends of the firm.

For Goodwin Procter, a major reason for networking with former workers is that they can often refer legal business back to the firm, Westfahl says. The firm also realizes that many of its recruits won't stay with Goodwin Procter for their entire careers.

"Making equity partner is difficult," Westfahl says. "You can't go out with the same [recruitment] message: Come to us and you'll spend the rest of your life here." Instead, he says, the firm tries a different approach: Come to our firm and you'll have a support network for the rest of your career, whether you stay with us or not. You'll always be connected to the firm and its alumni.

"Keep the relationships strong wherever [employees] may be," says Berkowitch, whose company provided social-networking tools to both KPMG and Goodwin Procter.

Goodwin Procter launched its networking site last year and has about 500 alumni, or 40 percent of its former workforce, registered so far. According to Westfahl, the company will gauge the success of the site through a variety of measurements, including the number of registrations, the number of jobs posted and number of jobs applied for through the network, and e-mail tracking (to determine how alumni connections have helped to facilitate business referrals). 

Looking for a "Thank You"

The increased volume of communication that's typically sparked by social networking certainly can't hurt employee retention. That was the conclusion reached by Scott Lerner, the human resource business partner at Winchester Hospital, which is based in Winchester, Mass., and has 2,500 employees in one main hospital and 20 off-site locations.

Lerner recently volunteered to test drive a new social-networking program called Mentor Scout, from the Nobscot Corp. in Honolulu. After experimenting with the application, which lets users search for mentors and organize employee groups and get-togethers, he concluded that it provides an effective way to bond workers to the company and to each other.

"It's a way to keep your people," Lerner says. "You become vested in the organization."

Mentor Scout lets each employee create his or her own profile. The profiles typically contain all sorts of information about employees -- projects they're working on, challenges they're facing and ideas they have for the company -- and even a list of their favorite books, movies and lunch spots. Employees can search these profiles for workers with similar interests or for those working on similar projects.

Beth N. Carvin, Nobscot's CEO and president, says programs such as Mentor Scout can help with retention, particularly with telecommuting employees, who may feel isolated, or with young workers, who tend to switch jobs often.

They can also help organizations address generational issues within the workforce. Carvin says Gen Y workers are the "raised on praise" generation. They're used to getting recognized for a job well done, and consequently, they work well when they know they're valued, she says.

However, the typical work environment usually offers little in the way of praise to a young worker looking for a compliment. "It's a huge culture shock [for them to] not have someone patting them on the back," Carvin says. Social networking can provide that needed feedback. The new Mentor Scout program allows employees to write those two blessed words -- "thank you" -- on a tab in co-workers' profiles.

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Words of thanks aren't the only things that can be shared. During the course of a typical workday, employees can have questions, and social networking can get them the answers, Carvin says. A worker who has a question -- whether anyone has the test materials for a particular work-related course, for example -- can just post it online and tap into the collective knowledge of his or her workplace network.

This online process -- sending out questions to find quick answers to everyday problems -- merely formalizes how the workplace normally runs. A company may have a large database outlining everything people need to know in order to do their jobs, but that doesn't mean workers will read it.

Employees often would rather just seek advice from a colleague in the next cubicle, or their friend in accounting or IT. Trouble is, that person may not have the right answer -- or worse yet, may unwittingly provide the wrong information.

Mentor Scout is intended to give employees a farther reach by connecting them to the "go to" people within the organization who do have the answers to workplace-related questions. "If you are new to the company or not connected to the right people, it can be challenging getting the quick answers and help that you need," says Carvin. 

Is Technology Necessary?

Not all companies are convinced that social networking needs to involve technology, however. To target its executive population and its high-potential leaders, Automatic Data Processing uses a strategy that focuses on meetings and talent managers, staff that essentially act as "network brokers."

"Our use of social networks is less technology-driven than some of these other companies," says Steve Hrop, vice president of executive and organization development for the Roseland, N.J.-based payroll-services and outsourcing company, which has about 44,000 employees worldwide. "That is intentional."

Although ADP does plan to target its Gen Y future leaders with MySpace-style tools within the near future, Hrop says its current efforts to reach its executives work well, especially given the sprawling nature of the firm and the variety of business units within it.

ADP has several programs that promote social networking. One is an annual meeting for its top 200 senior leaders that's intended to encourage collaboration across the company, especially among its international divisions. During the meeting, attendees are asked how many of their fellow top 200 members they know and how often they interact. If there's not enough connection between, say, the Paris office and headquarters in Roseland, the company will make an effort to facilitate greater interaction between the two offices.

Another initiative is the Global Leadership Development Program, which aims to give future leaders a broad base of contacts within the company. "It can be hard for a new person to navigate," Hrop says. Talent managers help the leaders build their networks by introducing them to people they might not otherwise meet.

Although all this focus on relationships may seem a bit touchy-feely, Hrop says the benefits can go straight to the bottom line. When managers don't interact, inefficiencies can occur, such as different business units within ADP calling on the same client. "There's a real business case for this," he says.

Setting Parameters

Before companies take the leap into networking, they should think specifically about what they expect from it and how it will benefit the organization. What do they want increased connectivity to bring to their business? Does a company want to use social networking for recruiting, for sales or for bonding a group of employees?

"Have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish," SelectMinds' Berkowitch says.

Then, companies must make sure employees actually use the social networking tools. Carvin suggests companies try out the system first on a pilot group. They can see how the group uses social networking and can tweak it before rolling it out to the rest of the company, where a critical mass of people will need to adopt it to get it off the ground.

Internal champions can help ensure the success of the network. Many clients of SelectMinds have a designated executive who talks up the benefits of social networking to employees, Berkowitch says.

Furthermore, companies should understand what motivates individuals to connect online. Realize that people like to connect with others like them, so provide access based on affinity. Keep in mind that people want to engage with others who will provide information and an exchange of new ideas.

"The network must constantly be in motion, with its members able to add new contacts . . . constantly," Berkowitch says. For connections to flourish, people also need shared experiences, so offline events that actually allow people to see each other face to face are important.

Ultimately, demographics may lead more companies to implement social-networking technology. IBM's workforce tends to skew younger, and, like other companies, their young workers are a big reason Big Blue has delved into social networking. Gen Y knows this technology, feels comfortable using it and expects it, says Hamilton. 

"We're being driven by our community telling us they want these tools," he says.

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