The Motley Fool established an enterprise social network to combat portal, wiki, and email overload--and it's working.
Enterprise social networking turned out to be a foolish choice for the Motley Fool, which is to say it turned out to be a good thing.
Founded in 1993, the Motley Fool operates today as a financial news, analysis, and discussion website for investors, including premium services for subscribers. Based in Alexandria, Va., the Fool employs about 250 people, including a few in London and Australia.
The financial website publisher turned to Socialtext
last spring, after an initial flirtation with Yammer. The intranet site Motley Fool created with Socialtext is branded Jingle, after the jingle bells on a jester's hat. "It was intended to fill voids that weren't being filled, and also to replace some tools we had that were based on old technology that is no longer supported," said Jeb Bishop, head of creative services for Motley Fool.
Before Jingle, the Fool's intranet website was organized around a homegrown content management system that ran on "classic" ASP, an older version of Microsoft's web scripting technology for Windows web servers. Bishop was the only one left who could make sense of the code, and the system was impossible to extend, having outlived its usefulness, he said. Information had become scattered across many systems, including a wiki and a SharePoint portal.
"That was a complete nightmare--when you were looking for something, was it in the wiki, or was it in SharePoint?" Bishop said. "Now, we know, because it's all in one place."
Jingle also was intended to serve, "as much as possible, as an email replacement," Bishop said.
Anessa Fike, who as the Fool's "culture clubista" tries to ensure that it is a good place to work, said many employees felt they were buried in company-wide email, much of which was often irrelevant to them. An enterprise social networking environment was attractive because it would allow people to "pull" in the content they were interested in, rather than having so much "pushed" at them, she said. Although the company has not kept precise metrics, email volume has indeed been reduced by "a good percentage," she said.
"My email inbox is definitely a lot nicer, not crowded, and I know where to go to look for certain bits of information," Fike said.
The winnowing of company-wide email "has eliminated a lot of noise for people who would think that communication is noise," Bishop said.
There are trade-offs to everything, however. The Fools are still learning when it is appropriate to use the social medium, rather than email, to broadcast a message, Bishop said. For example, certain timely messages--such as a last-minute announcement that a meeting has been canceled--might not reach people in time if it was put out as a "signal," which is Socialtext's term for a microblog post or status update. The company probably will continue to use an "important email" broadcast list for some announcements, he said.
Prior to the selection of Socialtext, some employees had started using Yammer for social collaboration. Bishop said his team decided Socialtext offered the same kind of microblogging capabilities as Yammer, but could also take over managing corporate content that had been stored in the wiki or in SharePoint. Socialtext got its start as an enterprise wiki software company and has layered on social networking features. The current version of the product is Socialtext 5.0, which includes the Socialtext 360 feature for matching contacts based on interests or specialties.
Bishop said he found Socialtext easy to customize for a "very Motley Foolish" look that encourages employees to claim it for their own. The company's developers have even added custom widgets to the site, taking advantage of an API based on Google Gadgets and OpenSocial. The home page features a place for the latest video produced for internal consumption, often featuring one of the company's latest premium services or ideas about how to improve service to readers and customers.
Among the things he would like to see improved are the Socialtext search function and the email alerts. "We're all spoiled by Google, and this search doesn't always return the results you would expect. For example, if you're searching for Matthew and put in 'Matt,' it won't return what you're looking for," Bishop said. The function for sending email alerts, meanwhile, could use some more gradations between getting notifications for every post and getting no notifications at all--ideally, it would detect active or important topics and treat them differently.
Fike said she would also like to see the function for browsing posts in interest groups modified so she could see the most recent posts in several categories at once, rather than looking at one group at a time.
Overall, however, the Jingle bells have been ringing happily.
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