By Gloria Lombardi

“In the last 7 years we grew exponentially, becoming one of the world’s largest environmental organisations with offices in 36 countries. We had a real need to tie all our employees’ communications and activities together,” says Blake Iba, CONNECT Product Manager at The Nature Conservancy.

In March 2012, they rolled out their new social intranet called CONNECT. The SharePoint 2010-based solution integrates with the enterprise social network (ESN) Newsgator – recently rebranded Sitrion.

Today, around 4,000 employees use the platform to share information and collaborate together. Fifty percent of them log in on a daily basis to view organizational news, engage with a community of practice or collaborate on projects and documents.

Embracing social

“We didn’t know how much staff would embrace the social part of the new intranet. Previously, we just had a traditional portal for news, without room for two-way communications,” comments Rachel Roberts, Associate Director of Internal Communications.

To build interest and understanding around the concept of working socially, the organisation started educating staff months in advance before launching CONNECT.

The training program began with videos showing how the platform could help staff do their jobs better. This was followed by a CONNECT World Tour where members of the CONNECT team reached out to about 100 different groups (either offices or functions) to give a 30-minute presentation. They talked about the idea of using social media at work, introduced the concept of online communities, and explained how to collaborate together on shared documents.

They also created the CONNECT Genius Bar and showcased what CONNECT could do at several conferences throughout the year and in different locations. The Genius Bar mimicked the Apple store concept, with a “big bar style” with laptops where staff could interact with CONNECT and really play with the new tool.

This heavy focus on training has been present also after the official launch. “We continue doing web conferencing, weekly educational sessions, and also contests around learning to search on the platform,” stresses Roberts.

Building adoption…ask people what they need

Eighteen months after launching CONNECT, 40% of the staff were already using it. “Trying to understand what employees wanted from the platform before delivering it, was key in achieving this high level of engagement,” observes Iba.

For example, prior to designing the look and feel of the tool, the organisation did a series of focus groups. “One thing that stood out from the research was that people wanted to see the faces of their colleagues and have more information about them. Often, they were relating with peers from the other side of the world without an idea of what they looked like. Having the ability to put a face on a name would have had a huge impact on their working relationships.”

On that basis, a major training component was focused on getting 90% of the staff to have a completed profile on CONNECT. “The fact that people could go on the platform, and search for colleagues around the world based on interests, expertise, departments and job area has been invaluable in gathering enthusiasm on CONNECT. And, highly beneficial: for any particular business reason, they could now find a colleague with the right information in a matter of minutes,” says Iba.

Walking the talk through the Being Green community

CONNECT has been instrumental in engaging staff around organisational initiatives, including a sustainability initiative. The organisation wanted “to walk the talk” and “to be seen as a real model for being a green company,” says Rachel Roberts.

Roberts was involved in growing Being Green, one of the most popular communities on the portal. The group, which started off as a fun conversation from a few employees, has became a huge initiative across the whole organisation. “Being in the field of conservation, we wanted to focus on sustainability. We invited our staff to talk about what they could do to be greener both at work and in their personal lives.” Conversations cover energy, travel, pollution and the use of technologies to reduce the waste of resources such us paper.

Leadership’s support played an important role in making Being Green successful. “Our executive team liked the idea of this community and took it to the next level.”

Today, the organisation organises Being Green programs in parallel with the activities happening on CONNECT. “For example, we have developed Being Green meetings in the HQ in Colorado where we talk about implementing the learning,” Iba explains.

As a result, not only have they united the global staff around a major organisational value, but they have also saved a lot of concrete costs.

When communities go on fire

Roberts believes CONNECT has encouraged employees to learn and manage their jobs in a more effective way. As an example, Conservancy staff who work on fire management projects created a very specific group, called the Fire Learning Network, to learn from each other the newest techniques for minimising the chance of burns, and to share best practice examples and resources. They also invite outside partners to join the conversation and suggest useful and applicable ways for controlling fires.

“Everyone in this community says how much value the Fire Learning Network has provided to them.”

SharePoint 2013, the enabler of collaboration

Iba has come to think of CONNECT as the enabler of collaboration across The Nature Conservancy. This is partly is due to the social components added by Newsgator, which the Product Manager defines as “the plug-in laying on top of what SharePoint already has.”

Newsgator enhances the social features already existing on SharePoint such as feeds, comments, posts and profiles. “For example it boosts the quality of the search when looking for expertise around communities. But there is a lot more that the ESN does from behind the scenes, including putting an activity stream on any work space.”

When asked about the future, Iba’s answer is a confident: “SharePoint 2013 – which we should have by February 2015 — will help to make CONNECT an even more thriving go-to place for our employees.”

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate