Many people can no longer imagine life without Wikipedia, Amazon, Facebook, etc. But Web 2.0 is also changing the culture of work. Siemens uses a variety of social media to accelerate innovation and problem-solving processes.
Alistair Gammie, the Senior Director for Diagnostics Solutions at Siemens in Swindon, UK, is on the verge of landing a multimillion euro order for diagnostic labs from a Brazilian customer. That’s because during a visit to one of the customer’s labs Gammie discovered a problem in the barcode reading system. He doesn’t have a solution that could seal the deal, however — not yet, at least. Before he shuts down his computer in the evening, Gammie describes his problem in a post to the company’s internal forum.
A surprise comes the next morning, when Gammie discovers e-mail messages sent by 23 colleagues from Germany, India, and the U.S. As a result, he is able to type up five firm solution proposals in just two days, and he eventually gets the order.
Companies wishing to move innovations forward more quickly need to enhance their networking capabilities. That’s why global IT giants like Google, IBM, Apple, and Microsoft have been employing a social networking approach for many years now. In order to gather new ideas, IBM gets thousands of employees worldwide involved in online brainstorming jam sessions. A study conducted by the McKinsey consulting firm found that most of the more than 3,000 companies surveyed derive an economic benefit from social media. In fact, 18 percent reported that the use of such media led to higher revenues.
Five years ago Siemens became one of the first companies listed on the German DAX index to begin using Web 2.0 instruments in a targeted manner by establishing an internal wiki service, employee blogs, and departmental forums, all of which have led to more rapid sharing of knowledge (see Pictures of the Future, Spring 2010, Open Innovation). Siemens’ “Technoweb” forum, for example, allows anyone, from developers to office workers, to post complex technical questions or obtain simple operational assistance. The forum’s approximately 9,000 registered users discuss various issues in some 850 theme groups. As a result, the forum has accelerated work processes.
The “Urgent Request” function Alistair Gammie used is particularly useful. Here, a request for help is issued with just a click, as opposed to having to comb databases for hours, access search engines, or make phone calls. The question is assigned to a targeted category and forwarded as an e-mail to all Technoweb users interested in the subject area, so it’s exposed to a far greater range of specialists than one’s own circle of personal contacts. In other words, the knowledge of specialists from the farthest corners of the organization can be called upon to help with a problem.
Top Knowledge Management. “Collective intelligence can be used efficiently with the help of social media, which also enable Group-wide employee interaction,” says Dr. Manfred Langen, who has been involved in knowledge management issues at Siemens for 12 years. The company’s social media have boosted innovation capability as well. Since 2001 Siemens has been a finalist eight times in the rankings for “The European Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises” (most recently in 2010) and has received an award for the best knowledge management system in Europe.
Globally distributed research and development, short-term project partnerships, and increasing process and product complexity make efficient knowledge filtering a must. But companies often lack intelligent methods for structuring data flows. For example, how can you find the right experts for solving a specific problem, so as to avoid flooding the e-mail accounts of all employees with your query? Siemens is working on a “Technology Atlas” that semantically links related terms and technologies. Still, the perfect solution continues to elude even the service providers who work exclusively on the automatic generation of ontologies and the semantic modeling of information flows.
Open Innovation. Online communities are nevertheless a tried and tested instrument for avoiding knowledge silos. These communities can inspire product developments and safeguard competitive advantages. “Social media are important for getting ideas to market more rapidly,” says Dr. Thomas Lackner, who is responsible for Open Innovation at Siemens. “The consolidated knowledge of individual employees and the different perspectives they bring to the table are important drivers.” A key goal here is the strategic utilization of employee expertise that has not yet been shared and the external knowledge of partners.
One way to go about this is to stage competitions such as the “Siemens Sustainability Idea Contest” — a platform made available globally for eight weeks that allowed employees to submit ideas online. The community employed a star-rating principle like the one used by Amazon to filter out the best ideas from the 850 proposals submitted for sustainable products and energy-saving concepts.
Bernhard Lang, a Siemens researcher in Russia, won the competition with his idea for “smart levees” — a monitoring system that uses sensors to predict the stability of a dike down to the last meter. Lang’s innovation is now being operated at a test levee in Eemshaven, Netherlands (see Pictures of the Future, Fall 2010, Bulwarks with Brains). Other ideas are now being prepared for market launch. Patent situations are being examined, project strategies developed, and business plans drawn up.
Younger employees in particular are very familiar with social networks like Facebook, Xing, etc., which they don’t just use to discuss private affairs. In fact, more than 20,000 Siemens employees also talk about Group topics in their networks. This, of course, poses a danger that internal information might be passed on. Even an offhand comment might end up being read by the entire community — but Siemens prefers to rely on its employees’ sense of responsibility in this regard. The advantages offered by the internal blogosphere in particular are clear. Employees can discuss current issues in real time whenever they want, share their expertise, or set up their own blogs. Some 6,000 employees are particularly active in this manner and offer interesting content with their event, managers’, and experts’ blogs.
“With their open communication culture, blogs can lead to better awareness of developments at the company and more extensive sharing of knowledge and experience,” says Helmut Lehner, a Community Manager for the blogosphere and wikisphere at Siemens. Moreover, because they’re embedded in the intranet, these networks are less exposed to Web criminals, and the intellectual property they harbor remains within the company.
Working in the Wikisphere. Social media can offer a lot to internationally operating companies in particular. In addition to lowering communication costs, they foster cooperation in global teams and help to avoid project redundancies. For example, if three teams at three different locations happen to be pondering similar problems, the wiki network will quickly reveal this to be the case. Virtual teams in the Group-wide wikisphere jointly compose articles and expand the Siemens glossary. There are also 70 specific wiki forums that are used for everyday problem-solving and can help to permanently improve work processes, products, and services, for example. The Metals & Mining unit has a wiki forum for service technicians that contains listings for 220 mines, rolling mills, and pits from Malaysia to Bolivia.
Engineers can use its digital world atlas to zero in on individual locations, each of which displays site-specific historical, geographic, and technical information. The latest news from the sites can also be viewed — e.g. which technicians are working there and what types of measurements, repairs, or software conversions they’ve carried out, including all pertinent reports, photos, and charts. This wiki forum also provides information on visa formalities and the fastest routes to destinations, thus facilitating the work of technicians who travel frequently. One can find out, for example, that a particular Bolivian silver mine lies at an altitude of about 4,000 meters in the Andes and that the site can only be reached by private Jeep via Calama, Chile, or with a propeller plane from La Paz, Bolivia. Such information is very helpful because it can cost a company millions if such a facility remains shut down for even 24 hours. Wiki information significantly speeds up processes. For example, today 20 percent of companies in the U.S. and Europe use blogs or wikis and other forums. The buzzword here is Enterprise 2.0 — and it’s leading to the formation of a new corporate culture that’s changing the way we work. “In ten years social media will have completely replaced e-mails,” predicts communication expert Helmut Lehner. According to a study conducted by McKinsey, two thirds of the companies surveyed plan to invest in social media instruments because they believe a shift to Enterprise 2.0 will give them a vital competitive edge.
Forrester, a market research institute, estimates that corporate investment in Web 2.0 instruments worldwide will increase tenfold to $4.6 billion by 2013. The challenge is to logically integrate social media into company strategies and concepts. For Alistair Gammie, meanwhile, using Web 2.0 has already paid off.