In Europe's biggest firms, social business is all grown up

Case studies demonstrate that some of the world's largest companies are now making advanced use of social tools in the way that they work. Is Europe leading the way?

In Paris last week at Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT 2015, it was shortly after the CIO of one of the world's largest organizations began walking through the progress of social business within her organization, that the realization hit: The leading edge companies are not really talking about adoption any more, that part is largely done, though plenty of work certainly remains.

Instead, the half dozen case studies from some of the largest firms in the world made it clear that leading organizations are now making advanced use of social tools in the way that they work.

The CIO in this case was Laurie Miller, of the $11.8B material sciences division of Bayer, whose impassioned explanation of how they dealt with the complexity of modern enterprise collaboration within a large organization was a highlight of the event.


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The focus on making social collaboration a success over the last year at Bayer Material Sciences has been on making the tools more accessible, demonstrating the value of the approach in pilot projects, employing an innovative reverse mentoring program for senior executives, using a 'train the trainers' program to rapidly build foot soldiers who can widely spread know-how of new tools and approaches within the company, and steady communicating good practices and success stories as they emerge.

In turn, all of these efforts were carefully aligned with the company's mission and vision. However, after a year of the initial rollout, it was clear that adoption of the new collaboration tools had plateaued. The company, looking at the results so far and the ongoing challenges with less modern tools, decided to double down and take their social collaboration efforts to the next level.

Pulling together leaders in both IT and the business they established an ambitious set of goals for social business along with seven KPIs to measure success. The goals including fostering global collaboration, creating stronger networks across regions and departments, creating a culture of sharing that was less hierarchical, and several others. Not the least was focus reducing the confusion of which tools are intended for which job.

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The results? 50% of employees are now routinely active in the company's enterprise social network after 18 months. For social tools, especially if the resulting environment represents the most influential people in the organization, this is considered a very workable number, as I've found even as little as 20% can produce real benefits.

Similar stories were heard from other large organizations in Europe, who all experienced a measure of maturity and success, bringing unique proof points of their own along the way. A summary of these cases shows that large companies are now becoming established in their use of platforms like enterprise social networks in better connecting and engaging their workers while delivering increased business value such as faster knowledge flows, higher efficiency, and lower operating costs.

Related: The CIO's Guide to the Future of Work

Top social business case studies in 2015

Here's a summary of some of the other top social business leadership examples in Europe today (though I should be clear some other major success stories like BASF and Atos are not included here):

Company Revenue/Employees Primary ESN Key Points
Bosch €48.9B/280K+ IBM Connections
  • Rigorous business plans that have showed positive return on invested time.
  • Off-the-shelf social 'templates' for 25 common business processes.
  • Community management has become a formal career path with a 10 week certification program.
  • Widespread improvements, such collapsing some processes from 4 weeks to 6 days.
  • 20.1K+ internal communities, and 190K active users.
BNP Paribas Cardif €25.3/10K Not Revealed
  • Focused effort on creating highly engaged communities
  • Social business efforts establishes clear objectives up front
  • Established a community of practice for community managers and best practices for repeatably creating new communities
Michelin Group €21.47/111K BlueKiwi
  • Created initial communities for coordination, leadership, innovation, monitoring, communications and project management
  • Added use-cases for management buy-in/decision making, change management, team management, beta testing, employee empowerment
  • Aimed the ESN at 'every' employee, unit, department, and geography
SIKA €4.8B/17K IBM Connections
  • Made serious commitment to training employees on its social platforms
  • Making the ESN the primary place for employees to go with an advanced data sharing approach
  • Closely aligned their effort with the company culture as well as the 2018 corporate goals
Bayer Material Sciences €10.4B/15.1K IBM Connections
  • Established clear growth goals and KPIs
  • Emphasized self-spreading training program and reverse executive mentoring to rapidly shift corporate mindset
  • Focused on the employee digital experience to simplify and make more rational
Continental AG €32.7/177K IBM Connections
  • Worked closely with HR to develop a five year vision for the workplace
  • Proactively communicated vision, reasons and goals to employees to establish clear reason for the change
  • Sought out and enlisted internal change champions who wanted to make a difference
Firmenich €2.7B/6.5K Jive
  • All collaboration, communications and innovation on a particular project uses the network
  • Uses a highly distributed network of internal talent to support the social business environment
  • A key use case is external customer collaboration to develop products together

The latest lessons learned in social business

What have these organizations collectively learned about the art of using social networks to make their digital workplaces better and more effective? Looking over the results that were reported, several consistent lessons emerged:

  • Community management is more crucial than ever for delivering success with enterprise social networks. Virtually all of the case studies in Paris showed that the facilitation of employees by professional teams experienced in making social networks function well was essential for delivering results consistently and repeatably. The importance of strong community management has long been well understood, but the level of formalization by companies such as Bosch showed that institutionalizing the capability as a senior career path for instance, is the next big step towards better results. Another proof point: It was evident from these stories that community management is specializing into specific functional roles such as overall adoption or process facilitation, and now at a high level, even internal business consulting for fundamentally rethinking institutional practices to be more social and participative (again, the example here is Bosch.)
  • The companies that had the clearest objectives, especially KPIs, had more tangible outcomes. While hard data on ROI is always difficult to come by in social business case studies for a variety of reasons, the case studies that documented a well-stated purpose and provided the clearest guidance to workers on why, when, and how to use social networks in the workplace had higher adoption rates and/or more specific results to report.
  • The need for education and mentoring from top to bottom is one of the most common inflection points. Some organizations had communication programs, while others had proactive mentoring for senior executives matched with active viral training program for the broader organization. Several formally captured what they'd learned so far about social business and spread it across their organizations. Given how much change in behavior and mindset is required to foster a sharing culture, cultivating and making the most of high value weak ties, etc. various forms of education generally became top priority for these organizations before they were able to realize their desired outcomes.
  • As organizations become networks, they are looking at what's next: Rethinking their business. One leading edge theme that emerged is that broadly social networking an organization becomes a stepping stone for larger digital transformation. Not only does becoming a social business drive a lot of the requisite changes in mindset about how next-generation organizations should work (self-organization, open knowledge sharing, participative processes, creating network effects, etc.) but widespread social business adoption results in the realization of an operational platform for driving change at scale within the organization. This was brought up more than a few times in Paris: Namely that companies, once networked, are beginning to re-imagine their businesses on top of the new possibilities that they've enabled with the shift to enterprise social networks.
  • Change management for social business requires passion matched with sustained effort to work through the many details, both technical and organizational. Two things were evident: Changing an organization to work in a different way requires enlisting those most engaged and interested in helping. It also requires building the right environment, both as a workplace and with the enabling social technologies. Many organizations were as concerned with bridging document-centric SharePoint with conversation-focused IBM Connections as they were about creating engaged communities to tackle vital business problems together. But all of the success stories above dived into both, uncovering the obstacles together one-by-one, and finding a path by a shared and sustained commitment to change, improve, and adapt to the digital future.

Is Europe leading in social business today?

One interesting take-away that came from these case examples was the level of rigor that generally was applied to the effort to become a social business. While formal business plans were only used by some of the companies, most of them worked very hard to discover, document, and communicate what worked best for their organization in highly reusable formats like community templates, knowledge bases of good practices, or business process frameworks.

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This is often in contrast to social business effort in North America which tend to focus more on the broader vision and invest less time connecting their enterprise social networks directly to the work that they do. Another reason I suspect is that the corporate culture in Europe can be more direct. Employee engagement between workers and managers, even with the most senior executives, has more historically been one of open and free exchange of ideas, likely making it more amenable to the bustling give and take of social networks.

Consequently, it's not lost on practitioners these days that many of the largest and most committed efforts with social business are now in Europe. The approach to IT in general in the region is certainly more pragmatic, yet it's also clear that the evolution of the future of work and the new digital workplace is one the minds of just about everyone around the world right now.

So, is social business the leading model for operating our organizations yet? Perhaps not quite, but it is certainly gaining ground and these are some of the leading examples in top organizations today.

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