How Avanade broke free of the email trap

Credit: Creatas

Avanade, a consulting company with more than 17,000* employees, has found a way to break free from the email collaboration trap by establishing a company-wide enterprise social network -- and you can learn a lot from how they did it.

Kevin Dana, VP of IT Enterprise Applications at Avanade, says the company has a history of having a collaborative culture, but it was done mostly through email.

"[Email] worked well, but it had some shortcomings, such as difficulty engaging new employees and limited visibility and integration with the rest of the corporate intranet. Our goal was to make it easier to engage in conversations and increase visibility of this knowledge exchange, while also aligning it more closely with intranet content," he explained.

Avanade is a Microsoft consulting shop, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they use SharePoint 2010 as the basis for their social network. "From a software perspective, we started with SharePoint 2010. It provides strong capabilities around web content management and collaboration. We also added NewsGator Social Sites which adds richer social computing capabilities around microblogging, commenting, and badging to name a few. NewsGator integrates on top of SharePoint which improves the user experience," he said.

Dana said the company found that a go-slow approach is best with clients, so when it came to implementing the social network in-house, they applied a similar technique. "Communicating new capabilities in waves to end-users prevents overload. We first focused on the employee profile and encouraged employees to complete their profile. This was done through communications and contests. Then we moved to microblogging. We first utilized it for company events, such as International Women’s Day and our annual Tech Summit Conference," Dana said.

The team also got C-level executives involved, including the Chief Leadership Officer and Chief Information Officer, which is often seen a crucial success factor for enterprise social networks. They also recruited social evangelists. Once all those pieces were in place, it was only then they began establishing online communities. 

"We started by creating new communities and then began to migrate pre-existing email distribution lists to the online communities. We’re continuing to evolve the capabilities through active engagement with end user and cross-functional council to drive adoption through new programs," Dana said.

The company takes the social network extremely seriously -- in addition to the C-level oversight of the project, there is a working council that oversees and monitors the project.

"Avanade uses a term, Fabric, to describe how employees are interconnecting and part of a greater whole. The enterprise social network comprises technology that enables the Avanade Fabric. Avanade uses a council governance structure that reports to the operating committee. The Fabric council is comprised of 14 executives across geographies and organizations who are charged with advancing the Fabric, from new initiatives to adoption of existing programs and tools," he said.

He said while they haven't necessarily reduced email, they have changed the way they work and email is now used as a way to direct people back to the social network, rather than as a de facto collaboration platform.

"With a mobile workforce and one that was coming from email, it was an important bridge for adoption of the new tools. That said, it has reduced the flow of emails where we were formerly using email distributions and increases the visibility of the messages for better discovery and reuse."

The program has gone well, but they have found that there are sometimes limitations to a microblogging approach. He said the company is currently focused on scenarios where employees need to collaborate on longer form, richly formatted content, such as sharing problems in code for programing, and microblogging isn't necessarily designed to deal with that kind of content. 

"The microblogging format doesn’t always translate to this well. This is not a problem that many companies face, but given the nature of our industry and workforce it’s a challenge we’re working to solve," Dana said.

Avanade might not have eliminated email, but they have changed the focus of the entire company from using email as the company collaboration platform, to using email to point employees to the social network where much more of the company collaboration now takes place. While there have been some growing pains, they have proven it is possible to make this transition -- and that's a powerful lesson.

*This story originally misstated the number of Avanade employees as 1,200. In fact, that's the number who were using the new microblogging platform initially. 

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