Social engagement inside and out the enterprise is a hot topic in executive meetings and even boardrooms, but many companies still wonder where the payoff will come for them. IDC forecasts the market for social platforms, including software and solutions. to generate revenues of nearly $2 billion worldwide by 2014.

For one retailer, a social intranet has achieved a dramatic improvement in communication efficiency as well as staff productivity.

By fostering employee use and making certain communications more efficient, management at outdoor gear retailer Mountain Equipment Co-op finds that workers are engaged as never before and using a system that caught on and took off in a way the company never imagined.

MEC is based in Vancouver. The retail co-op started in 1971 selling climbing equipment and has since expanded to all kinds of adventure supplies. It now has more than 1,500 employees in 14 retail locations. In what was first seen as a way to centralize information for employees, MEC adopted a social intranet.

Intranets have traditionally struggled as hotbeds of social activity, so practicality comes first. MEC employees use a platform from ThoughtFarmer called Mondo for checking schedules, requesting time off and reordering items. But once employee needs and behavior were understood, it also became a home to popular forums and interest groups. Mondo, administrators say, was functional out of the box, but more success came with customization for MEC staff.

In the six-month period from October to March 2011, users created 9451 pages, made 7932 comments and attached 3198 documents. MEC is now experiencing average usage levels of 85 percent of employees logging in on a regular basis.

Customization is ongoing. “We’re constantly modifying it. Your information architecture can always be a little better. We try to figure out what people are using, what they aren’t using, and why there aren’t using it,” said Joey Dubuc, Mondo site administrator, Mountain Equipment Co-op.

In getting the system to take off, there were some challenges. Dubuc, who’s responsible for watching user behavior and steering functionality to the most productive uses at MEC as well as dealing with glitches, found an opportunity.

“People are used to the never-ending pile of email. So it’s a cultural shift to go to the site,” said Dubuc. “Once you get a department into using the site and they get the hang of it, it starts to go viral to an extent. It really takes one person to say, ‘I saw that on Mondo,’ and people get curious about this communication happening on the site instead of email,” he said.

A bit of sponsorship and prodding also helped the cause, Dubuc said. “The most important thing was support for Mondo from the top down. Getting senior management involved in the use of Mondo was important for engagement for the rest of the staff. Their online presence encouraged staff to get using the site,” said Dubuc.

Retailers employ people in stores who don’t spend most of their day on computers, so the architects wanted to encourage MEC’s staff to use the system in the course of their jobs. MEC made the system a requirement by moving processes, such as scheduling shifts and time off, filing human resources forms and reading company-wide announcements, to the intranet.

Beyond user interaction and communication preached in videos and forums, MEC makes use of Web-based forms in Mondo to replace archaic paper documents, which ease entry and speed requests to administrative approvers of employee activities.

The engagement is now spreading to individual employees in different cities. Employees can read each other’s profiles and comments in forums and interest groups, making them feel they know their peers, which fosters morale and collaboration. MEC is known for a distinctive culture built on environmental sustainability, co-operation and passion for the great outdoors. Mondo gives the employees a way to connect about their interests in climbing, hiking, camping and other activities.

Getting people to move away from email and other productivity applications to an intranet is not an easy task, and other tools will always be wanted and needed in the course of the working day. Where the intranet has succeeded clearly is in simplifying processes and having a natural way to group the common interests of MEC’s employees, Dubuc says. “Having one page where people can access many options for processes has really worked for our organization.”

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