Why this massive company’s internal social network succeeded where so many fail

Credit: Michael Newton via Flickr

With more than 47,000 employees spread across 50 countries, building materials company CEMEX is a global giant.

Founded more than 100 years ago in northern Mexico, CEMEX is the third-largest building materials company in the world, and the world’s top supplier of ready-mix concrete, with annual sales topping $15 billion.

But like any large enterprise with a highly dispersed workforce, CEMEX faced the kind of structural and communications challenges that, if left unaddressed, lead to lack of synergy, lost opportunities and lower profits.

What CEMEX needed, explains director of innovation Gilberto Garcia, was nothing less than a way to “shift the culture of the company.”

So about a year ago CEMEX decided to create an internal social network designed to operate as a platform for open collaboration among the company’s global workforce. In essence, Garcia says, CEMEX had to become a “social business.”

“The objective of Shift in the beginning was to create more collaboration and innovation in the company,” Garcia says. “That was the starting point. But at the same time, we noticed we had a younger audience out there using social media.” (Specifically, 33% of CEMEX’s employees are between ages 27 and 34.)

CEMEX created a platform for a social-based internal collaboration called Shift, based on IBM Connections social software.

The Shift platform includes blogs, wikis, communities, forums and widgets that connect CEMEX employees to their own social networking apps.

Less than a year after its launch, more than 25,000 CEMEX employees use Shift to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues around the globe. There are more than 700 blogs written by employees, including CEO Lorenzo Zambrano and the presidents of several international CEMEX divisions. In addition, Shift has spawned the creation of more than 500 work- and project-based communities.

Low engagement is a common problem for many enterprise social networks -- as many as 88% of them are underused, according to some estimates. So how did CEMEX get its employees to buy into Shift so effectively when other enterprise social efforts flounder?

Arguably the most important thing the company did was create an immediate sense of purpose.

"We defined five Global Innovation Initiatives to be executed using Shift and the social network concept, with two global leaders and a network of employees for each of them," he says. "This helped us to seed the change and promote the concept and adoption of the new culture."

The approach paid off. Those five innovation initiatives soon grew to nine as CEMEX employees began collaborating using Shift.

Garcia also says it was important to pitch Shift to employees "not as a tool, but as an innovative process enabling a new culture of collaboration and a new way to do things."

Nobody was required to use Shift, Garcia says, but many either did so upon the recommendation of other employees or because they recognized the value of using the platform and collaborating with colleagues, Garcia says.

To get more employees to use Shift and to maintain interest, he says, CEMEX adds new features to the social collaboration platform every three months.

“We are really leveraging the networks,” Garcia says. “We have talent dispersed, so for us it’s very important to connect people representing different markets and with many different areas of expertise.”

One tangible way this collaboration process is paying off is in product creation. Thanks to Shift -- and the collective input of 600 members of a community dedicated to developing new Ready-mix cement products – CEMEX was able to launch its first global brand of CEMEX's Ready Mix special product just four months from the project's conception.

CEMEX estimates that if the same level of collaboration now enabled by Shift were conducted via traditional meetings by phone and travel, the company would be spending another $500,000 to $1 million a year.

Which really isn’t much for a company generating $15 billion in annual revenue. But the real value of Shift has been the way it’s enabled employees to collaborate and contribute ideas, mixing the principles and goals of knowledge management with collaboration tools to promote a culture of innovation.

“Our employees are more visible right now,” Garcia says. “We have a lot of experts in the company. Before they were not visible, or were only visible locally. Now they are visible globally.”

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