Social Networks Replace Break-Room Bulletin Boards

July 2014

High-tech internal social networking systems are replacing break-room bulletin boards at some fund shops as a means of announcing company softball games or benefit plan changes.

Companies including State Street, American Century and Vanguard have introduced systems that in some cases allow staffers to make changes to their retirement accounts, collaborate with colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic or even RSVP for drinks with co-workers at a local watering hole.

Executives behind the efforts at these firms say the programs, which mimic Facebook and other widely used social media sites, allow them to distribute information, connect teams, crowdsource questions and stay relevant, particularly with younger staffers.

In fact, within two years, half of all large companies are expected to have such internal social media systems in place, predicts Gartner, a Stamford, Conn., information technology research and advisory firm. And 30 percent of these programs will be viewed as being as necessary as email and the telephone, according to the firm.

State Street launched its system, State Street Collaborate, at the beginning of the year to connect its 30,000 employees, who are spread across 26 countries, company officials say.

The site, which boasts an internal messaging system, encourages staffers to create profiles and post articles and videos that can be personal or work-related. State Street Collaborate has more than 1,000 employee community pages, which run the gamut from working parent to black professionals groups. When employees “like” the pages, they receive notifications from the groups on the feeds they see once they are logged in.

“If you’re working on a project or looking for insight or information, an employee can go on and post a question to a specific community,” says Hannah Grove, the firm’s chief marketing officer, who oversees the site. “Or they can post it more generally, and then colleagues around the world can weigh in.”

The system grew, in part, from an effort to appeal to the company’s growing population of tech-savvy millennials. “More than 50 percent of our employees today are under 35,” Grove says. “That means we have to have communications that are relevant to them.”

For employees, such systems today are what email was in the mid-1990s, says Inna Fabrikant, senior client development manager at Socialcast. The San Francisco–based firm designs internal corporate social networks. “A lot of people felt uncomfortable with [email] when it first came out,” she says. “We think that is where internal social networks will be in 10, 15 years from now, maybe even less.”

Even in the past few years, skepticism toward such systems has waned. The mass appeal of Facebook and Twitter has enlightened Luddites to the benefits of real-time online communication.

For companies with global operations, such networks can be particularly valuable, she says.

“This is really a primary tool for them to communicate across time zones,” she says.

That was one of the driving forces that led American Century Investments, which has expanded internationally over the last few years, to retool the internal intranet system it first launched in the late 1990s, company officials say. The revamped Connect program allows the Kansas City, Mo.-based firm to post company policies, benefit and retirement information and to push out companywide updates, says Brent Bowen, the firm’s corporate communications manager.

“It’s very similar to micro-messaging, like Twitter or your Facebook wall,” says Bowen, adding that more than 90 percent of the company’s 1,300 staffers log in daily.

Employees can also use Connect to buy, sell or trade goods. “We’ve seen houses listed on it,” says Bowen, who once adopted a dog he found on one of the earlier iterations of the system.

This fall, the company hopes to roll out a new search feature, similar to LinkedIn, that will help employees find colleagues with expertise in a particular area.

But the systems can be risky, says Bradley, group vice president at Gartner and author of The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees.

Asset managers could face regulatory problems if classified information is inadvertently shared in a post, he says. “There can be tremendous benefits if you do it right and tremendous risks if you do it wrong,” Bradley says.

He recommends that before launching a site, firms nail down a very specific purpose for the systems, beyond broad themes like breeding internal collaboration. Systems that do not address a narrow business problem do not tend to be successful, he says. Companies must also ensure that staffers will adopt them.

“No one rallies around a new technology, especially in the financial industry, without a purpose,” Bradley says. Vanguard has been promoting its new system, Crew to Crew, by setting up educational sessions in the company’s cafeterias at its different locations.

About half of Vanguard employees now use the program, which it launched late last year, says Lisa McCann, principal of enterprise shared services in IT at the Malvern, Pa.-based company.

Crew to Crew makes it easy to set up work groups for various projects and share documents and other information without in-person meetings, she says.

“Don’t be afraid of this new technology,” McCann says. “Jump in and try it.”

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