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Virgin Media turns to social tools for its enterprise

U.K. telecom provider Virgin Media is reducing travel time, increasing team work and decreasing email dependence by deploying social enterprise collaboration tools.

Executives at Virgin Media, which provides Internet, television, and mobile and fixed phone services in the U.K., had been looking for a way to help employees reduce the time they spend on the road so they can spend more time at work or at home with their families. They also wanted to encourage employees to engage more with their colleagues, while cutting down on the barrage of email flooding in many inboxes.

Colin Miles, head of technical services at Virgin Media, said social collaboration tools would be the best way to take care of these issues.

"It's not just centered around the cost of travel, but the amount of time people spend traveling," Miles said. Employees are often working on trains or using hands-free devices while driving their cars, he added. "They're not as free as doing the work at their desks. We wanted more of a choice in how people conduct themselves. The introduction of these tools enabled people to spend more time at their base location. It was positive for the organization, but they were more productive and spent more time dealing with what's important."

About eight or nine months ago, Virgin Media, which has about 20,000 employees around the U.K., began a pilot test with 1,000 workers of Cisco Quad and WebEx. Cisco has been a longtime player in the enterprise social collaboration market. Its Quad is an enterprise Web-based collaboration platform designed to pull together Facebook-like update posts, instant messaging, document sharing, video communication, microblogging and communities. WebEx is a suite of collaboration-focused applications.

Since the pilot went well, Virgin Media is rolling out the tools to another 4,000 workers, which would bring the number of employees using the enterprise social tools to 5,000, a quarter of the staff.

Miles said he'd like to see Cisco Quad and WebEx rolled out to all 20,000 employees sometime in 2013, but there's no specific plan for a full deployment.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said he's not surprised that Virgin Media is turning to social collaboration tools to better their business. Enterprises are increasingly heading in this social direction, he said.

"Social networking can streamline communications as they enable workers to deliver messages and content to people in common communities," he added. "Instead of posting status messages about where you're shopping, you'll post messages about what you are working on. Instead of posting pictures, you'll post documents." Kerravala also said it's only a matter of time before social tools replace corporate email.

The social tools are being rolled out as part of a program Virgin Media dubbed the Flexible Working Initiative, with the goal of helping employees work together from offices or from their homes by using tools like instant messaging, video calls and shared documents.

Miles said it was key that workers be able to easily use the social tools regardless of whether they're using their laptops, tablets or smartphones. The ability for people to have the same experience with the software, no matter what device they're using, is one of the main reasons Virgin Media chose Cisco. He wouldn't go into the costs to deploy the Cisco tools.

Miles noted that Virgin Media considered using enterprise collaboration tools from other vendors in that sector, including Jive and Microsoft. The company picked Cisco because the networking company provided a consistent experience regardless of what device was used. The company also liked the fact that Cisco's products enabled it to access various tools, such as voice and video calls, from the same place, instead of needing to install different tools to get the same feature set.

"A social business tool like Quad gives you more flexibility in terms of business flow," Miles said. "People can get information that is pertinent to them. They can get in in the morning, open Quad and then go see exactly what is pertinent to them."

And that, he added, should help them decrease employees' use of email, which floods users' inboxes and is prone to seemingly endless strings that quickly lose their benefit in their sheer volume.

"We definitely need to do something to break the email growth cycle," Miles said. "Email is an equal measure productivity hindrance and productivity enabler. We are at a cusp ... A social business tool is a game changer in how people receive information."

Rather than trying to stay updated on projects via email, Miles explained that Quad users can join various communities that are devoted to specific jobs, projects and company needs. They can check into their communities and see what's been posted and what documents are being worked on -- all in one place.

However, while there have been many benefits, it hasn't always been easy to convince everyone that using a social tool is a good idea.

"We found that people were naturally wanting to get all over [the new tool] because it's got the word 'social' within it," Miles said. "They wanted to start communities and start collaborating ... Others were turned off by the word 'social'. We concentrated on making people understand the value of these tools. One size doesn't fit all. We had to create and design a different set of training tools."

To make new users comfortable, Virgin Media used training videos and set up self-help communities within the new tools so users could pose and answer each other's questions. It also scoped out which employees were the bigger social networking users -- with memberships in Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn -- and asked some of them to be evangelists for the enterprise social tools.

"With the use of evangelists and trainers, we found a groundswell of engagement," Miles said. "We're starting to see a higher level of agility in the organization ... People are able to make decisions quicker ... They're more apt to look to work together."

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