On day one at the SharePoint Conference 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada, Chris Plescia and Jeff Schumann from Nationwide Insurance provided a detailed view into their company's successful efforts to develop an employee portal and social platform based on SharePoint and Yammer. Their presentation presents an excellent case study in how to build out an enterprise-wide social platform that both meets the requirements of the business and the expectations of the end users.

Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Nationwide has over 35,000 associates, and works in the financial services and banking industry -- an industry that is known for being heavily regulated. Despite the massive structural and regulatory overhead around every collaborative activity, Nationwide has been recognized as a leader in collaboration and social networking by CIO Magazine, NetworkWorld, Fortune Magazine, Forrester and others.

Nationwide adopted Yammer in 2008 at its launch, quickly recognizing the platform's fit to their collaborative requirements and cultural needs. Since that initial deployment, they have documented over 350,000 messages on the platform, with 30,000 registered members (almost all employees have signed up on their own rather than have it mandated), and a 50 percent contribution rate.

Their leadership recognized the value early on, and have become huge advocates for the platform. Chris commented that their CEO will often interact with people through the platform, which he says is yet another factor in their success, showcasing the importance of having executive buy-in.

Designing a Corporate Collaboration Platform

Chris and Jeff said that one of the primary questions people ask is how their employees use the platform, so they explained: people post ideas, share feedback on projects and other comments, connect with agents in the field, and talk about both business and personal topics, whatever they may be. 

They pointed out that over 400k connections now exist in their Yammer network that did not exist beforehand, and even their CEO can get a direct perspective on what is happening across the company through direct interaction rather than layers of filtered status reports.

Due to the nature of their industry and to the regulations that govern their business, Jeff talked about how Nationwide could have 20,000 to 30,000 lawsuits pending at any given time, making collaboration very difficult within the company, much less outside of the company. They needed to manage who could collaborate and what content was included. Usability was their number one concern for adoption.

As they researched solutions, they noted that experiences across tools were inconsistent, and search was not very effective. They were simply unable to find content and conversations across their many systems. Speed was also an issue -- speed of search, and overall UI performance.

They also recognized that they needed some structure, establishing a governance framework to set strategic direction, policy and priorities. Core teams were created to represent individuals and teams, an Executive governance team was created to align decisions with the business, and the Office of the CEO set overall governance direction and strategy.

As for requirements, end users wanted a simplified, consumer-like experience, a one-stop-shop for knowledge, search that worked, a friendly mobile experience and integration with Yammer, which had become an integral part of the Nationwide culture. As a Lotus Notes shop, they looked at a broad range of solution, but ultimately decided on SharePoint (with 90 percent of respondents requesting it).

Once the company launched their SharePoint portal, they ran a quick poll to ask their employees what to call it -- and received hundreds of responses. They finally decided on "Spot" and created a number of shirts and stickers and activities across the company to help spread the brand. People embraced the branding, which doesn't actually stand for anything -- but people often refer to it as "the one spot for my content."

Since launching the new portal, the company has developed a culture around SharePoint and Yammer (with Chris even dressing up from time to time in a blue bodysuit as their official mascot).

Making the Change

Underneath the marketing activities, what they did was create an environment where people wanted to go and collaborate. The platform was created by employees for employees, and has now become "the" platform for connecting employees around projects, innovation, ideas, personal and work.

According to Chris and Jeff, a year ago they had 1500 sites on their old platform, which included terabytes of data. They realized that they needed to retire more than half of the sites. As happens with poorly designed collaboration platforms, people started using the tools they were given, but often abandoned their sites. Content and sites quickly overlapped, duplicates were everywhere, and things were a mess.

As they started to plan their migration, they defined the project as requiring 2.5 resources and targeted to move several terabytes of data across 750 sites in 3 quarters. However, they ended up beating expectations, completing the project in just over 7 months, migrating the sites and content to SharePoint 2010.

They decided to start things out simply, focusing on a search box and the main activities people wanted: search, find people, get to key sites/content collaboration, and training and help files. They modified the out of the box SharePoint 2010 experience, building out a global navigation bar to simplify search. They also built out their mobile experience, which is launching soon, keeping it as a simple experience for the things that people need in the mobile experience -- find people, find documents and get quick help.

Through their training site, the Nationwide team started with a simple integration with Yammer so that people could share content, links, videos and other artifacts, helping the project team to deliver a strong self-service and peer-based support platform.

Part of what makes their system work is that developers, analysts and line of business owners are watching the feeds, reviewing the questions people ask and the queries they kick off. They can then respond directly, in real-time, around business questions, platform questions (is something down, is content missing), or questions about projects or content (quickly identify if there is missing content or expertise).

One immediate impact was a dramatic reduction in service requests to their help desk, as people are now more able to solve their own problems, or get quick help through Spot. And as a result of their great work on their training portal in particular, Nationwide was nominated for Training Magazine's Top 125 Award.

Planning for Future Collaboration Growth

But Nationwide knew they were not done. With the pending release of SharePoint 2013 and the rapidly expanding social networking space, they wanted to look at what the environment should look like in the future. They put together some off-site JAD (joint application design) or "Ideation" sessions to white board ideas about future vision of how Spot would change over time. A primary driver was the desire to move from push communications (traditional collaboration model) to a place where people wanted to go to get their work done, making it a much more productive experience.

Building on what they did for SharePoint 2010, the project team wanted to simplify search and global navigation even more so. Looking at the trends toward personalization and the consumerization of IT, they also decided to create an application marketplace using SharePoint 2013.

What they defined for their app marketplace was a catalog of personalized tools, supporting a "tablet-like" experience where developers could create apps to solve for specific business needs. As apps are built and deployed to an employee store, employees will be able to rate them, add them to their sites or pages, and provide feedback so that the development teams can expand the things that work well.

Some of the apps the Nationwide team built include:

  • An app called "Inside" that provides a link to their existing Intranet, so that people can bookmark places they were working and need to quickly access.
  • "Local Weather" that is a live tile, providing real time updates.
  • A Yammer app to quickly jump to the platform.
  • A "History & Archives" app so that employees can learn about the company history through gamification, ranking people against each other in the game based on their knowledge of the company.
  • A "Classifieds" app, built on Java with a Domino backend (because they use Lotus Notes), so that people can buy and sell items.
  • A "Conference Room Locator" app that helps employees schedule resources across all locations.
  • A "Nationwide News" app integrating both internal news plus external news that the end user can configure based on what they want to see.

Learning from Nationwide

A key takeaway from the session was that a robust, enterprise social solution can be achieved on the SharePoint 2010 platform, complemented by integration with the Yammer platform, however organizations looking for extending the personalization and functionality of their platform may consider moving directly to SharePoint 2013.

Regardless of the features that are prioritized, and whether 2010 or 2013 will best meet those needs, two factors drive Nationwide's continued success: executive sponsorship, and a focus on the end user experience. Both are essential ingredients to adoption and platform ROI, as demonstrated by the Nationwide Insurance example. 

Editor's Note: Christian will have more reports from the SharePoint 2012 conference, but in the mean time, check out his Driving Value with SharePoint Search