Do enterprise social networks (ESNs) have the ability to influence or change company culture or identity? They do, although the experience will vary dramatically from organization to organization, and may be quite subtle or slow.

In a start-up, where company culture is often still evolving, an ESN might have a more immediate and obvious impact as it facilitates powerful connections and creates shared experiences. This article looks at the experience of Brandtone, where a mobile social network has, somewhat unexpectedly, helped to shape a global, informal and more unified identity for the company.

Start-Ups and Identity

Start-up companies tend to initially have strong organizational cultures, with employees enjoying an equally strong sense of identity. Invariably this is heavily influenced by the personality of the founder and the founding team, and the blueprint they lay in the way the firm operates.

Strong identities are also formed because start-ups have small number of employees who have to work very long hours but with a shared sense of mission and purpose. That collective experience of a working hard and being in a team that’s creating something from scratch can be powerful and engaging for employees. And while it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, it’s certainly a very different experience from working for a huge global corporation with 100,000 people.

As start-up companies grow and evolve -- sometimes at breakneck speed -- the road can be bumpy. Bringing in external hires, becoming more process-oriented and opening up offices in new locations can jar and cause the organizational equivalent of an identity crisis. There may be tension between the original start-up spirit and the culture of a more mature established company.

Founded in 2009 in Dublin, Ireland, Brandtone focuses on mobile to build consumer relationships in developing and emerging markets. Clients include global brands such as Unilever and the company recently launched a marketing platform called Konnect. The company continues to expand, receiving further funding in early 2014, and almost doubling the number of employees this year to around 200.

The Challenges of Expansion

While Brandtone’s expansion has been exciting for those who work there, it has had its challenges. In fact when I interviewed Brandtone’s Marketing Manager, Rachel O’Donovan, the firm’s exponential growth was putting pressure on the office space available in Brandtone’s Dublin HQ, and with all spare rooms booked, she spoke to me over the telephone from an office stairwell.

One of the key challenges for Brandtone is reaching out to employees in different countries as the result of its global expansion. O’Donovan explained,

We’ve expanded into markets as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia, China and India. Often in the very beginning we had very small teams in these markets, and as we were growing we didn’t have the resources to fly them in and out of Dublin on a regular basis. Our engagement challenge was trying to make the person literally sitting alone in an office in Russia feel as involved and part of things as a person with an office full of people in Dublin.”

Moreover within some markets where local offices have expanded, such as South Africa and Brazil, a nuanced culture had started to emerge which O’Donovan describes as “very much a microcosm of Brandtone, but with a localized culture developing in each market.” Although this is fine, Brandtone was keen to “foster one global community and one global culture.”

A Mobile Social Platform

Brandtone’s response to the challenge was to create a global platform for internal communications to try and help promote a unified global culture.

The company chose a mobile solution in the form of an app called Beem as the platform. Produced by another start-up, Beem is an attractive cloud-based mobile platform for both internal and external content available on iOS and Android devices. It allows users to comment, microblog and share photos. It lies somewhere between a CMS and a social network.

Initially the app was primarily regarded as a vehicle for company news and internal communications. It looked attractive, would be easy to implement and was cost-effective at a time when energy and budget was targeted to the efforts of growing the company across different markets. Using a mobile channel was both a pragmatic decision -- as many in the company were often traveling -- and a natural choice for a mobile marketing company.

Brandtone launched Beem in September 2012 on the back of a campaign to drive adoption. This included the usual teasers, a launch party, a plan to roll-out across different markets and competitions for functions with the most activity. The campaign was a modest success and KPIs such as the number of downloads were largely achieved.

But then things started to get interesting. Rachel Donovan explained,

I was becoming increasingly busy and I couldn’t always even get the time to share corporate news. We had decided we shouldn’t really regulate content or have to approve comments. So, people just started posting anything and everything like jokes, or telling the company that they’ve got a new pair of shoes. And then people would make fun of the shoes! There was quite a bit of banter.”

What was originally envisaged as more of an intranet started evolving into what O’Donovan called “a private social network for Brandtone.” While the strong corporate channel for “serious news” remained, employees were also turning to the “Company Life” section, the place where all employees can post updates.

Facilitating Global Connections

The interaction on Beem gradually extended across different international offices. Management would send updates about their travels and teams within the markets were posting informal messages as well as more formal success stories. Posting to the network became known as “Beeming.”

Rachel O’Donovan reflected, “We would Beem when we were having an office party and then when people were traveling, often to not very glamorous places. Eventually we started to get a really great insight into market dynamics and behaviors. They would Beem from client events and workshops. It really facilitated that connection piece.”

O’Donovan observed that posting photos has been “massively important” in Beem’s success. A lot of the markets are in different countries that others have not visited, and photos brought the activities of these offices to life. She referred to a time at Christmas when “all the markets posted Christmas messages and a picture of the tree in their office. It was great for office morale.”

Towards a Unified Company Culture

Perhaps it’s ironic that the unexpected social interaction which has occurred on Beem has facilitated the one-company culture desired by the company more than a standard internal communications approach.

Rachel O’Donovan said,

It’s definitely not the evolution we were expecting. I thought it would be harder to roll out. I'm thrilled that people do use it in the way we use it and love that it’s taken on a life of its own. Recently I looked through Beem and it’s like looking at a magazine of what everyone is doing around the world.

Beem has becomes a natural talking point. People are comfortable to go on it and they write things they comment and start conversations. It’s facilitated that sense of cultural capital right across the company. It’s been the place to really bring people together even as we have expanded significantly in the past year.”

Thanks to Rachel O’Donovan at Brandtone and Ciara O’Keefe at Beem for their help with this article.

Title image by T-Bone Sandwich (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license