Putting social media to work at Cognizant

Many companies know what social media can do but many are still unable to apply or leverage social media to distance themselves from competitors. One company that has used social media successfully is the New Jersey-based IT firm, Cognizant. These authors describe how the company did it, and did it so well that some its clients say that it has separated Cognizant from the pack of competitors.

While social media technologies—participative tools for collaboration, networking, and information sharing—are increasingly being adopted by organizations, there have been few positive results with regards to these tools’ impact on business operations. Employees love tools such as blogs, wikis, and social networking because they are fun to use and fundamentally social; senior executives, however, are understandably skeptical about their impact on productivity and profits. There are several reasons for a divided opinion: a lack of clear social media objectives, little understanding by knowledge workers of how these technologies can actually help them in their work, and a misalignment of an organization’s culture, including reward systems, and how these tools are adopted. Of course, there are companies who are using social media effectively, but most seem to be implementing the tools in an ad-hoc manner or as a pilot or experiment in a department in their organizations.

One organization that seems to be implementing social media with clear business benefits is Cognizant, a company headquartered in Teaneck, New Jersey, — and with many employees in India — that provides IT, consulting and business process outsourcing services. The company has created a social media platform that integrates its knowledge management, work management, and partner engagement strategies (See Figure 1). The intersection of these three strategies is a content-in-context professional network: the expertise, work experiences, and business acumen of various Cognizant stakeholders, shared through each person’s network, which includes Cognizant’s leaders, knowledge workers, and its clients and industry partners.

Social media tools and content are uniquely valuable at Cognizant for one of two reasons: they help to accomplish a particular work task, or they help to build client relationships. As at other firms, they also help employees share knowledge and build community, though the value of these benefits is much more difficult to assess. The shared knowledge at Cognizant is often specific to a consultant’s work needs, such as answers to project-specific inquiries, the analysis of IT outsourcing market trends, or the communication of Cognizant’s policies. Since this content is often unstructured, it can’t be placed and found in a knowledge repository easily enough —but it can be located through social ties, the personal relationships among colleagues.

Figure 1: Integrating Knowledge, Work, and People

Figure 1: Integrating Knowledge, Work, and People

Social media at Cognizant are also used to build client relationships. Just as any Cognizant employee can find experts to answer tough questions using this platform, the company invites its clients and industry partners to tap into a knowledge network to share relevant expertise and experiences. A virtuous cycle is created: employees learn from each other, resulting in more effective client projects; project and industry knowledge is shared with Cognizant’s business partners; and Cognizant, in turn, learns from clients and industry experts about what is happening in the marketplace.

Knowledge management and social media at Cognizant

In early 2006, Cognizant created the newest version of its knowledge management platform, which it referred to as the Knowledge Management Appliance. In addition to its structured knowledge bases, the KM Appliance featured many tools that enable participation, such as blogs, wikis, bookmarking/tagging systems, and electronic discussion forums that allowed user-generated and externally generated content to be both “pulled” and “pushed” to the Cognizant employee. Since knowledge is dispersed among Cognizant consultants across practice areas (as opposed to residing solely in individual repositories), the key step in creating the platform is to build electronic communities to tap into experts when needed. Called the “Router” model, this platform is designed to connect knowledge networks to each other though community ties and an enterprise search function. These capabilities are not unique to Cognizant, but they are state-of-the-art for knowledge management.

The best knowledge management applications have always been not just about connecting people to documents, but also about connecting people to people. The KM Appliance includes the ability to “tag” or put a content label on not just documents, but also people and projects. This helps Cognizant build an expert pool based on project-specific expertise. Therefore, if an employee performed a search on “Java Applications Development,” he/she would be pointed not only to relevant documents, but also to projects and employees associated with building Java-based programs.

The KM Appliance has been successful in terms of employees contributing to and consuming content from the platform. Roughly 80 percent of Cognizant employees have read content from the system, and this type of user-generated content approach has resulted in over 1 million blog posts and comments. Typically, in a given quarter, 30 percent of employees contribute content in the form of blog posts, comments, cweets (tweet-like messages), questions, answers, and wiki edits. These are the highest rates of participation we’ve seen in any organization.

Putting knowledge and community into the context of work

While the KM Appliance was effective in finding and sharing expertise and building professional networks, there remained the nagging issue—present within every organization that adopts knowledge management—of how its capabilities linked to productivity and profits. Therefore, the Cognizant 2.0 initiative (C2, which signifies “Web 2.0” or “Enterprise 2.0” approaches) was introduced in October of 2007. C2 was designed to provide consultants with access to knowledge in the context of a particular work process, as well as provide continuous process guidance. The platform also provides managers with a consolidated view of all project activities and measures.

Cognizant determined a set of structured process guidelines, based on best practices, for the major tasks involved with delivering client projects. The content-in-context associated with each work process is predetermined and available to the consultant after signing in to the portal. For any task, the system provides any task dependencies, guidance information, templates, similar project artifacts, notes, and checklists. Though these capabilities are critical to any organization that cares about the productivity and quality of knowledge work, they are seldom employed.

In addition to its ability to determine what content is important, C2 is integrated with the KM Appliance, enabling project members to: ask questions that may be answered by the Cognizant community, tag any content that they feel is relevant to them or other project members, and recommend experts within Cognizant that can answer project-specific inquiries. Therefore, by aligning closely with knowledge management and participative tools, C2 benefits from leveraging social media in the context of work management. In effect, C2 is a platform that delivers knowledge “just-in-time” to consultants as they are performing their work tasks.

Adoption of the C2 platform has been rapid. By mid 2009, more than 3200 project teams were using the platform. By December 2010, the workflow side of C2 had also reached over the 1 million milestone in terms of the total number of tasks, defects identified, process packages, documents, and guidelines. In 2010, internal analysis done by Cognizant showed that projects using these technologies perform better than those that do not: a 15 percent improvement in productivity, an 8 percent improvement in delivery time, a 7 percent improvement in delivery on budget, and a 70 percent reduction in defects. Also, surveys suggest that, on average, employees using these technologies are more satisfied working at Cognizant than those who do not.

Incorporating social media with external stakeholders

Cognizant 2.0, at least thus far, has only involved internal users. But a third major component of Cognizant’s social media strategy is to connect with external stakeholders. Cognizanti is an exclusive online community that Cognizant developed to allow members to build and maintain their professional networks. Initiated in late 2007, today’s 2,500 community members include Cognizant clients at executive levels and industry experts, including academics and industry analysts, in addition to key Cognizant personnel such as industry/business practice leaders. The Cognizanti community allows members to share experiences and best practices, as well as insights into industry trends. Members indicate a strong desire to network with their peers (including competitors) and share personal experiences, the latter of which would be difficult to get anywhere else.

Cognizanti is neither a sales channel for Cognizant nor is it a repository of marketing collateral, case studies, and service offerings. It is a trusted environment in which thought leaders inside and outside of Cognizant can have a dialogue on current and emerging IT topics, across many industries and geographies.

Cognizanti leverages social media to create a business-oriented social networking site for easy collaboration and content sharing. Member profiles contain photos, company and industry affiliations, job roles, areas of expertise, and personal information such as hobbies. There are 23 “e-groups” (e.g., Business Intelligence Managers) for specific topics with discussion boards. Members are encouraged to create their own blogs to offer their unique perspective and opinions. Members can “connect” with each other to exchange messages and follow each other’s activities. Questions can be posed to the entire community. Polls ask members their opinions on current issues. The latest Cognizant research in the form of white papers and multimedia presentations is also readily available.

Cognizanti serves as a learning environment for both Cognizant and its partners. Cognizant benefits by understanding and anticipating what keeps industry clients “awake at night.” Cognizant employee members enhance their personal brands through thought leadership – sharing their research with others and engaging in dialogues with industry experts and practitioners. The company also strengthens existing relationships and forges new connections. With Cognizant’s approval, members can invite peers to join the community.

Nirup Krishnamurthy, an experienced C-level technology executive, used Cognizanti to get community feedback on a specific issue. Krishnamurthy was doing research on cloud computing and was able to get feedback from European companies on how they were using and monetizing the technology: “Somebody told me exactly how they used cloud computing, which is much more relevant and actionable than reading a white paper.” He later wrote a blog on cloud computing that generated 30 comments from Cognizanti members, many of whom wanted to talk with him directly or follow him in the community. This kind of responsiveness generates a “stickiness” factor, where members want to keep coming back after seeing the value first-hand.

Finally, Cognizanti’s external members benefit by building a closer relationship with senior Cognizant leaders. Many of the community members choose to work with Cognizant because of the firm’s reputation as innovative global leaders in the IT and business services space. As a result, this community further advances their thought leadership. Having access to Cognizant leaders outside of the client engagement for the sole purpose of learning and sharing is a huge plus. One client remarked, “Cognizanti is an extension of their community culture. It’s part of their DNA. You don’t see this with many other companies.”

Why social media works at Cognizant?

Social media are all the rage in the press and on the Internet, but examples of real value derived within companies are all too rare. Why do social technologies work so well at Cognizant? We outline several key reasons below.

1) Social media fit and reinforce the culture of the organization. The comment above about how Cognizanti is an extension of Cognizant’s culture applies to its entire use of social media. In a recent interview about Cognizant’s culture, CEO Frank D’Souza characterized it as having these attributes: openness, transparency, drive, empowerment, opportunity, flexibility, and collaboration. These attributes are well represented in its young and vibrant workforce. The young employees like to use technology to enhance their personal networks, and to feel that executives value their perspectives. The widespread use of social media at Cognizant supports both of these goals.

Social media design and use at Cognizant also reinforce the company culture. For example, the “Legends of Cognizant” blog features stories that enforce the core values and culture of Cognizant. From far and wide, stories report the exceptional commitment to client delivery and of going beyond the call of duty. This helped instill a single “Cognizant DNA” in its global workforce. The Legends blog was created by an associate who walked 15 km to make good on a customer commitment, when the whole city was at a standstill. Such stories instill a strong organizational commitment to clients’ success among Cognizant’s workforce.

2). Senior management participation. Many senior executives, including D’Souza, contribute regularly to blogging forums to communicate policy change or recent events, and to encourage feedback from the entire organization. In fact, D’Souza often blogs monthly to discuss company related matters such as acquisitions and market conditions. He recently blogged minutes after the company issued a press release about a recent acquisition and what the acquisition would mean to Cognizant. Within a few hours, he had received over 60 comments from employees offering comments and ideas to make the acquisition successful. Many of these comments were about how associates could use the newly acquired capability on current and future projects. Junior associates openly participated in the conversation on issues that traditionally were not within their sphere of influence. According to D’Souza, “Social media allows for a real-time two-way dialogue across a very broad cross-section of our population, which is something I would have never been able to do before.”

In another example, Sukumar Rajagopal, then the Chief Knowledge Officer, used a blog to announce difficult changes in the promotion and incentive policies for the year. This was a significant departure from Cognizant’s traditional approach of using email to make such announcements. Over a single night, more than 35,000 associates read this post and many commented on it. A large percentage of associates stood by the organization and the policy change, having understood the need for such a move in challenging economic times. Many provided ideas to make these policies more effective. It wasn’t the lack of negative feedback that was noteworthy, but rather the fact that the transparency allowed Cognizant leaders and the community to listen and respond to any criticism.

3). Cognizant encourages consumption as well as contribution. While most knowledge management efforts emphasize content contribution to the system, Cognizant places particular importance on consumption of content. Every project and project manager gets rated on how they use social technologies, and the ratings available for all to see. A multi-modal recognition strategy is used. Junior employees get “wah” points (like frequent flyer miles) for using the system. Senior managers get rated on employee satisfaction and their usage of these technologies on projects. The projects get recognized on a quarterly basis when their participants are the top users of social technologies. This reporting and the public recognition of projects and project managers for their use of social technologies have set off a virtuous cycle – more consumption leads to more content.

4). Cognizant measures ROI, but doesn’t predicate rollout on it. Cognizant has detailed data on projects, people and processes—and how social media are used by each of them. While this helps them generate many reports, most of these reports are used to convince and help middle management “cross the chasm” to higher adoption and use levels. They track these numbers to report adoption rates, but do not use them to make funding decisions.

When Cognizanti was rolled out, for example, the ROI implications were not clear. However, Cognizant found that business leaders in various domains were very engaged in the conversation. In fact, some of them log on to the site every day. While membership and engagement can’t be translated into ROI directly, they are important metrics, nonetheless. Also, as the Cognizant 2.0 platform evolves, it is rolled out. Managers constantly evaluate whether the C2 platform is producing adequate ROI from a number of different angles (e.g., project completion time).

5). Cognizant tracks and rates every knowledge asset, including social metrics. Every knowledge asset is captured with a unique ID on Cognizant’s system and can be traced back to an associate. An asset could be a reusable programming component or a blog post. Each post or reusable component is also rated by users. This allows Cognizant to make recommendations to users. When the process knowledge is supported by a recommendation engine, Cognizant 2.0 is able to match the best (highly rated) unstructured content with structured processes and Cognizant’s employees are able to get high-quality knowledge just in time.

Cognizant also uses social network analysis to measure the strength of its professional networks. In general, Cognizant has also been able to identify the key influencers within their blogosphere by using network analysis techniques that identify employees with large numbers of followers. Cognizant senior leaders then use these influencers to help them diffuse new ideas within the community.

6). Cognizant treats every social technology as if it’s in permanent beta mode. As at Google, the social and knowledge tools at Cognizant are updated constantly. Tools are also developed with response time and flexibility in mind – release early, get feedback and make instant changes. Each social technology application is developed with the idea of eventually making it a product for external customers.

In summary, Cognizant has been one of the more successful companies in adopting and achieving value from social media tools. It has achieved this though an integrated platform that provides content-in-context in conjunction with building a professional network both within and outside its company walls. It has built a social technology environment that both fits and reinforces is cultural attributes and leadership behaviors. According to several stakeholders, including its clients and business partners, and third-party industry reports, its use of social media has provided Cognizant with a competitive advantage in its industry. Of course, some aspects of the company’s success with social media are based on its industry; IT services are highly knowledge-intensive, and global businesses require global sharing of knowledge. But many of its social media approaches could be adopted by almost any organization.