By Gloria Lombardi

Back in late 2008, Humana was relying on Microsoft SharePoint as their internal collaboration platform. They felt the need to find improved ways to communicate and share information between departments, as well as to break down the silos existing across the enterprise.

Jeff Ross (pictured right), Community Manager for Enterprise Social Media, shares the internal social media journey at Humana.

From Yammer to Socialcast

“We initially tested Yammer. The use of Yammer was experimental; it was nothing official or a strong roll out in any way. It started with just a couple of teams working together from the innovation side of the house. We wanted to experiment with the idea of enterprise social networking (ESN) in general, and see if there was something useful in it. We let it grow virally for about a year.”

Over that period of time it became obvious to the company that people were enjoying the platform. Around 3,000 employees – called Humana “associates” – were using it, and the Enterprise Innovation team decided to bring the idea of an employee social network forward.

While doing so, they also wanted to make sure that, of all the tools available in the market, they were implementing the right one for their organisation.

Ross stresses that “We knew that we needed a way to communicate more quickly internally across business areas to help reduce the duplication of effort that easily occurs when different departments pursue the same things such as purchasing competing products, undergoing the development of products, training, etc. We wanted a way to speed up that direct communication across business areas.”

“We were also looking at what was going on in the world outside of Humana, what was growing in popularity, trends that seemed to be growing technologically, and then see if there were some things that we could adopt internally.”

Other key considerations were:

1) Bringing it in house: Humana wanted something that could be brought in house in their own data centre. That was important especially to the IT leadership.

2) Feature set: they wanted to make sure they created an ESN with all the basic features expected from the tool.

3) Costs

Of all the social tools available, “Socialcast just seemed to be the best of all for us”, Ross says.

So the company contracted with Socialcast in late 2009, and ‘Buzz’ – the official Humana enterprise social network – was opened up to the enterprise in 2010.

Since the launch of Buzz, the platform has been highly successful. Today, nearly 30,000 Humana associates are active users. (Although the company employs a total of 50,000 staff, some of them come from the latest acquisitions and still do not have access to Buzz). Over 1,200 groups – both business and non-business related – have been created, and around 6,000-7,000 posts are generated each week.

When it comes to who ‘owns’ Buzz, Ross tells the story, quite fascinating, of many changes happening internally. The group that started it was called Enterprise Innovation in 2009, and it was an IT team and at that time Ross was on that team. However, in 2011 Humana created an Enterprise Social Media team within the Digital Marketing Group and Ross suggested moving from IT over to this new team to have all the social media – internal and external – in one team. Today, the Enterprise Social Media team resides in the Humana Digital area still closely tied to Marketing and remains responsible for internal and external social media for the company.


“We say that we have two official purposes for Buzz: the first one is to help us accomplish our business objectives, and the second one is to help us establish positive interpersonal relationships with others around areas of mutual interest.”

With regards to the first objective, Ross explains: “it is up to individuals, teams, and departments to determine how best to use Buzz to accomplish their own business purposes.”

Whereas, when it comes to developing positive relationships, “everybody of course has the opportunity on their own to establish those positive interpersonal relationships. We have 50,000 employees very widely distributed geographically, and very few previously got to know others across the enterprise unless they just happened to deal directly with them. So there was a huge opportunity to expand those relationships on Buzz.”

Building adoption & leadership

At the time when Buzz was rolled out in 2010, Humana’s CEO and President was Michael B. McCallister. He established a Buzz account and was supportive of the effort, but never really chose to be an active participant, says Ross.

The current CEO, Bruce D. Broussard – who joined the company in late 2011 as President and became Chief Executive at the beginning of 2013 – is a strong Buzz advocate.

“When he visits various offices, he takes photos, uploads those on the platform, and talks about those experiences. On Buzz he also discusses the vision of the company. And he is also very active in terms of conversing about physical fitness, which is important to our company since we are in the health industry. For example, when he is running, or biking, he uploads photos and shares his sports activities. Sometimes his conversations are business related, some are more personal, health-oriented kinds of encouragement.”

To give an example of the kind of support that Broussard gives the platform, Ross shares a story:

“In a meeting back in August 2013, someone raised the question about the cost of social media efforts. Our CEO’s immediate answer was: “Well, I do not know exactly what the cost might be, but I know that having nearly 50,000 people all on the same page and moving in the same direction together is quite important to me.”

Spreading the leadership buzz

The biggest impact that this different leadership approach to Buzz has made is on the use of the platform by others in leadership positions.

“From the beginning of Buzz we had a very strong adoption from associates in lower positions of the organisational chart, and an acceptable level of adoption (but not overwhelming) from middle-management. But we had a very little participation from senior leaders.”

With Broussard being so active on Buzz, other leaders have started to imitate him and be active participants.

Leaders now use Buzz as the Q&A format for leadership events such as town halls. For every quarterly leadership meeting, the President encourages the 7,000 leaders of the organisation to be involved in a Q&A on Buzz.

And now that Humana has a very active CEO and President, many other leaders frequently go out and ask specific questions to their people to get regular feed-back. “Also, several Vice Presidents and Segment Presidents now adopt that as a common way of interacting with their people throughout the year.”

Buzzing innovation

Buzz is also helping the company in terms of generating innovative ideas: “What we see frequently is the benefit that comes from individuals’ ideas. We have a group that we call ‘Humana Suggestion Box’, where anyone who has any ideas about improving a product, policy, process or whatever it might be, is encouraged to shares those ideas.”

Then, the admin puts all those ideas into the right hands in the appropriate business areas to follow up with. Not all those ideas can be acted on, but some are.“ It may be an internal process change, or something that has changed in the quarterly statements that go out to the millions of the people who Humana insures. We see that regularly transpiring through the suggestion box, and other good conversations that people share on Buzz.”

Buzzing in a highly strictly regulated business

In terms of regulation, for the particular type of services Humana provides clients, they do have some restrictions in terms of the kind of content that can be placed on Buzz.

“For example, we do not allow any kind of private health information and/or personal and financial information, of anybody who we insure. We do not allow any conversations on specific customer care issues. That kind of information is all private, and has to be discussed among the Humana people authorised to do that. They do so on different systems that exist specifically for housing that kind of documentation and conversation.”

Other than that, Ross explains that the company is very keen on encouraging practically any kind on conversation on Buzz, both business-oriented as well as personal subjects. “I do a breakdown of business versus non-business content regularly. We tend to have about 70% business related and 30% non-business related conversations going on.”

Ross stresses that being highly regulated internally, and the fact that they do prevent members’ health-oriented information from being placed on Buzz has never been an issue. “After all, not being on the cloud but behind the organisation’s firewall was one of the clear reasons that influenced our decision to go to Socialcast in 2009. Today, Socialcast is offering applications that allow you to be hosted in the cloud if you wish. However, we still have a strong buy-in for hosting our data behind the firewall.”

The importance of training

To encourage passive users to become active participants, Humana understands the importance of creating training opportunities regularly. These are primarily in the form of virtual education – because of the geographical distribution of the workforce – or in-person classroom setting sessions that tend to be established for specific business areas or departments.

To introduce people to Buzz and help them to start using it, the company provides demo videos and periodic training programmes. They also produce a ‘Welcome Letter’ with some basic intro, helpful information, links, and encouragements.

Starting in January 2014 the organisation will provide several different kinds of training for newcomers and experienced users so that so they can build up their skills in specific areas they are more interested in.

For associates who have just joined the company, they have created a specific group which is meant to welcome the new employees, invite them to ask any questions, and play around with the platform. “It is a very friendly environment that has been receiving a good response since it started.”

They also provide reverse mentoring primarily for leaders who want to get more involved, and are more unfamiliar with Buzz or social media in general.

Also planned for early 2014 are more consistent, planned efforts to encourage people to come back to Buzz if they have begun to lessen their participation over time. Ross will personally target specific communications to re-engage them individually with messaging that communicates something like: “Hi, we miss you…here are some of the things that are going on in Buzz…come back and take part in it”.


When it comes to demographics, in terms of age Ross claims that “we have people from all the generations that are participating on Buzz. Occasionally, if I hear a comment from someone saying ‘Oh, I just do not do the social thing’, it is a pretty safe bet that the comment is coming from on older associate rather than from a Millennial. But overall, the percentages of the population are pretty close. It is just a little less at the higher age range, but is not dramatically different.”

In terms of business areas, IT are using Buzz very faithfully to help with the internal support of applications and technologies. Also the HR department are a very strong supporter of the platform, making Buzz an important way of communicating with associates “conversationally rather just sending out emails”, stresses Ross. HR conversations are about employees benefits, well-being programmes, policy changes, etc. “Because we are a health insurance company, we have a lot of emphasis on programs, contests and initiatives around improving our health and well-being. So, conversations around those subjects are extremely popular.”

The role of the comms department on Buzz

 Asked about the role played by internal communication on the platform, Ross explains that at Humana “we have an Associate Communications department which sits within HR, and they are very good partners of Buzz.”

With any incoming internal campaigns, the communications department meets with Ross’s team to include those campaigns on Buzz as part of the overall communications strategy. The same happens for other communications areas of the business as well.

Interestingly, Ross says that even their corporate communication department which deals with external communications is still very tied in, and keen on Buzz. They help the conversation going both ways – internally and externally – so that associates know what is going on with everything Humana tells the public. And, “it is the same the other way round: our internal social media team devoted to Buzz is also very focused and proactive on external social media, for example with Humana’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. If we get some negative comments on those external channels, we sometimes post them on Buzz so that so our associates can see them and start a conversation about what we can do to improve in that part of the business to better serve the customer.”

The expectation of the social element in every communication

Buzz has transformed the way Humana associates communicate and use other communication channels. This is especially true with regards to email. “I knew it was going to have an impact on email by the summer 2012 when the communications teams started to come to me asking how they could use Buzz to get the word out about something.”

Buzz has changed a previously controlled, refined, top-down, email-based communication culture to one that is far more conversation oriented. “We still have the use of emails and some people are still using it in a top-down way. However, associates now expect to have the possibility of conversing on Buzz about any topics, controversial or not.”

Buzz has also proved to be very helpful for pulling out certain conversation streams and embedding them in other web-based products. “For example, we have over 150 SharePoint sites where we have embedded particular Buzz conversation streams appropriate for that SharePoint site. It proved to be useful for those SharePoint sites – which are primarily used for managing documents and lists – to have the social conversations of Buzz happening there.”

The future of Buzz

Looking ahead to the future, Humana aims to include on Buzz all the associates from other businesses that they acquire. “We have a pilot going on right now with a large acquisition. The pilot is with a small group. After the pilot, we will open up it to all of their associates. We want to do that so that eventually all the 50,000 people will have the ability to communicate directly with anyone on Buzz as they wish.”

The company is also getting ready to have mobile access. “Because of IT security concerns we have had some problems in this area. But now we have a pilot happening and we are closer to announcing it to the whole enterprise. We understand mobile is vital now and we want to make it available to everyone as soon as possible.”

Socialcast added on a feature earlier this year where employees can manage projects and tasks, and have social conversations to the task’s level. “In the future I would like to see that pick up a little bit more. Starting in January we will do training around it once a month.”

Finally, they will continue to encourage leaders to use Buzz as a primary way of communicating with their people, and being transparent.

Advice for others embarking on the internal social media journey

Based on his experience, Ross suggests six important points to consider:

1) Allow yourself plenty of time to establish a slow and steady approach. “A big corporate-wide launch, where everyone can join today or this week, would be chaotic. Instead, find small pockets of groups willing to adopt it initially, and continue to expand regularly from there.”

2) Start with awareness, acceptance and participation from the leaders – that will give you a significant jumpstart. “Before our current CEO came on board, without senior leader participation, many employees – especially other leaders – were hesitant. With the new CEO and subsequent leadership involvement, that is no longer the issue it once was.”

3) Do not be heavy handed when monitoring or be too concerned about people’s posts. “It is very rare that we have to remove posts. If that happens, it might be because they have violated some HR policy, or solicitation policy. But be more lenient than heavy-handed.”

4) Let people be creative “because they come up with useful ways of using Buzz that we might not have thought of.”

5) Have simple guidelines: “We have a formal social media policy for the company which covers both external and internal social media. But for Buzz we focus on the ‘Buzz Ten Commandments’ – a simple list of rules such us ‘respecting other people’ which is straightforward and easy to understand.”

6) It is vital to have a community manager devoted to it from the beginning. “Because there is so much education, adoption, reporting, advocacy, moderation, technical and non-technical issues going on, it deserves a full time community manager from the outset – someone who helps the enterprise gets the most out of it as quickly and consistently as possible.”

Challenge and reward of a community manager

The biggest challenge for Ross as the Community Manager of Buzz “is getting the nay-sayers to believe that there is value, rather than thinking of Buzz as just a place where people go to chat about insignificant things.” Over time, Ross decided “not to spend a lot of time with the nay-sayers. I think time is best spent working with those who do get it and are using it, helping them make their Buzz experience as valuable as possible.”

Finally, in terms of the best reward, Ross claims: “it is all the successes that I see happening every week around the locations where Humana resides. We have a hashtag called ‘BuzzSuccess’ that is one of the most frequently used hashtags in the whole community. When somebody presents a problem and it is resolved, asks a question and it is answered, or suggests an idea and it gets implemented, our users are great about tagging those threads with #BuzzSuccess. There are so many Buzz Successes out there. I do a search every week and pick one to include in the weekly summary about Buzz that I send to all users.

“All those successes I see, plus the relationships and connections that happen (and I know they would have never happened without Buzz), the positive impact on changing the way we do our business that affects not only how we are doing internally but also externally with our customers – those are the best rewards for me as the Community Manager of Buzz.”


This article originally appeared on simply-communicate