David F. Carr
Red Robin CIO Named Social Business Technology Leader
"Technology, when used appropriately, is a terrific enabler of change," Red Robin CEO Carley agrees. "Chris has leveraged that, and he's also used his collaborative nature, his listening skills and his ability to manage his ego to get the best out of his peers."
Red Robin has made progress at breaking down silos, partly as the result of a management shakeup in which less collaborative executives were shown the door, Carley says. The Yammer social network also helps cut through layers of management, he says. "I'm on every Yammer subject group, so I see the streams right from frontline employees about what's working and what's not working."
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To keep the discussions frank and open, Red Robin has had to keep some corporate compliance efforts in check. For example, early on, one of the compliance officers tried to shut down a discussion about new mixed-drink ideas, worrying that it could be interpreted as an endorsement of non-corporate approved products in one of the most regulated parts of the restaurant business. Since Red Robin is trying to revitalize its bar business, the compliance official was told to back off so the online brainstorming session could resume -- with appropriate reminders that bartenders shouldn't start serving the proposed new drinks until they got corporate approval. "The decision was to get the compliance piece at the end of the funnel, not the beginning," Carley says.
Yummerversity, an iPad-based social training program that incorporates Yammer and learning software from Oracle, is being tested now for a launch in January, when Red Robin will boost the number of iPads in its restaurants from 700 to 1,000. Because good store managers spend more time on the floor of the restaurant than sitting at a desk, they typically access these social applications from their phones or the iPads. Restaurant employees also use the iPads to maintain a wait list, recording mobile phone numbers so guests get a text message alert when their table is ready. The iPad app can be used to sign people up for the Red Robin loyalty program at the same time.
Carley also credits Laping with having forged an unusually strong relationship with the marketing team, which has led to good coordination between social media initiatives and transactional systems, for example in the case of the restaurant's loyalty programs. Red Robin has also partnered with Plink, a service that lets customers earn Facebook credits as another type of loyalty reward.
Laping says embracing social and mobile technologies shows employees that real change is coming. "Enterprise IT tools tend to be these huge Swiss Army knives, whereas with social I get something more like my mobile app that gives me the one function I need right now." Some other social software products are more sprawling, comprehensive platforms, but Yammer's relatively tight focus on the news feed makes it "the closest manifestation of what social really is," he says.
Ryan Distelrath, a general manager at a Red Robin in Henderson, Nev., who has worked for the company off and on for the past 11 years, says he typically has both Facebook and Yammer open on his phone. Toggling between his personal and business social networks feels perfectly natural to him. One of the Yammer conversations he has been active in recently was a brainstorming challenge from CFO Stuart Brown on who could come up with the best cost-cutting ideas. Previously, opportunities to discuss best practices with other restaurant managers would have been restricted to regional management meetings, and opportunities to exchange ideas with people from other parts of the company would have been non-existent, he says. "We all face the same challenges, and maybe someone in the East Coast in a rest I've never interacted with has a best practice or a way of fixing something that I never would have thought of."
Laping says it's actually the assistant managers at the stores, rather than the general managers, who are most active on Yammer. Yammer accounts are currently available to corporate staff and to the general managers and assistant managers in company-owned restaurants. Franchised Red Robins, which make up about 25% of Red Robin's more than 470 locations, are currently not part of the enterprise social network, although Laping says he will look for a way to provide them with an appropriate level of access. Yummerversity will be offered to all restaurant employees, including those at franchised locations, he says.
For years, the company's technology was "at a standstill," Distelrath says. "It's awesome, and quite a relief, to see all the changes and how much Red Robin has embraced the technology that's available today."
Old patterns in which IT had all the sophisticated technology and metered employee access to it have been turned on their ear, Laping says. "Now, it's IT that's got the stupid stuff, where you've got 10 times the connectivity at home, plus access to mobile and YouTube." In other words, it's IT that needs to match or at least the approach the sophistication of consumer technologies, he says.
Social business is partly about adopting some of the informality and spontaneity you see in a company like Google, where people sleep on couches and wear T-shirts to work. "It's not that the big is eating the small in the business world, it's that the fast is eating the slow," Laping says, and established businesses need to pick up the pace. "Social business, to me, is a framework to accomplish that."
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David F. Carr is Editor of InformationWeek Education, covering online education and the technological transformation under way in universities and school systems.