April 27, 2009, 11:11 AM — While Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis and social networks have been wildly popular with consumers, efforts to measure the technology's success for businesses have returned mixed results. In fact, recent research from the Burton Group indicates that business leaders have struggled to define best use cases, measure their success and chart returns on investment.
But Embarq, a high-speed internet and phone company serving 5.7 million customers (both consumers and businesses) in 18 states, has had some early success making Web 2.0 part of its overall innovation strategy to improve idea generation and ultimately create new products.
The potential for Embarq to use Web 2.0 and social applications extends beyond its immediate enterprise walls: Since Embarq works with other technology providers and vendors to deliver products, the company wondered if they could use conversation-enabling technologies to bridge communications between all of these entities.
Although it's early in the implementation process, which Stafford's team began in February 2008, the company has already been able to track measurable results. CIO.com spoke with Jeff Stafford, Embarq's manager of capital investment and innovation strategy, about his implementation of Jive Business Social Software, an application suite that includes blogs, wikis and discussion forums.
Stafford shared his tips for people looking to utilize collaborative technologies for employees internally and business partners externally, then measure and prove success to the boss.
Target Your Inefficient Communications
Traditionally, Embarq has communicated both internally and externally using staple enterprise technologies: phone, teleconference, and, of course, e-mail.
While none of these technologies will be replaced by social software, they have their pitfalls, Stafford says.
"There's an inherent slowness to those interactions," he says. "They're also a point-to-point medium. You do have cc-ing with e-mail, but we all get cc'ed so much now that it's hard to pay attention to what's being said. What we needed was a place to collaborate in a central location, where all the information could be visible."
Pick a Software Delivery Model
Many social software vendors run on a purely software-as-a-service (SaaS) based model, where the data is hosted offsite and users access applications using a web-browser. Many companies find this a desirable option, especially when users trade a lot of non-sensitive information.
Embarq, however, knew that its people wanted to talk about product development and other R&D related projects over a social software platform, so it wanted to own the servers housing the data. While Embarq looked at purely SaaS collaboration vendors, it settled on Jive because the vendor offered the option to hook a special collaboration server up to Embarq's existing infrastructure, and Embarq could purchase licenses as they needed them, Stafford says.
Jive includes profiles for each user to upload his or her picture and list expertise. Each site you set up within Jive has the capability for blogs, wikis and discussion forums on certain topics. You can tag and search for information, making it easily discoverable later.
According to Stafford, the Jive platform at Embarq is in the "early stages of maturity," but they have doled out 1,000 licenses to date.
Executive Buy-In Is a Must
While social technologies in the consumer space thrive because end-users adopt them through "viral channels," enterprise social software needs some top-down encouragement in order to drive adoption. This doesn't mean you need to mandate that people use the technology, but if the boss mentions that the technology may help bolster a project, the chances for success improve, Stafford says.
First, make it easy for administrators to get rolling with the software themselves.
"If you were placed in charge of a new product team, and you want to get your group going in one place to share documents and share profiles, this has to be something you set up within a few minutes," Stafford adds.
With Jive, Stafford says it takes Embarq staffers "a very short time, probably minutes" to set up a site using wikis or discussion forums. At that point, the administrator can send invitations to key stakeholders, giving them log-ins and passwords, and ideally explain the purpose of the site in that initial message.
Stafford encourages users to set up profiles on Jive. Jive's profiles aren't like Facebook pages. They merely list some business critical information, such as expertise, and mentions of past projects. This allows others using the portal to connect with key colleagues on product development issues.
Measuring Your Web 2.0 Success: Time is Money
It's often difficult to assign hard ROI numbers to social software projects, since it doesn't replace any existing infrastructure but compliments or improves it. As a result, Stafford says you should measure how much faster the platform allows you to accomplish tasks and collaborate on key projects.
When Embarq needed to test whether or not to adopt some software that ran promotional offers via mobile phones, it set up a discussion forum on Jive with the software vendor and some potential Embarq customers who might be interested.
Very quickly, Embarg received feedback of a common customer problem: the software drained phones' batteries.
"The vendor read this, came back with a patch, and it improved the performance," he says. "For us, we saw the feedback cycle in a couple of days that normally would have been weeks. That really crystallized the value for us."