Alcatel-Lucent gets social with company communication

Telecommunications giant uses Yammer, Jive to create a more social business

With about 77,000 employees scattered across the globe, telecommunications giant Alcatel-Lucent was looking for a better way for its workers to communicate with one another.

While there was a desire throughout the Paris-based company to improve communication, there was no overarching command from on high about how to do so. The answer came when workers familiar with using social networks like Facebook and Twitter thought they simply needed to become more social at work. Some began to turn to enterprise-scale social networking tools .

With nothing more than word of mouth and a casual invitation here and there, Alcatel-Lucent now has more than 19,000 employees creating work groups and social communities, sharing information and getting work done faster.

"There was a problem in that we had no way to communicate across boundaries," said Greg Lowe , social media strategist and global infrastructure architect at Alcatel-Lucent. "Our CEO had a key message that we needed to be much more collaborative, yet we didn't have the tools. We were stuck with process-focused tools like Sharepoint -- things that are designed more to support projects. It wasn't a way for us to communicate across the company."

Lowe, who sparked the movement that led the global company to stick its toe in the water of enterprise 2.0 technologies, said it all started in September 2008 when he signed up for Yammer , a free microblogging service for contained communication within a company or group. Lowe said his main focus was to "push buttons" and be provocative in his daily posts, hoping to lure other Alcatel-Lucent employees to join him in the new endeavor.

The move wasn't endorsed or promoted by management . No one was told to use the service, but slowly the number of Yammer users inside the company started to grow, with about 250 Alcatel-Lucent employees using it by the end of 2008. Employees may not have fully understood the corporate benefits of microblogging , but they were intrigued.

Lowe noted that among all the groups that were formed in Yammer, IT was the least-represented department. "IT was very focused on bigger priorities -- ERP and large global systems," he noted. "This was the kind of thing that wasn't on anybody's radar.... At any time, anybody could have shut this thing down. But there was so much adoption that they didn't want to shut it down. It was a groundswell activity. And it didn't cost us anything."

Using a free service, according to Lowe, was critical in getting Alcatel-Lucent to take its first step.

"Yammer was really good in that it didn't cost us to do a pilot," he said, adding that 9,300 employees are now signed up to use the microblogging tool. "We had zero dollars to throw at it. That's good because if I'd had to get a budget for this, we never would have done it."

But now that Yammer use is widespread, "people have come up to me and said, 'Yammer saved me three days of trying to find who I should talk to about a problem.' It was those anecdotal cases that drove the business case for Yammer." Slow and steady pays off

Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at market research firm Current Analysis, said it's a great idea for companies to wade slowly into the enterprise 2.0 waters.

"If you roll out your platform and send out an e-mail to everyone saying 'As of Monday, I'll expect everyone to start posting,' the chances of that succeeding are very minimal," Shimmin said. "You'd be imposing additional work on these people. You'd be changing how they do their jobs. But if you put the tool in the room and let them pick it up and figure out themselves how it will best benefit them, it'll be put to good use. If you tell them what to do with it, it will be a detriment."

And that's exactly what happened at Alcatel-Lucent. Adoption happened via word of mouth, and it was a slow and steady progression.

And then Lowe decided to step it up a notch.

Last year, he figured the company needed more than just the ability to microblog. While employees continue to use Yammer, Lowe said he wanted them to have an easy way to find others who might have certain experience or knowledge . He wanted to facilitate communication among people in different departments and on different continents in different time zones.

"We just needed more," said Lowe. "We looked at different solutions. We looked at Newsgator to throw on top of SharePoint , but... I work in the birthplace of Unix, and we had a lot of non- Microsoft users for whom the SharePoint experience wasn't conducive."

After more searching, Lowe found that Jive Software Inc. had what he was looking for.

Jive is an enterprise 2.0 service that uses Facebook-like, social networking tools, such as updates, people search and communication channels, and it applies them to the corporate world.

"Right now, Jive looks to be in the driver's seat as the leader in the corporate social networking tools market, with large analyst firms showing them love and a reasonably impressive customer list," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. "They've built a lot of features and functions into their various packages. They also have cloud computing , a dedicated host with software as a service, or traditional corporate data center deployment options, which give customers plenty of choices to match their needs."

Those kinds of services were what Alcatel-Lucent was looking for, Lowe said. It also helped that with one service, Jive allowed the company to have external and internal options. With the external part of the service, Alcatel-Lucent could connect with customers, partners and suppliers. And with the internal service, employees could communicate and collaborate with one another.

"Corporations are increasingly aware of the trends in the consumer market and are constantly looking there to see what can be adapted to fit corporate purposes," Olds said. "Their employees, friends and family are using social networks as a way to have a richer and broader social life. And how they interact in these networks isn't all that much different than the kinds of communication and collaboration that need to take place in the business world. To an extent, social networks are tailor-made tools for employees who are knowledge workers."

Lowe said he began working on the Jive project in March 2009 and spent the next 13 months gathering requirements, analyzing competing offerings and getting the IT department to sign off on the project. Those 13 months also gave him time to go to each of the company's business units to gather funding. "It was an exciting entrepreneurial way of getting things done," Lowe said.

The Jive platform was rolled out April 6. Lowe initially sent an e-mail about the service to just 125 people in the company, giving them each a log-in and inviting them to join. Membership spread from there, and Alcatel-Lucent now has nearly 20,000 registered Jive users. According to Lowe, about 200 to 400 people join every day. On any given day, about 1,000 people use the system in one way or another, he added.

The company has more than 800 groups on the Jive system, many of them business-related but some of them social in nature. To illustrate the range of uses, he noted that regional sales and marketing teams have formed groups to share best practices, while employees who like photography have set up a more informal community for colleagues who share that interest.

"I think they're in line with most of the companies that are deploying this kind of software," Shimmin said. "[Enterprise 2.0 tools] certainly are not widely adopted, like, say, e-mail. Even companies that are deploying it are working with different facets of it. Some start with microblogging to get internal chatter going. Other companies are starting with profile-centric social networking so employees understand who is working in the company.... There are different ways of getting involved."

It hasn't all been easy, said Lowe, who noted that it's often difficult to keep up with all of the information that comes his way through personal and group updates. Sometimes getting people to think collaboratively can be its own challenge. he said.

"As for success, I think what I am realizing is that deploying and getting people on a 2.0 tool is the easy part. Influencing behaviors and driving change in an organization is much more difficult, but also far more rewarding," Lowe said. "What I mean is that we are not all collaborators by nature. There are some who believe that just because we deployed this platform that everyone instantly will get it."

Despite those challenges, it's the people inside Alcatel-Lucent who are making the collaboration tool work.

"The people have made this successful," Lowe said. "The tool has just helped, but it's the people who surprise me on a daily basis."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin , or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Read more about enterprise web 2.0/collaboration in Computerworld's Enterprise Web 2.0/Collaboration Topic Center.

This story, "Alcatel-Lucent gets social with company communication" was originally published by Computerworld.

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