Social networking helps three Canadian companies boost productivity, engage employees

The business world seems to be on a constant collision course with new technologies, some of which are beneficial to the organization and some of which are not. Recently, the workplace has been colliding with that burgeoning technology-based phenomenon known as social networking.
The mass adoption of social networking tools, including instant messaging, is causing a lot of CIOs to grapple with the question: do tools used for social purposes have any place in the office?

Many organizations have taken the firm stance that they do not. They ban instant messaging applications and restrict visits to popular social networking sites, causing resentment amongst the “Generation Ys” entering the workforce. Other companies have welcomed the collision of the social world and the work world by adopting networking tools that enhance productivity and engage employees in a positive and enterprising way.

This article presents perspectives from three organizations that have chosen the latter course.

Defining social

Networking While the term social networking evokes images of college students sharing pictures of a night on the town, for our purposes it encompasses technology designed to help organizations improve collaboration and communication among employees.

Social networking benefits organizations in various ways:

  • Improved information sharing: Social networking helps companies leverage the collective knowledge of their user bases. Through interactive internal publishing sites such as wikis, businesses may find that employees come together to solve problems and help the organization in new ways.

  • Better information management: Social networking helps people find information, particularly the data so often locked away in colleagues’ brains. Some tools give workers the ability to find subject-matter experts, whose expertise may be called upon to answer a quick question or to support a new team involved in a business opportunity.
  • Enhanced information security: Though this might seem counter-intuitive, social networking tools can in fact enhance information security by providing a centralized, manageable site for data exchanges. With administrative controls that allow companies to indicate who is allowed to access what data, these tools can provide an extra layer of protection.

    The following organizations each have their own story to tell about social networking, and how it has benefited them.

    Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency

    If an initiative involves promoting economic development within Atlantic Canada, chances are the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) has a hand in it. Headquartered in Moncton, N.B., the Agency is focused on making the region’s economy more innovative, productive and competitive. ACOA works with partners to encourage innovation and help businesses access the training and skills they need to remain competitive.

    When the Government of Canada introduced a new accountability framework for its departments and agencies calling for improved IT governance, compliance and transparency of internal processes, ACOA sought to streamline its internal workflow and tighten integration with its productivity tools. In particular, it wanted to develop a portal architecture that would enable it to place documents and manuals online.

    According to CIO Ronald Surette, ACOA also wanted to extend the functionality of its software development tools to reduce the time and cost needed to develop its business client applications. Such a framework would enable the Agency to quickly assemble composite applications from existing systems. “The goal was to help our staff become as efficient as possible,” Surette says. “We didn’t realize then that we were essentially developing a platform for social networking as well.”
    With help from systems implementers NexInnovations Inc. (now Softchoice Corp.) and Infotech Canada Inc., ACOA installed a portal based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. When installed in 2006, the portal allowed the Agency to improve its collaboration infrastructure and enhance its foundation for developing Web-based applications.

    In time, ACOA took the portal platform a few steps further and added social networking components. “Our greatest success has been with the wiki used as a corporate glossary and, interestingly, as a means of managing help-files for our corporate applications,” Surette says. “We’re converting all of our help files to the wiki with very good results.”

    ACOA now has a way for employees to share documents, make suggestions on projects, and largely draw on the collective knowledge of the organization. “When staff saw how easy it was to manage wiki pages, they couldn’t get enough of it,” he adds.

    Within My Site — the user’s personal home page to manage documents, content, links, and contacts — employees can see which documents their colleagues recently accessed. At first skeptical about the effectiveness of this capability, Surette learned that his staff members considered it a must-have. “I took it down, but my staff asked me to put it back up.

    They said they depended on it to see what I was doing, and what I thought was important.” Employees also seem to enjoy being able to find information according to job description instead of subject matter. “This is a very interesting social phenomenon — it really permits people to ‘people browse’ to find information,” Surette says.

    North American Construction Group

    With over 50 years in the construction industry, North American Construction Group Inc. (NACG) provides heavy construction and piling and pipeline services to large oil, natural gas and resources companies across Canada. The Acheson, Alta.-based firm employs 1,700 people in four divisions located throughout Saskatchewan, B.C. and Alberta. Supporting this distributed workforce is vital to the company’s success.

    Success also requires extensive administration and ongoing communication. When this family-owned business went public in 2006, NACG wanted to ensure employees still felt connected, despite impending growth.

    Although NACG had an internal network drive to store company documents, there was no standard process to manage them, making it difficult for employees to find, use and share business information. “It was hard to keep track of the most recent version of any document, because it was always in so many different hands and often stored in multiple locations,” says Pam Winters, NACG’s CIO. “People were doubling workloads just trying to find the right document.”

    NACG enlisted the help of systems development firm iomer internet solutions inc. and implemented a portal solution that enabled the company to centralize documents and created a common interface and repository for company information. The central site acts as a launch pad for each department, where employees are able to locate their own data and access company updates or information without having to rifle through e-mails. What’s more, the portal also allows the company to reach staff in a way it couldn’t before: through an enterprise-wide blog hosted on the internal site.

    “It’s our CEO’s way of personally talking to all the different employees within the company,” Winters says. “It reinforces the company culture and the sense of family, which we were determined to keep even though we were going public.”

    NACG is just getting started. The organization is considering adding RSS feeds and wikis to the collaboration platform for improved employee interactivity. “We think working together will help employees feel that sense of coming together for a common purpose, which we’ve had since the beginning,” Winters says. “Social networking gives us that flexibility.”


    Headquartered in Toronto, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Canada provides industry-focused assurance, advisory and tax services for public, private and government clients. The firm and its related entities have more than 5,200 partners and staff, and offices in 24 locations throughout Canada.

    The huge volume of diverse information PwC employees work with presented productivity challenges. Maneuvering through disconnected point solutions was confusing and time consuming for staff, who would often have to search through numerous large databases before finding the information they were looking for. Information for one client could reside within multiple data repositories, for example, requiring staff to search through all of them to get a complete client overview.

    “We have over five thousand employees in Canada, but more than eight thousand databases and other repositories,” says Steven Lugarini, IT director (Canadian business solutions), PwC. “The message we were receiving from staff was that we had the tools they needed to deliver value to clients, but the sheer volume was overwhelming and impacting productivity.”

    To overcome information overload and knowledge management challenges, PwC implemented a SharePoint portal platform in 2005, and over time it has added social networking capabilities, such as the ability to search for people in the organization by expertise or knowledge area.

    Recently the firm surveyed users, and the new functionality seems to be a hit. “More than half of the partners and staff that we surveyed found the portal useful for finding people,” says Gordon Vala-Webb, national director of knowledge management. “We’ve actually combined the search engine, the portal as a platform, and an application we call PeopleFind that includes a feed from our PeopleSoft system as well as other data that’s coming from the business itself, along with the résumé database.”
    The social networking aspects of PwC’s portal have proven particularly useful considering how vast and deep the company’s knowledge management matrix is. PwC has created an acronym dictionary and a “How Do I…?” application that help the firm’s staff — particularly new hires — get up to speed. The applications resemble wikis in that they permit anyone to ask or provide an answer.

    The acronym dictionary is noticeably helpful given that PwC professionals come across and use hundreds of acronyms every day. The “How Do I…?” is a collaborative FAQ regarding questions related to internal office services. Users can browse the questions and answers, leave a question, or answer one that a colleague has posted. 081932

    Elizabeth Caley is Senior Product Manager at Microsoft Canada, responsible for the business management and strategy of Microsoft Office Business Applications.

    Social networking on the upswing

    IT managers and CIOs in large companies who have actively resisted embracing Web 2.0 technologies like wikis, RSS, blogs and social networks will likely begin adding them to their priority lists in 2008, according to a recent report from Forrester Research Inc.

    The charge to Web 2.0 spending will be led by IT departments that once viewed Web 2.0 technologies as frivolous or secondary to other needs as they “take their heads out of the sand,” according to the report.

    “The IT shops that began experimenting with enterprise Web 2.0 tools for their own use in 2007 — for tasks like help desk ticket resolution, standards and documentation tracking, and IT project management — will begin rolling out these tools more broadly to lines of business as they pass IT muster,” the report said.

    Forrester noted that IT departments trying to be more relevant to the business can use Web 2.0 to provide a “high-impact, low-cost method” to show leadership and innovation.

    The report also predicted that CIOs will “concede that they cannot quell passionate employees’ use of consumer-oriented or software-as-a-service Web 2.0 tools and will mitigate risk by deploying enterprise-class tools in their stead.”

    While interest in RSS began bubbling up from consumers to the enterprise last year, Forrester predicted that 2008 will be a “banner year” for the technology as companies syndicate internal content like RFP requests, blog postings, wiki changes and CRM data.

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