The topic of enterprise social networking generates a mixture of user interest, executive guffaws, and a boatload of vendor hype -- often in equal measure. But at least one corporation appears to have proven that social networks, despite misgivings, may actually have a future in big business.
Over the past eight years, General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) has built a series of social networks so advanced that they've been credited with remaking the company's business.
"GE is way ahead of everyone else in this, us included," said Chuck Hollis, VP and global marketing CTO at EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC), which prides itself on its own social network success story, in an interview last week. And last summer in his own blog written after visiting the GE site, Hollis wrote: "To say that I was blown away would be a bit of an understatement... it became apparent that they had successfully rewired GE's corporate DNA to function very effectively as a social computer."
Since 1999, GE has built up an internal network called SupportCentral, which hosts roughly 100,000 wikis, 30 million documents, and an estimated 40,000 blogs. GE's 400,000-odd employees generate about 25 million Web hits per day on the network -- about 5 million pageviews. They download over 500,000 documents every day.
On any given day (and SupportCentral functions 24/7 year 'round), the stats for GE employees' use of their own social network -- which has its own search engine -- dwarf the figures for their use of Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) or Google (Nasdaq: GOOG).
SupportCentral is maintained by about 100 people, and it's based entirely on internally developed software. New code is introduced every two weeks, and has been for the last eight years, in response to thousands of end-user requests. The company holds patents on some of the technology, which it sells through an arrangement with IT services behemoth Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. About nine or 10 companies have had Tata mimic SupportCentral for their enterprises, and GE is looking for other marketing partners as well -- services outfits that are capable of building customized projects.
What, no outside help from the numerous vendors claiming to be on the cutting edge of enterprise social networking?
No, according to Sukh Grewal, manager of SupportCentral. When his team looked for products to help in 1999, "People outside just weren't on the same wavelength," he says. Instead, GE's team turned to open-source tools and their own expertise to get the job done. And Grewal says it wasn't really difficult.
Indeed, as Grewal describes it, GE's venture into social networking was streamlined from the outset by a clear sense of direction, management sponsorship from CIO Gary Reiner, and close attention to how the approach could serve GE's business.
"We focused on community needs to deliver a process," says Grewal. "It was a far cry from a portal... We were about real people, not grandiose visions." Grewal, who made jet engine parts at GE before moving to social networking, says the team looked at what they hoped workers could accomplish in streamlining GE's workflow. Workers looking for statistical help, for instance, could contact a group within GE, formed on SupportCentral.
Grewal says the team proceeded stealthily at first, not wanting fanfare inside or outside the firm to stress their novice system before it was strong enough to handle the traffic. Over time, the project grew organically, and it wasn't long before SupportCentral's team could demonstrate the network's value. They did that by quantifying the savings (in thousands of hours of time per day) that came from tapping SupportCentral expertise and documents versus the time formerly required to track down information.
There were setbacks, of course, none of which Grewal volunteers. But questioned, he acknowledges the time early on when a group started a community called "Wrestlemania." The site was up for several days before the perpetrators themselves sheepishly asked for it to be taken down. "People realize you're in a glass house. Social networking actually leads to good behavior," Grewal says. In his view, people talk far too much about the potential abuse of social networking in business.
GE, of course, is an enormous organization, which may be part of the reason that smart social networking has delivered such impressive results. The group still has to justify itself internally, but that's not tough to do. "SupportCentral is a mission-critical application. It's now a crucial part of GE," Grewal says.
— Mary Jander, ThinkerNet Editor, Internet Evolution
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