After a planned three-year upgrade of its internal corporate communication system stalled, a Canadian builder of construction products experimented with social media to better understand its needs and plan a strategy

Canam uses Facebook pilot to jump-start intranet

TORONTO – A Quebec-based manufacturer of building products for the construction industry is using a successful Facebook pilot project at the company’s leadership conference to make the business case for revamping its corporate intranet and creating a more collaborative culture among employees.

Canam Group, which is based in St. Georges in the Beauce region of Quebec and employs some 3,000 staff, was among the case studies featured Wednesday at Webcom Toronto, a conference focused on social enterprise solutions and so-called Enterprise 2.0. According to Canam’s manager of electronic communications, Nathalie Pilon, the company first started looking at building a better intranet in 2007, right around the time social networking sites were starting to gain the attention of major businesses. After working within an internal pilot committee that benchmarked against other companies in their field and three months’ worth of employee surveys, she said the problems were clear. Staff said information on the current intranet was too difficult to find, the user experience wasn’t personalized and the content was limited to text – there were no options for photographs or videos.

The team came up with four main objectives for the new intranet, Pilon said. They wanted to promote usage, to allow more content, facilitate collaboration and increase access.

“This includes retirees,” she said. “We wanted to welcome them back into the company again.”

The original project plan presented to the senior management team at Canam outlined three years’ worth of work and 45 different recommendations. The result? Pilon’s PowerPoint presentation suddenly switched to a picture of a giant block of ice; the whole thing stalled.

“We had a budget – there was probably $1.5 million, but we were using Lotus Notes and there was nobody dedicated to it,” Pilon said. “We wanted to hire IT and HP people. But at that point the economy was slowing down and the demand for products was slowing as well.”

Pilon couldn’t simply walk away from the need for better internal electronic communications, however. Every three years Canam Group gathers senior managers – about 200 people with an average age of 50 — from five different countries for a leadership conference. The theme in 2008 was, “Canam Community – People to Discover.” The intranet was deemed unusable for conference attendees, but Pilon had another idea: Facebook.

“This was before Facebook become more acceptable,” she told the Webcom audience. “People said, ‘We’re listed on the stock exchange. Are you crazy?’ There were a lot of concerns.”

In the end, however, Pilon and her team set up a secret Facebook Group for use at the conference, and created a guide for all attendees on how to set up their Facebook profiles. The firm’s CEO was a big supporter, she added, driving other managers to fill out surveys and contribute other information to the group. Over the course of the conference, there was a 99 per cent participation rate on the Facebook Group, she said.

Shel Holtz, author of Tactical transparency and a keynote speaker at Webcom Toronto, said more organizations are realizing that tools like Facebook and Twitter can provide a way to better communicate values and build culture, not only internally but to the rest of the world as well. He defined transparency as “the degree to which an organization discloses information its stakeholders need to make informed decisions.” 

The lesson is to stop blocking and start training, said Holtz. “It’s not that you have to open up everything,” he added. “But in a social media era, transparency is not really a choice.”

Canam’s Facebook Group wasn’t all business. Pilon allowed attendees to list their personal interests. Then, when it came time to assign seating at the various discussion tables, attendees were placed with colleagues who shared their interests. Canam also promoted a photo contest through the group, and set up a screen on site to display submissions.

Since the conference wrapped, Pilon and her team have created a closed Facebook Group which can be accessed by employees and retirees, once they’ve been approved by HR. More importantly, the success of the experiment has helped green-light a new effort to create a better intranet. Pilon showed screen shots of the new design at Webcom Toronto. This time, however, the project plan is only 18 months long.  

“We were really ambitious. This time we’ve managed to downsize our expectations,” she said. “We’re not yet where we want to be but we’re on our way there.”

Pilon noted that in the three years since the original attempt, IBM’s Lotus technology products have also improved, and Canam is already making use of SameTime and other more recent products for its new intranet.

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