With more than 130,000 employees worldwide—in cities including Hong Kong, Zurich, Beijing, Atlanta, and Bangalore, where its world headquarters is located—the Indian IT and outsourcing giant Infosys has a particular need to keep everyone connected.
So Infosys decided, earlier this year, not only to sell but also to internally use a corporate social-networking platform, iEngage. With this, it joins a fast-growing trend toward putting social media to work.
Giving widely scattered employees a new way to collaborate encourages innovation, says Sunil Senan, an associate vice president at Infosys. “We stand to get a lot more out of our employees through these social platforms,” he says. “And it’s important for companies to demonstrate early that they’re listening to their employees.”
Infosys is trying to tap the wisdom of former employees, too. With more than 20,000 former employees under the iEngage umbrella, it hopes to gain more perspective on organizational problems from seasoned hands.
Infosys is just the latest in a string of companies seeking to make better use of employees’ experience and knowledge. “With hundreds of millions of people using social media to transact with each other and to learn of news, products, and ideas, it is no surprise that this new medium is due to penetrate the enterprise,” says Bernardo Huberman, director of Hewlett-Packard’s Social Computing Lab and lead researcher on Virtual Watercooler, HP’s corporate social technology. And penetrate it has—dozens of companies, including IBM, Jive, and Salesforce, now offer suites of social collaboration tools.
Use is expected to increase sharply. The IT research firm International Data Corporation, or IDC, projects that social-platform revenues will jump from $390 million in 2009 to nearly $2 billion in 2014—and, IDC also reports, 15 percent of Americans who use social media use it for work.
Social business platforms tend to contain many of the same features as public social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Employees can share content, chat with messaging tools, and see what coworkers are up to. But all this can add up to a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The platforms can overcome barriers to communication, such as location and position within the organization. When HP did an internal test run of its Virtual Watercooler, it discovered that not only did employees typically take to it quickly but they felt it gave them “a broader understanding of the company as a whole,” in the words of one user.
The platforms can also mine collective intelligence to solve problems efficiently. Sean Poulley, vice president of collaboration solutions at IBM, cites the experience of a translation-services company—the London-based aatranslations—as an example. After integrating IBM’s document-sharing social platform into its daily operations, the company, which employs more than 700 freelance translators around the globe, sped up its document review process from an average of 24 hours to about five minutes, he says.
While some organizations “are understandably concerned about the abuses that the new medium could bring, I believe that the benefits will eventually trump the potential drawbacks,” says HP’s Huberman.
Of course, technology can’t do it alone. Social business platforms will be most beneficial if the organizational culture fosters a collaborative mindset, says Tom Malone, director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He’s optimistic: “I think we’re in the early stages of an increase in human freedom in the workplace, where employees have the ability to make more decisions and take part in the organization.”
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