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Despite being an award-winning issues management firm, Davies Public Affairs was having trouble communicating with its own staff. The company was growing rapidly and the knowledge-transfer processes were rudimentary, relying on off-hand verbal communication rather than on standardized procedures or best practices.
With a growing number of Generation Y employees, Davies found its traditional processes were antiquated. “We really had no meaningful or effective way of communication that mirrored the kind of communications they used in their regular lives,” explains Brandon Edwards, the company’s president and chief operating officer. Internal communication came down to emails and the occasional corporate memo.
“People were expressing dissatisfaction about how often they were communicating, the quality and detail of communication,” Edwards says. They complained of feeling disconnected from coworkers and the company’s goings-on, especially in the wake of its growth.
Productivity suffered, too. Edwards recalls an employee having toiled away at an assignment, only to find out that a colleague had completed a similar project two weeks prior. “When you’re working on a project, you should know who in the company is the best at that [topic] and has the most experience — and be consulting with them,” Edwards says.
In July 2008, Edwards and his team began a two-month search for a technology platform that would enable better knowledge transfer and internal communication. “We weren’t looking for a social networking tool, per se,” Edwards says. “We don’t need a Facebook or a LinkedIn internally.” Even so, he adds, Davies did want to enable personal connectivity, and not just a repository for documents and information. After carefully evaluating nearly a dozen applications, the company finally selected enterprise social networking platform Socialtext. (See this month's Re:Tooling for more on platforms.)
The Web-based tool was customizable to Davies’ look and feel, and secure enough to entrust client-sensitive information. More important, Edwards notes, “everything is 100 percent open to everyone in the company.”
As other modes of internal communication (e.g., email) were being phased out, all enterprisewide information became available solely on what Davies called Wikit 1.0. The platform launched that November, with an update in March 2009.
There was no official mandate for employees to use the system, Edwards says, but there was fervent enthusiasm to begin with. Monitoring the Wikit via Socialtext’s reporting and analytics tools, Edwards determines how to improve the system by reaching out to employees who seem particularly inactive. User feedback from the first two months, for example, led Davies to restructure its entire content management system to ease search and accessibility. As a result, Edwards says, the company has been able to use less paper, streamline operations, and improve the transparency of information in real time.
Pretty soon, it was evident that Socialtext was achieving results beyond Edwards’ original expectations. “People were [calling it] ‘the single-most useful tool that Davies has introduced to us as a staff, period,’” he says, and it’s become the first thing employees log into when they turn on their computers. “I thought it was going to be something the staff would occasionally pop in to and drop information [in]…but that might be because I’m old.”
With the ability to find and collaborate with subject experts, employees have been more efficient and cost-effective, especially with client dollars. Davies was able to deliver to one client a better-tailored solution that lowered costs to 30 percent less than what the client had originally budgeted. The money saved, he said, went right back into the client’s pocket. “The entire purpose of everything we do,” Edwards says, “is determin[ing] how to increase the value we provide our clients.”
The goal is to extend the Socialtext capability to clients, but for now it’s strictly internal. Davies is expanding its database from roughly a dozen subject areas to 30 or 40. Moreover, the company will gain administrative efficiencies by integrating tasks such as its time-and-attendance system. The reason Davies didn’t do this first, Edwards explains, is that he didn’t want the Wikit to seem like just a cost-savings tool.
Edwards admits that bringing on Socialtext wasn’t intended to generate a monetary return on investment. What he wanted was what he calls a “better Davies.” The motivation behind “better,” he says, is that it doesn’t have an endpoint. “It’s an internal cultural emphasis on continuous improvement.”
With Socialtext, Davies was able to:
- facilitate communication and knowledge transfer between new and existing employees;
- connect employees with subject-matter experts to increase project efficiency and reduce costs for Davies and customers;
- have employees share their personal and professional events;
- reduce paper and streamline operations and administrative tasks; and
- increase areas of specialization from 12 subjects to 30 or 40.
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