Communications Firm Builds Internal Social Network with SharePoint and RSS From NewsGator

The CIO of Universal McCann is connecting 60 disparate offices worldwide with a more unified culture using SharePoint 2007 along with Social Sites, social networking profiles technology from NewsGator, an RSS vendor. The key: forget about trying to copy Facebook.

When Jason Harrison joined global communications firm Universal McCann as its CIO in 2006, he was asked by the company's executives to find a way to better connect the 3,000 employees spread out across more than 60 locations around the world. The usual tools, mainly email and telephone, hadn't yielded the results the company wanted in terms of building a common company culture.

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The company's IT infrastructure was heavily Microsoft-based, with the 2003 version of SharePoint\ already installed and the 2007 SharePoint on the way. With the latter, Harrison knew that Microsoft had added social software capabilities to SharePoint, including MySites, social networking profiles for the enterprise.

Harrison decided to start with social networking, and has since built a social network mixing the built-in social tools of the SharePoint platform with technology from NewsGator, a vendor that offers enterprise Real Simple Syndication (RSS), a technology that streams relevant information to employees over portals such as corporate intranets. In this case, such information is centered around industry news and deals with Universal McCann's clients, which include large corporations such as Sony, Johnson & Johnson and Exxon Mobile.

"We wanted everyone to feel one culture and one set of objectives," Harrison says. "Because we're so distributed, we had to build a common social fabric virtually."

Soliciting opinion

Harrison first went to work seeing if social networking really had a shot of taking off at Universal McCann. He had read case studies of other companies trying to implement a "Facebook for the enterprise" and learned many of those attempts failed as employees failed to update profiles and the social network went stale. "We needed an architecture for content to flow in automatically, and RSS seemed like the best way to do that," he said.

Social Sites is NewsGator's social networking profile technology; it works on top of SharePoint. It only requires users to enter a little bit of basic information (such as name, title and most high-level work interests), and Social Sites does the rest, feeding users relevant information and allowing them to tag pieces of content they find interesting or want to share with colleagues.

Harrison says he realized early on that people wouldn't want to share the type of personal information they do on Facebook on a corporate intranet. "We needed something self-perpetuating that fed relevant [corporate] information in," Harrison says. "We weren't going to try to recreate Facebook internally."

As Harrison and his IT group prepared to build the social network for Universal McCann, he began holding focus groups to ask people what they would want out of a corporate social network, and many of them were keen on the idea.

"The state of affairs was such that people were doing great work and reading good content, but didn't have ways to share it," he says. "We wanted this [social network] to help with that."

Ensuring adoption

Because Universal McCann already had SharePoint, and NewsGator built Social Sites to integrate specifically with SharePoint, Harrison's group was able to seamlessly add its new social network, which would essentially become the new starting off point for the corporate intranet.

For Harrison, the key was to make sure people started using it so it wouldn't become another statistic amidst the wasteland of failed corporate social networks. To ensure adoption, Harrison did two things. First, he found allies, primarily managers of divisions and departments, to champion its use in the company. "We wanted to develop super users," he says. "We chose people who understood the technology and who realized why it had value."

Secondly, he set Limo — the Universal McCann corporate intranet containing Social Sites — as the default site on all employees' browsers. "It sounds kind of like a hokey thing to do, but it does really work. When the browser pops open, there it is," he says.

Since the Social Sites implementation only went live in March, Harrison is still monitoring usage levels to see what parts of the site people have gravitated to and which have been less popular.

"We'll do an activity audit person-by-person," he says. "We want to hold people accountable for using the tools every day, and valuing content sharing and knowledge sharing."

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