The challenge wasn't helped by a diverse IT landscape comprising around 100 separate HR systems and precisely 134 separate intranets. Even email systems were fragmented — the only way to compile an enterprise-wide employee mailing list was by consolidating spreadsheets from each separate email domain.
There was more than technology at stake. It was a matter of corporate cohesion in a business that had grown through diverse acquisitions as well as organically. Kim England, head of internal community and collaboration, who now runs the social collaboration platform brought in to overcome these barriers to interaction, had joined Pearson when the company acquired the Edexcel examination board.
"It would take years before you felt you were part of Pearson," she recalled last week, noting that she had not been given a Pearson email address until more than three years after the Edexcel acquisition had closed.
It was to overcome such issues that then-CEO Marjorie Scardino encouraged the development of an enterprise-wide social collaboration platform known internally as Neo, based on technology from Jive Software. Initially rolled out in November 2010 with 150 pilot users, Neo already had 18,000 users by the time of its official company-wide launch the following March. It subsequently won a Jive award for the speed at which it achieved more than 80 percent engagement across the business.
Management of Neo sits within Pearson's HR function and has become a key tool in overcoming the barriers to enterprise-wide talent management that result from such a diverse landscape of HR systems. Last year the organisation rolled out Saba — known internally as Milo — as an enterprise-wide platform for learning and performance management. Neo complements Milo, not only as a forum for user support, but also as a platform for sharing objectives or providing evidence of achievements.
"The conversation is happening within Jive — Saba is just the tool for doing the job," said England. "Performance management is so much about evidence, we've written guidelines about how to use Neo as evidence in an appraisal."
Social as an HR tool
When Jive asked me to meet with England last week, I was intrigued by its positioning of the event as an exploration of social networking as an HR tool. It seemed an odd juxtaposition, but in Pearson's case there's a clear logic to harmonizing disparate teams using a social collaboration tool as the first step towards a more unified people management infrastructure.
You could call it a 'donut' strategy. The first step was the introduction of the Neo community platform as a medium for bringing people closer that could sit around the disparate systems already in place. The next step has been the introduction of Saba to add in some enterprise-wide talent management functionality. The center of the donut will be filled in with adoption of an enterprise-wide HRIS platform to replace the legacy patchwork currently in operation. That step is next on Pearson's agenda.
None of this strategy works, of course, unless employees first of all get on board the social media platform and remain engaged with it. It seems there was a real hunger across Pearson to do that, demonstrated in the initial participation, which grew virally. Engagement has since remained high, said England:
"Neo is the intranet. People have to go on to get certain pieces of information.
"It's an addiction in terms of the community spirit but it's also how they actually do business on a day-to-day basis."
Middle management objections
The original objective had been for Neo to improve communications and knowledge sharing, particularly around products. In such a diverse, globally distributed enterprise, it had become all too frequent to find teams expending effort on product development work that had already been done elsewhere. Now people can search Neo for existing products, use it to find out who created them and then connect with those people.
"People have accessibility to people they would never have had access to before," said England. "People feel that they are part of the Pearson family."
Not everyone has been so enthusiastic, though. Some managers have needed convincing of the usefulness of the community, said England.
"The biggest hurdles we've had were probably the middle management within the organization. In some instances some of those more traditional executives saw it as another distraction. Those were the people that really needed the hard evidence."
The key is to see what their pain points are and to have use cases that can illustrate how Neo can help resolve those challenges, she explained. Did they have challenges connecting with distributed workers, with motivating their team, or were they experiencing product development bottlenecks?
"Those people who were slower to adopt came in and saw there were already some use cases. Once you've got those use cases, getting those other users on board is much easier."
But individuals must also make some effort to engage, she added, when I asked to what extent building collaboration skills falls under HR's remit. She warned that those who continue to hold back from participating in Neo risk being left behind:
"It has to be a partnership. The organization can take some of the responsibility. I also think it has to be on the responsibility of the user.
"Very early on I spent a lot of time trying to reach people. If they don't want to learn, if they don't see the opportunity, when it comes to performance appraisal time they won't be performing as well as their colleagues are. The user needs to go and discover how to use this."
Taking a lead
To the extent that Neo becomes a tool where employees can demonstrate they are meeting performance objectives, then management is clearly stipulating social collaboration as one of their goals. Many who are already comfortable with social media will find their existing activity rewarded. Others will see an incentive to up their game in an unfamiliar skillset.
In such circumstances, top-level executive support for the social collaboration initiative is evidently crucial and it's notable that Neo was sponsored initially by Pearson's CEO, whose successor takes frequent opportunities to be visible in the community.
Keeping the collaboration functionality fresh is one way that the enterprise can provide additional value to users. England said that Pearson is keen to move Neo from its current Jive version 5 to the latest version 7. At the same time, the company will remove a lot of the customizations it had previously made in preparation for moving away from the current on-premise instance to a cloud deployment. She explained:
"We want to be in the cloud. The beauty of being in the cloud is, we will get a refresh every quarter. We need to be in the cloud because we need the product to stay fresh and new and wonderful."
Photo credit: Rough Guide to Neo courtesy of Pearson.