Sunday, September 14, 2008

Interview with Tim Young, CEO of Socialcast

Last month I received an invite to interview the CEO of Socialcast, a company that provides enterprise-wide on-demand social networking. Having only a small exposure to them previously, I was interested in understand more about their product and its features.

Social Cast was started by Tim Young in June 2005 and provides a SAAS (software-as-a-service) offering to enable companies to have their own private social networks. Their early customers came from the music industry (Universal, Sony, etc.) and in Jan 2007 they won a piece of work for Guitar Centre (the US's largest instrument retailer) to build a Social Network between their headquarters & stores.

HS: So what's the key thing that companies need to establish a social network?
TY: Company culture makes a big difference and to get best use from these social networking tools companies need to work towards establish a culture where there is transparency between staff & management.

HS: What's the best method of getting buy-in for an Enterprise Social Network?
TY: You need both CIO & HR stakeholders; clients get the most success when they approach the solution from both perspectives. HR provides the case for building morale and the CIO looks to build and retain knowledge. Just one of these means the approach can be skewed to just one particular direction.

HS: What helps to build adoption of an Enterprise Social Network?
Taking the work we did for Guitar Centre, this project was helped considerably by having total connectivity between the branches and the centre. This then encouraged viral growth of the service which proved beneficial in its roll-out.

HS: What's a typical roll-out plan?
TY: How its rolled-out is very important. We initially test the application in the first 2-4 weeks with a few users. This can then be increased to 20 or so users to set the tone and get key people comfortable. To then encourage usage further we've found it is beneficial to create some exclusivity, perhaps by making it invitation-only so people see the value. This assists adoption by encouraging scarcity, which actually increases the initial networking effect.

HS: So what's the right size of organisation to have an Enterprise Social Network? Is there an optimum number?
TY: We don't usually look at clients with less than 500 employees & as you don't have enough conversations happening. However it can work with as little as 10 people – the more you make it conversational, the better it works. The level of interaction is definitely dependant upon the internal culture and how employees are valued, its a shift in thinking that makes the difference.

HS: Have you had companies measure the ROI of Enterprise Social Media?
TY: Yes, investing in this technology should be benefit-led. You can obviously measure the basic metrics such as whether people are using the software, but once they are engaged you potentially have a career changing tool. Take for example in retail where you have a high turnover of staff, this affects the amount of training and other support you provide. In the case of one client we have implemented Socialcast for; having this sort of tool has helped to drive down turnover to79% following four successive quarters of 100% turnover. This has a direct affect on the cost of the business. In addition, providing a tool to retain organisational information and can capture the knowledge of older retiring employees.

HS: Does this have more an effect for different generations of users?
TY: Yes, defiantly. The hiring & training of millenials is very different. But this can be overcome by integrating them within the company and finding them mentors to pair with. Millenials are different, even their communication structure is different, its immediate. But they do adopt this sort of technology much easier.

HS: So what's new for SocialCast?
TY: We have a new version of our product coming out in September. This is a dramatic shift in what we're providing and is based upon the feedback we've received from customers & end users.

HS: Can you tell me more?
TY: We're obviously keeping things under-wraps until the launch of Socialcast version 3.0, but I can say that we're launching more Twitter-like functionality for users to share ideas. We've found that brevity works and people find small posts far more approachable. This is compared to blogs, which can take more effort to produce. You need to encourage the conversation and not make people feel guilty about not posting frequently.

HS: So have you been looking at how users communicate in a company to deliver a better product?
TY: Yes, we've looked a lot at why people are connected in an organisation and found that its usually around a set of shared objects. These Enterprise social objects can be anything from photos or videos, through to specific documents. The power of knowledge comes from lots of individuals communicating together. The aim is therefore to get the conversations out of email, which has become an abused silo of information.

HS: How did you decide on the correct functionality for your new version?
TY: We prioritise the functionality from an user-centric view when deciding what to develop. We had small forums where we did some behavioural monitoring, its not just important to capture what users say, but what they do. The software must be used to be useful. It was also important to us to build something that is loved. Consumer software is better to use compared to most corporate software, which can be comparatively dry. Its not just about a functional checklists, its about understanding the needs of your users, the challenges they face and giving them tools they like.

HS: Do you have any plans for the expansion of Socialcast?
TY: Yes, we had a successful implementation in Australia earlier in 2008 and we're ramping up our efforts internationally. We've also signed our first UK client for a trial period, so we should have more news about that soon.
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