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Lessons learned from FedEx's social networking platform project

What big company doesn’t want a social networking platform that lets employees really connect, communicate and create? Take it from a pro: The benefits are many and, yes, it is hard to do.

After 20 years in product development, I have many projects under my belt. Many fully implemented solutions that were both great challenges and great fun to build and deploy. There is one project, however, that stands out.

In 2011, I accepted a product leadership role at FedEx to create a social networking platform for the entire enterprise. The executive leadership team had envisioned an environment in which all 300,000 FedEx employees could collaborate. Ideally the platform would be as efficient and addictive as the popular consumer social networking platforms but, at the same time, secure and able to solve business problems. I was hooked as soon as I heard about it. At the time, very few companies were trying such a thing, so this was going to be a trailblazing opportunity. After a year of meetings and envisioning, my team got the opportunity to build what was to be called the Purple Hub.

Wait! A year of meetings and envisioning? Yes, and at the time it seemed like the longest year of my life. It was filled with thousands of interactions with scores of people and documented in the more than 300 PowerPoint decks I presented. (I still cringe a little when someone asks me to build a deck.) A large enterprise is a complex ecosystem and I had a lot of explaining to do. Not only were we unsure what software we would use to build the platform, but the concept of having a workforce that could connect in the same way one would on Facebook or LinkedIn was a large pill to swallow. Here are some of the many lessons learned.

Social networking platform name change

I had a lot of explaining to do. Not only were we unsure what software we would use to build this platform, but the concept of having a workforce that could connect in the same way one would on Facebook or LinkedIn was a large pill to swallow.

The first thing we needed to do at FedEx was change the term "social networking" to "collaboration." It became very clear very early on that once we took the vision out to the masses, the term "social" scared both employees and management. After all, this was a place of business and not a place to socialize. The Purple Hub vision was to connect employees in new ways and to support a culture of FedEx as being like family; yet, the Purple Hub also had to support the work environment and not be a place to discuss last night's basketball game or the kids' birthday parties. Once we began putting it in terms of collaboration, everyone began to warm up to the idea.

One size does not fit all

Enterprises have complex landscapes. FedEx, for example, has multiple operating sub-companies spread across 200 countries. A large integrated healthcare system I've been working with lately has a network of hospitals spread across several states servicing roughly 30,000+ patients. Having a social networking platform (that is, collaboration software) that allows hospital administrators, physicians, care givers and patients to interact on common efforts will almost always lead to significant cost reductions and efficiencies. Complexity, in fact, is all the more reason to build such a solution.

However -- and it's a big however -- the complexity of a large organization can present significant obstacles to deploying an enterprise collaboration platform. Early in the FedEx project, we had meetings with dozens of lawyers from all around the world to discuss how the operating companies could or could not interact with one another as dictated by international law or employment policies. One example: We had to make several presentations and requests to the German Work Council (GWC) to allow employees domiciled in Germany to use the system. The GWC is a well-intended agency with a goal of protecting the privacy of employees working in Germany, regardless of which government issued their passports or visas. But protections such as these often stand in the way of new ways of working for multinationals. Although most of our platform's features were approved, several compromises had to be made, including developing special logic to allow for some features and restrict others.

Fear of the unknown is OK but not a reason to stop

During our development phase, we had to combat corporate fears about allowing such open communication among so many employees. Despite the benefits, the FedEx leadership team was concerned that someone would say the wrong thing and get the company in trouble. The fears were not unfounded. Trust me when I say this will happen. You can also trust that it will not happen nearly as much as you may think.

Indeed, we discovered that the innate integrity of most employees is fairly high. No one truly wants to risk his or her job by spouting off to an executive leader or another employee. At FedEx, introducing this new form of communication did not increase the numbers of HR and legal issues related to employee indiscretions, nor the way these issues were handled.

In fact, we began to see the integrity level increase, with the Purple Hub users "crowd-policing" their own system. Moreover, the work benefits of an effective social networking platform were almost immediately apparent. We started tracking conversations between operating companies that had never been able to communicate easily. We began to see executive leaders commenting on projects and conversations with frontline employees. And the project groups themselves became more productive and effective as they used the Purple Hub to communicate and share information.

So where do you begin?

In 2011, there were few choices of systems that could handle the complexities of a multinational, multi-entity enterprise landscape. In particular, we had to make customizations to handle the governance stipulations that allowed social networking activities for some employees but not for others. As a result, we had to build the Purple Hub from scratch on top of Microsoft SharePoint 2010. Fast-forward to 2015 and there are many choices in the enterprise collaboration space. Microsoft SharePoint 2013 has awesome abilities to create what we built ourselves. Furthermore, Facebook and LinkedIn both now offer solutions specifically designed for the enterprise environment. And the hardened security of SaaS-based social networking tools and collaboration platforms brings more reason to assess the benefit of putting your system in the cloud.

From my perspective, having seen firsthand the incredible benefits of allowing employees to openly connect with one another, I believe every company should be looking at how best to implement such a collaborative environment -- despite the difficulties and precisely because of the complexity of their operating environments.

About the author:
When he's not starting new businesses, Bryan Barringer is an independent enterprise mobility consultant and speaker, specializing in mobility, user adoption, UX/UI design, customer acquisition, product design/management, and strategy and business development. Most recently at FedEx, he was in charge of evaluating mobile solutions for operations and sales professionals and leading FedEx Services' Office of Mobility and Collaboration.

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Has your company deployed an enterprise social networking platform? Does it do what it's supposed to do?
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I've worked with companies that have launched networks like this without much success.  Some people would log in, get the files or bits of information they needed and log off. Others would spend lots of time chatting and connecting with fellow employees, but not necessarily participate in projects managed on the system or otherwise enhance their work through the platform. Both issues stemmed from the fact that the period of experimentation to find how the tool best served the company was too long and there were too many newbies, not enough champions. This meant there were no cultural or other expectations of what should and shouldn't be on the system, so people couldn't rely on it to collaborate or improve productivity. 
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I am glad to hear the project sounds like it was a success. We use Sharepoint as well, intended as a "collaboration platform". No, it doesn't do what it's supposed to do. We use it for file sharing and some wiki pages and that's about it. We don't have any custom development on top of it, so just using as it is, it's really ugly and clunky.
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