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1/9/2012
05:51 PM
David F Carr
David F Carr
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Yammer Helps Grocery Chain Unite Brands

SuperValu, a grocery chain with more than 2,400 stores, has found enterprise social networking in the cloud valuable as a unifying force.

Enterprise social networking is one of the tools Supervalu CEO Craig Herkert is using to boost business for the grocery chain by empowering store managers to take more-independent initiative, while also encouraging them to collaborate with their peers across the nation.

Supervalu is the parent corporation for multiple grocery brands, including Shaw's in the northeast, Albertson's in the west, and Shop 'n Save in the midwest, with more than 2,400 stores in all. Because the company has grown through acquisitions, inheriting diverse systems and multiple management hierarchies, one of the ways Supervalu is pursuing a more-unified strategy is by adopting Yammer as a company-wide collaboration tool, CIO Wayne Shurts said in an interview.

Previously, "communication within Supervalu happened very hierarchically within those brands--and very slowly," Shurts said.

In a recent earnings call, Herkert specifically mentioned the role of the company's internal social network in helping the company organize around a "hyperlocal" strategy where each store tries to meet the needs of local constituencies. For example, a network of college-town store managers came up with a promotion featuring a $100 dorm room refrigerator that came with $100 worth of manufacturer's coupons for drinks and snacks. "As the program was deployed, our store directors did a great job of cross-merchandising a broad range of products from snack foods and energy drinks to licensed school apparel and small electronics. In all, we sold more than 8,000 refrigerators, not to mention incremental product through creative cross-merchandising and couponing," Herkert told management.

[ Need tips on how to make the best business use of Twitter? See Businesses Take Action With Twitter. ]

"That's something that never would have happened before we had Yammer," Shurts said. Store managers in coastal towns have formed a similar alliance to brainstorm on products for vacationers and beachgoers, he said.

In general, whether employees are trying to get answers on IT issues or tips on running a deli department, they are finding they get a faster response through the social network, Shurts said. For example, although the help desk staff monitors the feeds for IT questions, often those questions wind up getting answered by other employees before the official answer comes, he said.

Herkert didn't specifically mention Yammer during the earnings call, but he is enthusiastic enough to have recorded a video endorsement. "Yammer has made my life easier, but what it's really done is make my life as a CEO better," he says in the video, explaining that Yammer allows him to connect directly with store managers around the country. He is able to browse their conversations, getting a sense of issues in the stores that might otherwise never percolate up through the levels of management between him and them, and he can show he is paying attention by linking a comment or replying to it.

The adoption of Yammer is "a weird story, a combination of a top-down push and a grassroots effort coming together," Shurts said.

Herkert had gotten excited about the business potential of social collaboration after attending a technology conference. Meanwhile, a small group of employees had begun using the free version of Yammer on an ad-hoc basis. Heckert got a look at this unofficial initiative and quickly gave it his stamp of approval.

"We did do a very quick look at competitive solutions," Shurts said, "but Yammer seemed to be the best of the bunch." Based on the fact that it looked good, and some employees were already having success with it, Supervalu decided to charge ahead with Yammer, "rather than taking six months for a formal evaluation," he said.

That is exactly the goal of Yammer's freemium sales strategy, which aims to get workers using the free version of the product productively, then sell management on upgrading to a premium version. An enterprise license is necessary to assert corporate control and boost security (for example, by ensuring that former employees have their access to the collaboration space cut off).

"We could have kept using it for free, but then you don't own the data," Shurts said.

Other organizations have a much more negative reaction to a service that lures employees into establishing unsanctioned corporate collaboration workspaces in the cloud--particularly firms that are suspicious of the security of cloud computing. Even at Supervalu, Yammer is not necessarily the solution the IT department would have recommended. But once Heckert became an enthusiastic evangelist, IT decided not to stand in the way.

Shurts said obtaining enterprise social networking as a cloud service greatly simplified deployment, particularly across an organization with diverse IT infrastructure. As for any security concerns about cloud computing, Supervalu elected to address them with a simple guideline that Yammer should not be used for highly confidential communications. Yammer does have mechanisms for setting up private communities for discussing more-confidential matters, Shurts noted, but at least initially the company has been conservative in its use. "Our one simple principle is you shouldn't put anything on Yammer that would embarrass you or the company if you read it on the front page of the New York Times," he said.

In the coming year, Supervalu might start to use Yammer more aggressively, however. Although little IT integration work was required for the initial implementation, Supervalu is planning to begin using it in combination with some core operational systems, employing Yammer widgets that would add social collaboration to those applications. "We have about five things on the drawing board, where we're working with Yammer to make that happen," he said.

Meanwhile, although the use of Yammer is entirely optional and there has been no formal plan to drive adoption, employees have been signing up at a rapid pace, Shurts said. "Nobody has to go to a Yammer course to get started. Well, maybe for the advanced features. But people can log on and pick it up because it's intuitive, no training needed. SharePoint is probably much more difficult. So many people in their own personal life are using Facebook and Twitter that this comes naturally."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard

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