By Gloria Lombardi

CEMEX, the Mexican cement producer and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of building materials, is using an internal social network to connect its employees across 50 countries.

CEMEX launched its IBM Connections-based platform, SHIFT, in 2010. Since then the number of users has grown from 400 to comprise all their 43,000 employees. The number of communities soared from six to 2,400.

I talked to Global Innovation Team Director Miguel Angel Lozano Martinez (pictured right) about the company’s experience with enterprise social networking (ESN).

An edge through collaborative technology

SHIFT was born when CEMEX’s CEO Lorenzo Zambrano asked Lozano Martinez’s team to explore ESN and how it would work for the company.

At the height of the economic crisis, the building materials industry was going through rocky times. That’s when Zambrano understood that technology could give the company a competitive edge. He encouraged his employees to look at work in a different way, to break silos and to collaborate between operations and business units.

Lozano Martinez began testing different ESN technologies, including CISCO and Microsoft. He settled for IBM Connections. “This technology seemed more mature. It had the ability of offering integrated solutions. It went beyond wiki engines, blogs and document management.”

Lozano Martinez appreciates IBM Connections’ ability to learn from external social networks and to transfer that experience into the enterprise. “SHIFT has a YouTube-like engine that enables employees to upload videos. This is very important as some of them prefer sharing videos to writing blogs”.

Strategic communities

At the beginning of the project, CEMEX took care of linking its business strategy to that of SHIFT. This was, according to Lozano Martinez, the key factor behind the success of this ESN.

SHIFT is instrumental in supporting the company’s five strategic Global Initiatives. One of these, for example, is aimed at replacing the use of carbon with fossil fuel in its operations. CEMEX leads globally in this field and has won awards also thanks to the amount of collaboration made possible by its ESN.

SHIFT has also enabled research groups focused on concrete and insulation to develop three new global brands in just two years.

Work on SHIFT has been organised around the five Global Initiatives, which make up the core of CEMEX’s business strategy.

Each Initiative has been assigned an Executive Leader, a senior executive with sufficient political weight and global visibility, and an Initiative Leader with operational knowledge and hands-on experience. Lozano Martinez’s team has been giving them guidance on how to develop the network and helping them get employees on board and drive traffic. For example, in the case of the Alternative Fuels and Biomass Initiative, plant operators were invited to join the community, take part in initiatives and share best practice.

Lozano Martinez has also been encouraging employees to create spontaneous communities, which he calls Fertile Grounds. One of these was launched by a group in Germany that needed to share information on how to ship materials in a more efficient way. Colleagues from Latin America and the US joined in and created a vibrant knowledge-based community.

In Spain, a community that started at grass-root level ended up going viral. A group of electricians at a plant in the country wanted to collaborate and exchange ideas. They created a community on SHIFT that drew the attention of colleagues in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. They found the practice useful and decided to replicate the experience. Soon CEMEX electricians around the world decided to convert these communities at country level into a single global one. Another example is that of a laboratory in Switzerland that works on cements. They created a community on nanotechnology and their weekly blog has been attracting thousands of hits from all over the world.

Apart from communities, SHIFT offers employees other ways to access the company’s knowledge. CEMEXpedia is a wiki-based repository with more than 700 articles that employees consult and edit regularly.

The soft approach

 When it comes to adoption, Lozano Martinez prefers the soft approach. Instead of contacting colleagues and asking them for a meeting in which he would demonstrate how to use SHIFT, the Global Innovation Team Director always starts by asking them about their collaboration needs. “I want to understand what they do and what their challenges are”.

Non-work-related communities are also welcome. So when the employees who play in the company’s football team asked Lozano Martinez for a community to help them organise a tournament, he told them to go ahead. “SHIFT does not have to be only about business”.

Badges and Plus Cards

To promote adoption, the Global Innovation Team also uses a wide network of evangelists. “We are a small team of ten people, seven in Mexico and three in Switzerland. We can’t reach and on-board every single employee”. That’s why active users, key adopters and champions are encouraged to get involved, spread the word and become an extension of Lozano Martinez’s team.

CEMEX believes in rewarding employees for participating actively in the life of the platform. SHIFT has a system of badges that are generated automatically based on social analytics. “Before we introduced badges, we had to look at each single community and measure their level of engagement manually.”

Employees can also receive Plus Cards in the form of digital certificates awarded to them for participating in training sessions or projects. Plus Cards become part of their identity on SHIFT and are displayed on their profile page.

Thank You Notes from the CEO are handed out through the system as a form of personal recognition to employees that have generated exceptional value for the company.

“Awards are about being recognised at global level,” says Lozano Martinez. “SHIFT gives people the opportunity to showcase their experience to colleagues around the world, well beyond the local level at which they work”.

Working socially

CEMEX is currently working on a new version of the platform, SHIFT 3.0 that will be introduced in 2014. This will include new functionalities to help employees work socially on projects.

The company continues to be committed to ESN. As Lozano Martinez puts it, “we are in building materials and are therefore focused on manufacturing processes. But the difference between us and other construction companies is that we truly believe in technology”.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate