Sharing excellent whisky and Excel workarounds: the obvious (and not-so-obvious) benefits of social collaboration in the workplace

Recently Speak Media attended an event run by the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC) London branch about the different ways that businesses are using social collaboration tools.

The presentation, titled ‘Getting started with social collaboration’, was given by the indefatigable Nick Crawford of Engage Group (@nick_crawford) and the illuminating Jenni Wheller (@JenniWheller) of SSP (see note on speakers below). Their aim was to give an insight into some of the challenges/benefits of social collaboration – and guidance on how to win support internally and ensure a successful launch. We’ve pulled out a few of the key themes that were raised and summed up the ensuing responses/discussion points (if you’re wondering where whisky comes in to this, read on…)

1. How to get buy-in to social collaboration

This was a big theme throughout the evening – hardly surprising considering IC is often seen as the Cinderella of the marketing/comms function in big companies when it comes to budget allocation, particularly in times of belt-tightening. The focus here was on emphasising the demonstrable financial value of social collaboration – the value of an engaged & motivated workforce, lower employee turnover and a greater ability for cross-team working were key examples cited. (Passing reference was also made to some compelling stats available to internal communicators who need to reinforce the business case for social collaboration – for instance, the McKinsey Global Survey 2010 that found ‘9 out of 10 companies report measurable benefits from social business’).

Jenni also pointed out that in her experience anecdotal evidence is much more effective as a reporting tool than a list of facts or figures. This information gives a much better picture of what is or isn’t working than ‘number of users’ or other abstract figures.

Of course, securing board-level support to implement a social business platform is only one half of the battle – IC professionals also have to consider how they sell the benefits of collaboration to the wider workforce (and how to ensure user-centred design and functionality, tailored to the needs of your people – see below). You can spend lots of time and money devising a dream technical solution for collaboration – but it will be doomed to failure if it’s missing the most important ingredient: people.

2. How to choose the right collaborative tools

The social collaboration software market is a crowded one with many different off-the-shelf packages vying for position. The speakers both put a strong emphasis on the importance of getting the right solution for your business. The 80% of the network that works perfectly will go unnoticed by the end-user, it’s the 20% missing that will annoy them.


Yammer’s business-model was noted for being almost viral – it’s free to set up and incredibly easy to use. It only starts to cost money when businesses want to take ownership of their (as yet unmoderated) network. And therein lies the rub.

3. The best way to train employees in use of social collaboration

One area identified as a potential drawback of social collaboration tools was the need to train employees in their use. Nick drew on an example from his time working on Bupa Live where a group of enthusiastic employees became known as “super-users”. These experts went out of their way to help other members use the network and became a fantastic, knowledgeable and free resource both for Bupa and its employees.

4. Making time in the working day for use of social collaboration tools or social intranet

One attendee raised the point that many cultures do not approve of social intranets or collaboration tools. Employers might draw parallels with social networks such as Facebook/Twitter, and see time spent online ‘socialising’ as an unnecessary use of company time. The response from both speakers was clear; it is vital for the person that ‘owns’ social collaboration to emphasise its worth to employees as an indispensable resource, rather than a time-wasting tool. This is as much about developing the attitude within the culture as it is developing the right solution – Jenni used the example of a ‘Whisky Appreciation Society’ which could bring together seemingly unconnected members of the organisation for a chat over a ‘wee dram’.

Social collaboration can put employees at the heart of a global network of experts.

Nick gave us a fantastic, if slightly geeky, example of how social collaboration can put users at the centre of a network of interested experts; a user in the UK posted on Bupa Live asking which formula was appropriate to use in her Excel Spreadsheet. Within minutes a response had come back from a user in Saudi Arabia with a solution to their colleague’s problem. Collaboration in action!

5. How to deal with inappropriate or time-wasting content

Another – closely-related – question from the floor drew attention to the potential misuse of social tools, a topic that was also covered in a previous IoIC event on ‘Social Notworking‘. Specifically, how to deal with user-created content deemed not to be relevant to the employee’s work. Jenni suggested a middle-way response arguing that blurring the lines between work and social was important to the authenticity of the network. If owners shut down all traces of sociability, she argued, employees would cease to use the collaboration tool altogether. She also warned against moderators becoming a ‘Big Brother’ figure.

Now share your thoughts

What are your thoughts on social business? Do you have experience of how it’s helped (or hindered) you and your colleagues? Please share any tips and insights below.

A note on the speakers: Nick Crawford works for Engage Group and has experience of working on Bupa Live, the social intranet used by the health insurance provider (tagline: ‘Connect. Share. Create.’). Jenni Wheller was responsible for implementing social collaboration at SSP, a company you may not immediately recognise but if you’ve ever set foot in a European airport or train station then you’ve probably bought a tuna baguette off them.

Author: Tom Owen

A strategic storyteller and compelling content creator, awash with acuity and adept at alliteration. I work for Speak Media.

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