Home-grown Enterprise 2.0 at GE

The recent Office 2.0 conference appeared a well-organised and serene affair, totally hiding the furious hidden paddlings of organiser Ismael Chang Ghalimi and his team. He put the event together in two months, again, which makes it nightmarish for people like me who like to plan their time. Do you trust Ghalimi and book tickets and hotels? Or do you wait until the agenda crystallises, usually two or three weeks before the event? I did the latter, but I’m delighted to hear that he’s going to be making the event organisation a year-round affair in future.

So what tipped me into going this year? (Apart from other people picking up large chunks of the tab.) It was the promise of some pretty large companies talking about their Web 2.0/collaboration experiences and the unconference that I wrote about in this blog while I was there. Add to that a high degree of networking with knowledgeable people and meeting up with a new US-based member of our team (Hi IdaRose) and I was all set.

The event did not disappoint. The highlight for me was hearing Dr Sukh Grewal from GE (General Electric, as was) and chatting to him afterwards. In 1999 he was invited to move from engineering to bring a user perspective to IT developments. He guided the creation of SupportCentral, GE’s internal collaboration system.

Like another large user, Wachovia Bank, which was also speaking at the event, neither was using any of the ’usual suspects’ for its in-house collaboration activities. Wachovia built its system on MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) while GE built atop an Oracle database running on a Sun midrange server.

This was a bit of a wake-up for people like me who went into the sessions expecting to hear about the triumphant penetration of the enterprise by a Web 2.0-style company such as Socialtext, Jive, Atlassian or WordFrame.

Sticking with GE for this blog post, its SupportCentral was backed by the CIO for its first eighteen months. The aim was to bring together individuals, communities, knowledge and processes. Bear in mind that this was in 2000 and the ’social networking’ phenomenon was yet to hit the mainstream.

The basic principles were that people wanted and needed to be seen and connected, communities needed to communicate more effectively than just through mail lists, knowledge was everywhere, a lot of it inside heads, and repeatable processes were the means by which organisations generate value. This structure was not apparent at the start of the project, but, once realised, it gave it the focus that continues to this day.

SupportCentral became a platform to digitise processes rapidly. The developers had created a user-driven point-and-click workflow and mashup system long before the ’mashup’ term was adopted for IT processes. It is also a place where knowledge is shared and expertise discovered, through Q&A and document uploads. About half of the community information lies in the Q&As. It also gives access to about 2,000 internal databases.

The whole thing is web-based, so it’s accessible to all and desktop updates are not required. Setting up a community is a matter of minutes and, if it doesn’t work out, no problem. About 50,000 communities exist in this company of 400,000 people. To which you can add about 30,000 external users who have been invited to join specific communities. The system watches communities for activity and closes down any that become moribund – about a third of those started.

It’s easy to see, with these numbers, why Dr Grewal believes that an internally developed system costs a lot less than paying for per-user software licences or external services. In the interests of keeping costs down, he’s also investigating the possibility of switching some users from Microsoft Word to Zoho.

SupportCentral has enabled the right people to get together, with the right documents, creating and serving organisational processes, with a high degree of transparency. The IT department is responsible for building the enabling infrastructure.

A new release of the platform is rolled out every other Thursday – 1500 enhancements per year are made. User requests have to be justified with a thought-out ROI and a preparedness to pay for the development. This has bound IT and the lines of business together in mutual trust. A survey facility, for example, saves the organisation something like four million dollars each year. It’s used about 100 times a day.

This has not been a top-down roll out even though the development was centrally directed in the beginning. It’s been a case of "if it doesn’t help you, don’t use it". The growth chart might resemble that of a social networking success story, but it’s happened over years rather than months. And people tend not to drop out. It is very much a business environment although Grewal cheerfully admits that some people use outside services. He said, "about 1000 people belong to the GE Facebook group. That’s how many people in GE who have diarrhoea every day." Ooer!

You can watch Dr Grewal’s presentation if you’re interested in the details of SupportCentral. Suffice it to say that, whether by accident or design, it has ended up as a great exemplar of Enterprise 2.0 in action. And, as the man himself says, "this is beginning to represent the heartbeat of our company."

By the way, SupportCentral is supposedly available from Tata Consultancy Services, but it is impossible to find on the website. Here’s a link to a pdf brochure.

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