How Humana got 26,000 employees to use an internal social network

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When Louisville-based health insurer Humana set out to build an enterprise social network, like all companies, they saw the advantages inherent in this technology such as flattening hierarchies, solving problems quickly, encouraging innovation and building esprit de corps.

But like all organizations they also knew that simply providing a tool for social interaction was not enough. It required nurturing and monitoring. Three years in, their internal social network is thriving -- and you could learn a lot from their story.

Jeff Ross, the community manager for the Enterprise Social Media Team at Humana, says more 26,000 of the firm's 40,000 employees are on the company's social network and more than 200 additional employees a week are coming on board. 

He says the network has two basic purposes: Accomplish business objectives and develop positive personal relationships around areas of mutual interests.

But as you can imagine, participation didn't happen overnight. Ross explained the journey from zero to more than 26,000 began in 2009, when the a group inside IT called Enterprise Innovation was looking for an enterprise social networking tool. 

Ross says at the time, they were less interested in traditional return on investment, than they were on finding better ways to communicate. "At that point, we were a 50 year old organization. We were a hierarchical, very traditional, top-down organization," he explained. He added, "We needed to connect without going through a lot of hoopla. A huge motivator was just to flatten the organization and how people communicate with each other and break down the silos," he said.

They started by experimenting with Yammer because because it was free and easy to set up. With very little publicity in a relatively short time, that experiment grew to 3,000 employees with hundreds of posts and dozens of groups. With that success under their belts, the company decided to look for a more permanent solution.

As successful as the Yammer trial was, when it came to choosing a final product, higher ups were not comfortable with a cloud solution for their enterprise social product. They looked at the usual suspects including Jive, Newsgator, and Socialcast -- there were nine in total -- and judged them on several basic criteria:  Basic features they expected to use, discussions, groups, and private messaging.

If you're wondering, yes, Humana has SharePoint 2010 and they have 7,000 sites spread across the company. But the evaluation team didn't see SharePoint as a viable solution for building special interest groups and having discussions around those interests. 

In the end they chose Socialcast because it best met the criteria they had laid out. They rebranded it internally as Buzz.

Word of mouth drove adoption

So how did they build the Buzz network?

With Ross in charge of the program, he did it the old-fashioned way -- he dropped information on the desks of associates. It turns out they had been hungry for a system to communicate. To this day, he says he has never sent out a company-wide communication about the system. In some instances it has grown by word of mouth or through his efforts to get different groups involved, but he thinks slow and steady growth is better than having a glut come on board all at once.

In fact, Ross says the system grew from the bottom up, and if he had one thing he could go back and do differently, it would be getting mid-level managers involved earlier.  Managers and executives held back at first, but when company president Bruce Broussard started using the system last year to communicate with employees, that got more senior people comfortable with the idea of using it too. It didn't hurt when Broussard became president/CEO this past January.

Ross admits there was an early misperception that the system would be used for chit-chat and not be used for more serious business matters. So they generated reports of business versus non-business content and quantified that over a date range to prove the value of the network.

About 3 years into the system, Buzz is going strong with more 1,200 special interest groups. Ross says he lets people talk about whatever they want, and overall it breaks down so that between 60% and 70% of the conversations are about work. Work-related groups include health and wellness issues, as you would expect at a health insurance company. Non-work examples include music lovers and new moms and dads.

Setting the rules of engagement

Everyone who joins gets a welcome email with Buzz basics along with the Buzz 10 Commandments, which spells out the basic rules for the system. Everyone has to sign a terms of service and a privacy policy to join and he has community managers who monitor the individual groups, but it's mostly just him.

The only rules are that users can't attack each other. They can disagree, but they have to do it an agreeable manner. He said if somebody consistently violates the rules, they operate on a 3 strikes and you're out. He's only had to do that twice in three years.

The forums are community monitored and he only steps in when he's asked. The only time he's had to shut down threads were some political discussions that broke into camps, and as Ross explains it, weren't providing any real value. He still allows political discussions, but limits an individual to two posts on a single point so that the discussion can't deteriorate.

He sends out a highlights newsletter every week with key discussion points from the previous week and that allows him to stay in touch with all the users of the system.

He says even though it may sound self-serving, he believes his role is crucial to the success of a program like this. "Somebody's got to own that baby and be driven to increase awareness and advocacy and telling success stories. That's where the role is vital," he says. "It's not something you tack on to a full time job. It deserves its own role."

He says VMware, the owners of Socialcast, continue to develop the product, and even though Microsoft bought Yammer and is incorporating it into SharePoint, he says he doesn't see the whole package from a social connection standpoint that would drive him to change the current tool.

Most importantly perhaps, associates and others now have a voice in the company and questions are answered and problems solved more quickly than previously. People are able to have conversations across roles in a way that would never have happened before -- and that alone has proven the power of implementing enterprise social tools in any business. For Humana it has proven invaluable.

Corrected 5/30/13: The story originally incorrectly identified former CEO Mike McCallister as using Buzz to help drive adoption from senior managers. While McCallister had an account he wasn't an active user. Company president Bruce Broussard was the executive who began actively using it last year before being promoted to president and CEO this past January. The text has been corrected to reflect this.

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