The lessons of Virgin Media’s flexible working initiative

This morning UK digital communication provider Virgin Media announced it’s rolling out a clutch of Cisco social and remote business tools to 5,000 employees following a successful pilot of the tools, including WebEx, Quad and Unified Communications. That’s good news for both Cisco and Virgin Media and illustrates that enterprise social is continuing to gather steam, but what does it have to do with your team?

Last week we called up Colin Miles, head of technical services at Virgin Media, and Keith Griffin, technical leader in engineering at Cisco to ask for the behind-the-scenes story of the pilot and what lessons it might hold for other companies or teams looking to roll out similar solutions. Not every switch over to new-fangled social or collaboration tools goes smoothly, but according to Miles Virgin’s pilot was relatively bump free.

The benefits

“We wanted the opportunity to really test how a full transformation of communication and collaboration could affect our organization,” Miles said of the pilot, “and the results have been absolutely fantastic.” How do they know things work so well? Participants in the pilot showed a six percent higher engagement-index in the firm’s annual engagement survey. The pilot also aimed to increase productivity and agility, while decreasing email overload a well as duplicated and inconsistent materials. Miles says Virgin Media has seen improvement in all these areas.

Particularly, the new tools have made life easier for teams whose work touches a variety of divisions within the organization. The company’s B2B provisioning group, for instance, has found that forming a Quad community (somewhat akin to a Facebook group) has eliminated organizational hassles. “This is a community that deals with a core, single business process, i.e. start something from a customer order through to customer delivery,” explains Miles. “However, it touches many divisions within that process, so trying to collaborate effectively can be hard work sometimes. By creating a community to share the information more effectively in one place – one version of the truth – that lends itself to breaking down those divisional silos.”

Griffin reports that social tools have had similar benefits within Cisco. “Back when we were starting with Quad we’d post something in created communities around topics like ‘the technology behind 2.0’ and we found that multiple people from other groups in other areas of Cisco were coming in joining that community rather than setting up their own,” explains Griffin. “That served two purposes. One, it became, as Colin said, a single source of truth for that topic, but secondly, it avoided duplication. We could see that teams were working on similar items and collaborating to get things done all at one place.”

The tips

These benefits aren’t instant, not are they automatic. Careful planning and consideration of how the tools are introduced is key, according to both Miles and Griffin.

One size doesn’t fit all. “We have a very wide spectrum of employee in terms of age range and technical capability, so they’re naturally those that are very technically adept and will leap at the opportunity to try a new tool, and there are others that are slightly more hesitant around how they work towards it,” says Miles. One type of training wasn’t enough to get everyone up to speed and willing to make changes, especially when it came to a social tool like Quad that fundamentally alters how information gets shared. Miles explains what did work:

We couldn’t just deliver a simple technical training course and people would naturally adopt the technology all at the same rate. We had to create a unique and individual set of adoption processes that included everything from one-to-one training to self-help with videos through how-to communities. One of the big successes during the pilot, which I was hoping for but surprised me nonetheless, was the amount of people who started to self-help and help others. Naturally like every organization, we have a structured help desk department where people phone for technical queries, but what we wanted to introduce was trained people helping each other out on how to make a process more efficient or how to do something. And due to the community nature of Quad we started to see that really hit home.

Persuasion beats pummeling. “Our view of social software is it’s something you don’t want to force people to use. It’s something that they have to see a huge benefit in using themselves and want to use,” says Griffin. This is a view Virgin Media took to heart, so while they ensured executive level buy-in in the person of the company’s chief people officer Elisa Nardi, they also relied on persuasion rather than mandates to drive adoption.

“A lot of our success was involved in the preparations to start with. We completed lots of analysis around who our key collaborators were. We started to look at email stats on who sends lots of emails. We looked externally at who has a lot of followers on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc, so we could start to see who our collaboration experts are, our super connectors,” says Miles. “We then engaged those first and started to bring them on to the pilot to become evangelists that would shout from the rooftops on how it’s going to change the world, which was really positive. It was a groundswell from bottom up.”

Measure success. “Make sure you have some clear and understood metrics that you can measure from start through the pilot and to the end as well, including surveys, etc.,” Miles stresses. It’s a point Griffin is keen on as well. He recommends, “having a set of goals and measuring how you get towards them. I know it’s a very obvious statement but if you have that, you’re going to be able to measure your success or otherwise and if it’s otherwise, readjust and figure out what needs to change.”

Are there any other keys to a successful roll out of social enterprise tools?