Social networking behind the firewall

Microsoft calls it TownSquare. Deloitte hosts D Street. IBM has its Beehive, and Best Buy its BlueShirt Nation.

For instance, instead of providing answers to Koelling's and Bendt's questions, participants preferred to talk about World of Warcraft or something funny that happened at work.

BSN is based on open-source software, and since internal IT lacked those skills, Koelling hired a development firm. The network was promoted virally; all participants found it through referrals or word of mouth.

On the site, employees can create their own profiles and host forums on topics of their choosing. The result, Koelling says, "is more scrumptious than what we hoped for."

Now that employees are connected, the site is rich with idea exchanges and discussions that have even helped change company policies. For instance, when one employee posted his thoughts on why it would be beneficial for all full-time employees to have e-mail access, it sparked a conversation that eventually led to a shift in policy to enable just that.

To Nick Pfeifer, a retail associate in one of Best Buy's Colorado Springs stores, the site provides a social outlet, a protected place to discuss work- related topics and a way to close the gap between store workers and corporate employees. "As with any big company, it's easy for the message of the customers to be lost when you don't turn your attention to the people who interact with them on a regular basis," he says. "Until BSN, there's always been a schism between the two."

To help close that gap, the site now includes an application called Loop Marketplace, where people can post new ideas, with the hope that a Best Buy executive will notice one and fund it. The challenge is to encourage more execs to visit it, Koelling says. "We're trying to find ways to make visiting the Loop Marketplace a part of their workflow."

There have been plenty of mistakes along the way, Koelling says. For instance, some users wanted to adopt a system in which people received points based on their participation on the network. But once he initiated that, Koelling learned quickly that most people thought it was elitist.

Koelling's advice: Understand that on a social network, everyone shares equal status, even the person who runs it. "When the user tells me, 'This is how I want to use it,' I have to do whatever I can to accommodate that," he says.

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in the US. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

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