Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt were about to become popular guys in the 140,000-employee Best Buy corporation. They led the effort to build an internal social-networking site.
Their objective was to obtain more information about customer likes and dislikes through the blue-shirt-wearing sales associates on the floor of the sprawling entertainment and appliance retail giant. This information would help Best Buy create more effective advertising. "If you get a decent problem to solve, you can make decent advertising," Koelling said.
Bendt conducted in-person interviews with sales associates, a process that produced great information but was time-consuming and not very scalable.
The mission: replicate the real-world experience online, make it scalable, and dig up more good information.
Koelling, a self-described journalist with little technology development knowledge, started working with an open-source content management tool called Drupal (www.drupal.org).
Little did they know that their internal social network (not too long ago, these were called intranets) for communication and collaboration was about to give them a whole lot more than they originally desired. One of the lessons learned: When you provide a forum for conversation, be ready for anything.
Listen, Provide, Learn
Getting contributions from your community and encouraging interaction are critical elements of an internal corporate Web site. If people don't use the site, you have a corporate platform that, according to Bendt, "sucks."
After the first version of the BlueShirt Nation social platform, as it was called, Bendt and Koelling were told by a handful of beta users that it needed some work. Koelling was a bit more descriptive: "They said it was ugly, dry, and it's boring."
Bendt said they learned that if you want people to use a "social" site, you need to be open to their participation in building the site. You see, social sites are not about the people or company that builds the site; they are completely about the people who are intended to use them.
Those users represented the Best Buy "blue shirts," usually "early twenty-somethings" who were candid about what they wanted and how the site should act. This is a generation that is cynical of marketing gimmicks and corporate "feel-good" programs and quick to share opinions with you—or with the world via YouTube.
The retail industry has a huge employee turnover rate: 40-60 percent. By incorporating user input in developing BlueShirt Nation, Best Buy was able to create a meaningful experience that is helping to reduce employee turnover: The rate for employees who use BlueShirt Nation is 8 percent.
By intently listening to the users during small-group evaluations of each early version of the site—these meetings were called "hack slams"—BlueShirt Nation became an open, fun, welcoming environment that stimulated discussion.
"We found out real fast that our idea of how this was going to be structured, coming out of a one-to-many-paradigm, got turned upside down," Koelling said of these "hack slams." "It wasn't about what we thought it was going to be about. It was about what the users thought it was going to be about. They basically told us what they wanted, 'and if you want us to participate, build it like this.'"
That shift in mindset—away from being a corporate-mandated, brand-dictated site to being more reflection of the users' desires—is the most significant change since the first iteration of BlueShirt Nation.
Some 18,000 Best Buy employees now use the online community, ranging from on-the-floor sales associates to senior management. Bendt says floor employees have developed a direct connection with managers and corporate leaders that would have been impossible without BlueShirt Nation.
Innovative Leaders and a Culture Willing to Act
Both Bendt and Koelling agreed that they benefited from managers who allowed them to experiment. Sure, the two had an objective, but they could not predict the outcome and the type of reception their concept would receive. They needed a management team willing to discover the innovation potential of their employees by building a forum for open communications.
In the case of BlueShirt Nation, Bendt and Koelling did obtain information about customers' likes and dislikes, but a greater benefit was the interaction among employees that is helping improve Best Buy.
The open forum of BlueShirt Nation also produced conversations about improvements to the employee email policies, the customer service process, and the employee discount program. Communication is fluid.
Having a corporate culture willing to listen and make changes is a major ingredient to achieving companywide success.
"People feeling that they are being listened to is key to getting more users," Bendt said.
Early site design changes that made the site more casual and conversational, raised by BlueShirt Nation users early on in the process, stimulated greater participation on the network.
Koelling says he believes corporate culture will change slightly after employees gain access to communication with each other, especially up and down the corporate ladder. The hierarchical structure in a corporation is useful, but this new media shifts the center of ownership somewhat toward the users. The result of such movement is greater buy-in of the overall objectives of the company.
"Corporations are in business to make money," Koelling said. "However, there are a lot of voices out there that could contribute to that end goal...that might not get a chance to participate in the typical hierarchical structure."
The practices developed at BlueShirt Nation can be replicated at other companies, internally and externally. The following actions are cornerstones to most social-network strategies:
- Allow intended users to contribute to building and shaping the platform.
- Demonstrate active listening to the conversations.
- Create a flexible process to evaluate ideas and implement those that gain a consensus.
- Identify a management champion who provides time and flexibility to innovate.