Web 2.0, a broad term covering emerging internet-based communications, is being recognised by corporates as a means of enhancing efficiency and disseminating knowledge. For one early adopter, US insurer Northwestern Mutual, Web 2.0 is proving a roaring success. Charles Davis reports.
Social networking, internet Web 2.0 – they might seem the stuff of 20-somethings organising their social life, but one US insurer, Northwestern Mutual, has embraced the future in a way that works in order to develop internal online communities that increase communication as well as team and individual productivity.
Over the past year, Northwestern has worked with Awareness, a social network infrastructure provider, to create an employee- generated online community that helps to capture and share employee knowledge, encourage discussion across product lines and serve as a resource for everything from policy information to sales techniques. “It’s part town hall, part intranet, part [social networking website] Facebook – and it’s really working,” said an analyst at consultancy Forrester.
David Carter, chief technology officer and one of the founders of Awareness, told LII: “It’s as much about attitude as anything. Suddenly, the CEO is taking questions from staff.”
Awareness is a social media platform on which enterprises deploy Web 2.0 in business environments. Defined in many ways, Web 2.0 in essence refers to using the internet as an interactive communications platform. Awareness employs blogs (personal web pages), wikis (software that allows users to create, edit and link web pages), podcasts, photos, videos, forums and discussion groups to create online communities.
In addition to Northwestern, Awareness’s clients include McDonald’s, Kodak and the New York Times. Companies use the communities in a wide variety of ways to foster employee communication and collaboration, drive new forms of revenue and conduct market research.
Northwestern is perhaps not intuitively a company people might expect to find in the vanguard of Web 2.0 adopters. Operating in a highly regulated industry, the insurer has prized such attributes as stability and strength over its 150-year history and is not regularly positioned as an early adopter. Northwestern, which serves over 3 million policyholders, has been named ‘America’s Most Admired’ insurance company by Fortune magazine for the past 24 years.
It was in late 2005 that Northwestern began to adopt Web 2.0, bringing blogs, RSS (continuous internet news feeds) and wikis into the business. While the benefits are still being realised, the insurer’s journey thus far gives technology marketers a hint of what to look for, and anticipate, in early adopters.
“Insurers are not the first company we think of when we look for Web 2.0 partners, but they saw what we were doing for McDonald’s, and they were a company facing a wave of retirements, with all of their information locked up in e-mail,” Carter said. “All that knowledge can be a real corporate asset if you can get to it.”
Forrester analyst Oliver Young was so taken by Northwestern’s use of Web 2.0 that he authored a research report on the Awareness platform, praising the insurer for its push into Web 2.0. One of the focus areas of Young’s report explores the company’s compliance and security concerns and how they worked with Awareness to address these issues.
“As a firm operating in a highly regulated industry, Northwestern had to address compliance and archiving, so from the very onset Northwestern looked for a solution that would keep it compliant. Strong protections were also put in place to block prohibited language and flag potentially offensive words and phrases,” Young wrote.
Carter said: “Northwestern Mutual has gone from a blog to replace e-mail blasts, to having field reps write content to them, and anybody in the company can create a blog, and the content from all of the Northwestern blogs is aggregated on another view. So I can go get the view of one sales manager or the content from the entire enterprise. In the background, we have lots of data protection, security, compliance, and a host of other issues.”
Over the past couple of years, a number of vendors have been turning out Web 2.0 products – blogs, wikis and other kinds of social software that have taken hold in the consumer world – aimed expressly at the corporate user. The trend has even earned its own nickname, Enterprise 2.0.
More companies taking the plunge
While most executives are cautious, a growing number of businesses have taken the plunge into Web 2.0 tools. A worldwide survey by consultancy McKinsey of top-level executives early this year found that about one-third had deployed or were planning to deploy the most common forms of social software. Three products – blogs, wikis and RSS – are proving particularly popular.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of making the technology available to everyone. Northwestern wanted a way to capture some of the knowledge of employees, nearly one-third of whom are expected to retire in the next five years. The insurer made blogging software developed by Canadian vendor iUpload available to all of its 5,000 employees; about 100 are active bloggers, and their audience is largely internal, as they hand down hard-earned wisdom to younger employees.
Young’s study clearly points to the importance of getting executive commitment at the highest level. Northwestern CEO Edward Zoe embraced the blogging concept from the first presentation to him from their corporate communications group.
“Success with enterprise Web 2.0 will come from a combination of progressive changes punctuated by some surprising benefits. Don’t try to predict which benefits your clients will realise. Instead, help clients realise and quantify the smaller victories on which they can build,” wrote Young.
Carter agreed, and added that the communal nature of blogs and wikis is transforming the way people work on networked computer systems.
“This will become simply the way things are done,” he said. “It encourages employees to participate, and allows expertise to sort of bubble up organically. The insurance industry is perfect for it – they have this large dispersed salesforce, and an information-rich product set. It makes so much sense. ”