However, a buy-out by investors in 2014, who wanted to change this and were willing to invest money in new technology platforms, has prompted the company to change its approach to collaboration.
Speaking at Jive’s annual user event in Las Vegas this week, Bridget Clark, Vice President, Internal Communications, explained how American Express GBT has implemented the Jive platform to solve some of, what it perceived to be, communication problems.
Clark's talk focused on the limitations traditional enterprise information flows have on a business and how to bring employees with you to a place where they feel comfortable using social collaboration tools.
We are a 165 year old company, with a really strong corporate culture. We have 14,000 employees globally and half of that population works virtually. Within the US, that virtual population number increases to 75%. So we don’t have a lot of people hanging around the water cooler in the office.
Communications has been very aligned, very top down, very traditional. We did things like memos, conference calls, speaking in person. The changes that happened at the Express level, didn’t really happen within GBT. They introduced things like blogging, videos, commenting, liking on their Sharepoint based intranet. That didn’t flow down to us.
So I was stuck with a three day turnaround to post a piece of content and then employees could do nothing but read it.
Clark explained that the tools available to her and employees were very locked down, had a lot of governance around them and weren’t very useful. As a result, collaboration often happened in person or it was stuck in email chains.
She added that employees were largely talked to and were not engaged in discussions with senior executives.
In July 2014 the tide changed dramatically for us. American Express essentially sold us off, we were now owned by investors. So for us this meant I was handed the keys to unlock the world of communication for our employees. I had to wipe the slate clean and build something from scratch.
Luckily my boss was fully behind the social platform from the get-go. We moved into this new environment, which was scary for us.
Clark said that when embarking on the implementation, the business had a number of priorities in mind for making it a success, as it knew that it could be a challenge convincing employees, that on average had been with the company for 12 years, to operate in a different way. She said:
We were used to waiting for a leader to send us a memo to tell us what to do. You were told what you needed to know, when you needed to know it.
We now have this leadership team that was coming in with a start-up mindset, which was radically different from anything we had ever had. We were trying to balance taking this legacy and create our future. How do we bring our employees along with this leadership team?
Our mission was, and continues to be, to redefine our culture and strike a balance between legacy and start-up mindsets.
American Express GBT decided that it needed a platform that would last, but was also modern and could be updated frequently. Clark wanted to be able to allow features that emerge in the consumer technology market to be easily introduced as time went on, allowing employees to communicate how they do at home at work.
We also knew we needed active input of employees. The one way street we had before needed to become an information highway that was co-created in partnership with our employees and backed by discussions.
We have never really had a way to reach all of our employees at once and bring them together. I know that sounds crazy, given the size of our virtual populations. We didn’t have a centralised employee communications function. We needed to bring everybody together, to build connections, to build camaraderie. We needed to help them gather around key information, we needed to centralise that information for them.
We knew collaboration was happening. It had to. We were a 165 year old company and we were successful. So we knew people were working together, but it was all in email. So when you left the company, everything you knew about the company left with you. So we knew we could create a virtual water cooler of collaboration where our employees gathered.
Changing the culture
American Express GBT wanted to remove a common cultural failing that if you were an employee in the loop, you knew what you needed to know. And if you were not, you had no idea what was going on in the company. It wanted to encourage transparency and embed it into the company.
Before we implemented Jive in September of last year, we sent out 437 memos a year. Which is insane. So we moved everything employees needed to know into blogs, so they could go and find it themselves.
What we did do to limit the culture shock, we had short little emails we sent out that linked back to the platform. This was key for us, as it was blending our legacy way of communicating with the new way of communicating we wanted to enforce.
The next thing American Express GBT did was build an ambassadors network, which Clark's described as the “carrot approach”. She said:
We went out to the business and said we were going to have this fancy new intranet, it’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen, and we want you to help build it. So we had 80 volunteers get into the site early, they trained early, they then became the mouthpiece for the culture change we were looking to affect.
Also, because we got them in early, they were already using the tool and there were discussions, there was content, there were blogs, there were things employees were creating themselves. So when we switched on to 2,000 employees, they already went into something that was live and active.
Clark has also decided to hold back certain features upon the launch and instead has introduced aroadmap for when they will be switched on. She hopes that this will encourage users to come back and try things out on the platform when they know it is introduced. So, for example, groups was held back on day one but is still core to the company’s strategy for future collaboration using Jive.
And the results?
Well, Clark has gone from a three day turnaround for producing content to being able to do things like run a live blog during the company’s annual strategy kick-off meeting, which usually happened in a conference room behind closed doors. The live blog during the meeting had 6,000 views and employees were able to offer feedback as the information was coming out.
Equally, American Express GBT’s content creation rates are rising on a daily basis and 30% of employees are reading the executive blog posts - which Clark hopes will increase next year. And although 30% may not seem high, this compares to less than 15% of employees accessing the online updates that were being used, which cost $75,000 to create and release.