Organizations that understand social technologies’ key capability – to enable employees to connect with others to boost job and organizational performance – will realize significant benefits. Thus, organizations need to think strategically about using these technologies to help transform themselves into truly collaborative workplaces. These authors, who were integrally involved in one such exercise, describe how it’s done.
The use and application of social technologies to move a business forward have become widespread. By social technologies we mean software tools such as blogs, wikis, and bookmarking, social network platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and communication technologies, including video conferencing. One of the most common uses of social technologies today can be found in the realm of collaboration. In this context, one of the biggest benefits of social technologies is to connect employees with each other, overcoming traditional barriers of communication. This article will describe how one organization has benefited from such a use of social technologies.
MITRE is your quintessential R&D consulting organization, with staff that has deep expertise and are geographically distributed. MITRE serves mainly U.S. government clients such as the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Like other consulting companies, MITRE has been experimenting with social media technologies. It believes that it has had some success with these and that the lessons learned can be useful to other organizations.
MITRE was formed in 1958 with several hundred employees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratories. Its purpose was to create new technology for the DOD. It has since grown to 7,000 scientists, engineers and support specialists—65 percent of whom have advanced degrees. Staff members work on hundreds of different projects across the company, all demanding a high level of technical, operational, and domain knowledge. As MITRE has grown it has maintained its cultural values, including the sharing of information, which is the norm regardless of an employee’s status, location or project.
While MITRE’s culture has remained the same, the problems that MITRE scientists are working on have not. The “half life” of knowledge value continues to shrink and the topics that MITRE researchers need to keep abreast of while serving its government clients keep changing. A “greening of the workforce” is occurring, as new staff with very different technology skills replaces the older generation of workers. This new generation of employees was using social media applications such as wikis, blogs, social networks and social tagging technologies before joining MITRE. As, employees over the years became geographically dispersed, in customer offices around the world, not in the two main MITRE campuses. These new sets of challenges have pressured the three divisions in MITRE’s Center for Information & Technology (CI&T) to help the organization’s staff share and find knowledge that already exists inside and outside the corporation.
What’s the value proposition of social technologies?
Social and collaborative tools are not new to MITRE, which started using social IT tools in 1994, both internally and with its government sponsors. (For example, listservs for technical discussion forums) Today, many of the newer social media tools are used inside the corporation, where there effectively are no barriers to setting up a wiki, blog, social bookmarking (Del.icio.us-like), Twitter-like, or a Facebook-like application. These tools are available in the open source model and can run on a commodity, Intel-based computer running Linux or Windows, or on a low-cost host or cloud service. If you are a little tech savvy and have a friendly IT environment, you can integrate these tools into the corporate directory so they now look like they are an IT-supported application. As an illustration of how cheap and easy they are to deploy, one user group at MITRE set up 3 separate wiki servers, one each for a specific technology domain, with little assistance from CI&T. To reinforce the collaborative nature of these tools, CI&T has created application program interfaces (APIs) that make it easy to integrate these applications.
However, by June 2007, Bill Donaldson, the Department Manager for Applications Development and Donna Cuomo, Chief Information Architecture, were facing a dilemma. MITRE had over 100 end-user applications in the IT portfolio and it was straining to create even more services to keep up with end-user demand. The developers were writing new applications, targeting areas such as mobile services, collaboration, budgeting, and the intranet. Developing and deploying social media applications that were aligned with MITRE’s mission of helping to solve the nation’s critical problems became a major challenge for CI&T.
Social media applications are individually pretty cheap to install and use. However, lifecycle costs can quickly dwarf the initial costs. And while many of these social tools looked promising, it was a challenge to decide what criteria should be used to select which tools to bring into IT’s portfolio. While MITRE’s service lifecycle looks at the business case of any new service, it was a challenge to determine the ROI of these tools. With limited resources, IT wanted to determine which technologies would be right for its social collaboration tools platform.
Building connections means higher performance
Donaldson knew that simple usage metrics couldn’t be used to evaluate social tools. Both Donaldson and Cuomo knew that the true value of using these tools was to help build social connections within MITRE, to help scientists find other scientists with similar research interests or who possessed certain subject-matter expertise. The social network, or the people-to-people connections, was critical in getting work done at MITRE, but it was difficult to build one’s social network because of divisional, geographical, or tenure-based boundaries. The social tools could be used to overcome some of these boundaries. Social tools aligned nicely with the belief held by MITRE’s CEO Alfred Grasso: “You should receive the relevant information you need within 2 minutes and be able to access it within 2 clicks.”
About this time, Donaldson and Cuomo were introduced to two researchers at Babson College, Salvatore Parise and Bala Iyer, who were interested in researching how to measure the value of social technology. The researchers used social network analysis (SNA), an increasingly popular methodology to understand the connections among “nodes” in an organization. In management and business domains, the nodes are people, and the types of connections are information-based. In other words, asking employees who they turn to for information about their job tasks (i.e., their social networks), allows them to see how work gets performed in an organization. This often differs substantially from the traditional organizational chart that is based on formal reporting structures.
More recently, Parise and Iyer have used SNA methodology to analyze and understand what they call technology-mediated networks – the people-to-people connections enabled by social media tools such as bookmarking/tagging applications and Facebook/Twitter-like applications. These tools allow for simple social navigation – the ability to follow people who have similar interests or expertise as you. For example, if people are interested in learning about the software language Java, they can follow others who have used the Java tag in their social network profiles. As they follow these individuals, they can see, in real time, any blogs, discussion forum comments, or links the people they are following have created on this topic. So, these followers have access to both experts and content regarding Java.
The researchers conducted a two-year study on the value and accuracy of these tools. The researchers used SNA methodology to analyze various information networks at MITRE: the traditional social network, listserv networks (posting questions-and-answers through an email distribution list), the blogging network (subscribing to employees’ blogs), and the bookmark/tagging network (following employees’ social booking/tagging profile on MITRE’s onomi system). A social graph was created for each network.
Figure 1 shows the network of people connected through onomi. A node indicates a user of the system and the arrow indicates a user is following another user’s bookmarking/tagging profile (the arrow originates from the follower). The size of the node represents the tenure of the employee at MITRE (with the smallest circles representing newcomers with less than two years of company experience) and color indicates a unique MITRE Center. As can be seen from the diagram, there are many newcomers who are “central” (i.e., those with many followers, or are themselves following many colleagues) in the bookmarking/tagging network. Also, there are many connections across Centers. We often see different results with social networks. In a typical social network, a large majority of the newcomers are on the “periphery,” as they have not yet established relationships within the organizations. There are also natural silos, due to organizational structures and affiliations such as departments and divisions.
One of the first things we uncovered was that these technology-mediated networks were a way to overcome traditional boundaries to information sharing, including tenure, location, and organizational affiliation. According to the researchers, “These social tools allow users to tap into a wide network of employee contacts, finding colleagues, experts, and content that they would never have found otherwise. It helps break down information silos that exist in so many organizations today.”
The researchers studied logs and reviewed surveys to determine something no one had yet seen with empirical data: social media tools can increase the performance of the staff, in particular a user’s innovativeness. An employee’s innovativeness was measured through a survey sent to the employee’s project/reporting mangers. It isn’t the frequency of use of these tools that improves innovative performance, but rather whether these social IT tools are used to connect to different groups (or networks) across the company and to reach a large portion of the organization. This was the “A-ha” moment for the researchers. The value of the social tools is in creating “brokers” – someone in the organization that connects to unique groups across the company.
This research also compared knowledge workers’ existing social networks to their networks created using social media tools. The interesting finding was that social media tools complemented the social networks within MITRE. According to Donaldson and Cuomo, “While we knew this intuitively, it was good to empirically validate that hypothesis. This gave us the business case that we could present to senior management and to skeptics that showed them the value of investing in social media tools.”
Figure 1: MITRE’s Bookmarking/Tagging Network
Other researchers have found that employees that have large social networks or who act as a broker or connector to different groups are typically high performers. Donaldson asked the Babson researchers, “What’s new with this research?” The answer was that these social tools complement one’s social network by providing access to a large, broad set of employee contacts. Employees still rely on a trusted set of relationships for certain types of career and job-related information. However, the network of connections that social media tools enable allows knowledge workers to reach a diverse set of experts and content at a very low cost. There is a small twist – it isn’t just the number of contacts that’s important but rather how diverse they are and how large their “reach” is. It matters where these contacts are in the company – it is better to have them across different business units, geographic locations, and junior and senior level staff. It also matters if the people you are following, themselves follow a lot of people. The research also showed that each social tool provides its own ability to increase performance. However, unlike many enterprise-IT tools, the performance was not solely “efficiency-based.” Rather, performance comes from building connections with employees to access valuable information and knowledge.
Social technology lessons learned
How can MITRE take advantage of these social IT tools and how can other organizations learn from their experience?
1) Integrate social technology into existing work practices. One of the most effective ways to leverage these tools is to incorporate them into familiar, existing work practices such as training, on-boarding of new employees, and project management. For example, new staff could build connections faster by making social tool education part of the on-boarding process. This would enable new employees to identify key colleagues beyond those they meet on their initial project. Just as important, senior employees would become aware of who the junior employees are, what expertise they have and the projects on which they are working. In addition, influential employees could be invited to blog on technical and organizational topics. In terms of project management, project managers could require that all project information be tagged in the social bookmarking tool and that project collaboration and documentation be done on a wiki. This would enable intra-project and inter-project sharing.
2) Experiment with social technologies. If the value proposition of the social media application is unclear, it is probably best to experiment and pilot the tool on a small scale or to a targeted group of users. This would allow the IT and business groups to get a good sense of how receptive the “user culture” will be to using tools that require a willingness to be transparent and share one’s knowledge and information to be successful. Through experimentation, the IT and business groups could also get a sense of which metrics would be the right ones in order to “sell” these tools to stakeholders in the organization.
3) Target early adopters and market successes. It’s critical to get both technology-savvy and influential employees to become early adopters of these tools. MITRE targeted employees who had large social networks in their initial rollout of their social bookmarking tool. Since these tools require a critical mass of adoption to get started and become effective, employees with large social networks can kick-start diffusion, since they will populate the tool with their profile and content, which will in turn get others connected to them to use the tool. In addition, influential employees can “market” the tool both virally as well as through word-of-mouth. A train-the-trainer approach also works well with social technology applications. Organizations have used its younger generation of workers, who are familiar with these tools before joining the organization, to train the more senior employees on how to use these tools. Finally, it’s critical to market successes and “early wins”. MITRE has created use cases regarding the benefits of social IT and has made these widely available.
4) Create a social technology platform. According to Donaldson and Cuomo, “The last thing we wanted was for users to say, ‘This is just another tool.’ Rather, we wanted these tools to sell themselves based on their value proposition.” In order for that to happen, many of these individual social IT applications, including social networking, blogs, wikis, and tagging, need to be integrated into a cohesive platform. Currently, MITRE has built such a platform that integrates employees’ profiles, social networks, and knowledge activity. For example, bookmarks are returned as part of the enterprise search. Common tags are used to recommend people to add to your social network. Again, the end goal is to get employees networked more quickly with each other (and to content) based on common affiliations and desired expertise. More recently, due to the demand from its government customers wanting to have “digital conversations” with MITRE employees, MITRE created a platform called Handshake. It enables external partners, such as government employees and industry experts, to log-in and join MITRE employees to share experiences, expertise, and opinions involving many topics associated with MITRE. The platform contains many social networking features, such as user profiles, blogs, and discussion forums.
Today’s social technologies will morph into different applications offered by different vendors tomorrow. However, the organizations that understand their key capability – to enable employees to connect with others to boost job performance – will benefit the most. Organizations need to think strategically about using these technologies to help transform themselves into a truly collaborative workplace.