The growth of an enterprise social network at BASF


An industrial company with approximately 110,000 employees and an almost 150-year history hardly sounds like a social media pioneer – yet many BASF characteristics are a strong fit for Web 2.0. These include employees who embrace innovative technologies to the existence of large Verbund sites whose individual production plants are interlinked through a complex network.

BASF started work on a corporate online business platform as early as 2008. Five years later, over 35,000 employees are using connect.BASF to build up their internal network, share knowledge and collaborate more efficiently across units.

For an online business network to create true value for an organization, there are multiple steps that need to be taken. This was our road to a successful enterprise social network:

Forming the best team

Any social media strategy in a company should always tie in with the corporate strategy. Hence, BASF’s strategy was the starting point from which connect.BASF developed. One BASF strategic principle is: “We form the best team”. To fulfill that claim, excellent individual players are not enough. It takes employee networking across organizational units coupled with intensive information sharing and efficient collaboration. This is what BASF needs to be in order to be more flexible, fast and innovative so as to outperform rivals in tough markets.

Social media not only offers new opportunities in terms of external communication but can advance virtual networking and employee collaboration inside the organization, too. Internal blogs, forums, wikis and expert profiles made their first appearance at BASF in 2006. With no coherent underlying concept, they were isolated applications with limited capacity to add value. What was missing was a corporate network bringing together BASF employees all over the world as one community.

Establishing a corporate network

An online business network (connect.BASF) was to be established as a new business platform for BASF employees across the globe. Three specific goals were involved:

1. Active utilization: Providing a technical platform was not the only objective. The real goal was to get employees all over the world actively using connect.BASF to build their network, share knowledge and collaborate.

2. One network: The idea was to establish connect.BASF as the corporate network. This involved integrating at least two-thirds of the existing isolated applications into the new corporate network.

3. Value creation: Another aim was to develop – in collaboration with users – best practice examples that would demonstrate connect.BASF’s potential to enhance efficiency and hence create value for the company.

Tackling challenges

Setting up a corporate network is challenging enough technically, an even greater challenge is encouraging employees to actively use the platform. Many are not used to sharing their knowledge in an open network or collaborating with colleagues in a community – rather than via email.

While introducing employees to connect.BASF, we were met with some skepticism here and there at first. Many associated social media with being a purely leisure time activity. Older employees tended to be more skeptical toward social media than their digital native counterparts. And of course, there are always organizational, language and cultural barriers to overcome, before a global community can develop within the network.

From the point of view of organizational development, one very exciting aspect of introducing social media channels is that they can be rule-changers. Every user on the interactive platform can create and publish content. This can be a barrier at first for employees with a limited digital skill-set or those who are unsure about the type of content they should publish. Managers fear losing ownership of internal opinion markets. Corporate communication staff wonders whether they will still be able to meet their traditional role as gatekeepers.

The success of connect.BASF depended on providing guidance and support both to staff and managers and getting them to appreciate the benefits of the new online business platform.

4. Involving all stakeholders

What is the best way to go about launching corporate social media – top-down or bottom-up? A combination of the two approaches was the way to go at BASF.

The basic idea of connect.BASF – to identify expert communities in the company via an IT platform and support them in their work – was developed by employees in an internal think tank. A member of the Board of Executive Directors of BASF agreed very early on to be project sponsor.

An interdisciplinary project team was responsible for concept development, with an internal marketing and sales initiative taking the lead – in that way ensuring business proximity from the word go. Communication and innovation management were represented on the team too, joined later by various IT disciplines, as well as HR, research and innovation communication.

The team conducted a stakeholder analysis seeking the involvement of all key stakeholder groups at an early stage. Works Council was approached in the very first phase of the project, for instance.

The owners of existing isolated applications were invited to contribute to the concept for the new network as members of an extended team. This had two advantages: Firstly, we learned a lot from their experience. Secondly, they had the opportunity to input their requirements for the new platform right from the beginning and as a result were more inclined to move from their isolated application to the corporate network.

5. The right mix of participants is crucial

“Skip the pilot” is a common piece of advice for Enterprise 2.0, i.e. the use of social media in companies for business purposes. We did not skip the pilot, and that was the right decision to make.

With a maximum of 1,000 members, it is just not possible to simulate all of the interactions that would be possible in a corporate network. Nonetheless, a pilot does the job of demonstrating how virtual networking, knowledge sharing and collaboration work. This enabled us to convince senior management, the Works Council and other stakeholders of the connect.BASF idea.

There were many fans of external social networks among the pilot users. They took naturally to networking and cross-unit knowledge-sharing and helped us to establish an open and constructive tone and atmosphere in connect.BASF.

We also picked out expert communities to participate in the pilot. They were able to call on the advice of project team members and proceeded to use the network to share professional information. That way the platform soon filled with interesting content, in turn increasing the appeal for further users.

6. Choosing the right IT platform

One very valuable item of feedback we got from the expert communities was that the platform should offer enhanced options for online collaboration. We were able to meet this requirement when a new version of the software IBM Connections became available in time for the global launch of connect.BASF.

The broad spectrum of performance features is one of the secrets behind connect.BASF’s success today:

  • Users get started via a profile, i.e., a virtual business card showing their working area, experience and expertise.
  • Users can network with colleagues via the contacts in their profile – similar to Facebook friends, LinkedIn or XING contacts.
  • Users can report their status to tell their network what they are working on at the moment. This feature is often used to pose “questions to everyone”.
  • A search feature allows users to find expert profiles and other content worth knowing. As with Wikipedia, the search feature is used for navigation, too.
  • Keywords – called tags – can be issued for all entries in connect.BASF. Tags help employees to find their way around the network and help pinpoint searches.
  • Like-minded people can team up in communities. Depending on the content and purpose, communities may be mainly for dialogue, networking, knowledge-sharing or project work.
  • Blogs are a key communication tool in connect.BASF. Experts use blogs to pass on knowledge, managers use them to talk to employees, and project teams use them as newsletters.
  • Employees use discussion forums for mutual support, for instance when seeking solutions to problems. One big advantage is that all the useful responses are on record here and can be retrieved by other users.
  • Anyone who finds an internet or intranet website that might interest colleagues can bookmark it.
  • connect.BASF has a feature allowing files to be shared with others and released for editing – an alternative to closed team rooms or email exchanges.
  • Wikis are ideal for assembling collective knowledge, thereby producing online encyclopedias on all sorts of specialist subjects. Project teams also use wikis to document their work.

7. Developing an effective launch campaign

“If we build it, they will come.” That thought has been behind many technology-centered social media projects in the past. We know that providing a good technology platform is not enough to build up a network that people will want to use. A fixation on IT would have been downright counterproductive, that’s why we opted not to mention technology at all during the global launch of connect.BASF in May 2010. Instead, we emphasized the business character, the practical benefits for employees and the unique proposition of being the one and only corporate communication network.

For communicating the launch, the aims of connect.BASF were translated into specific value propositions and user benefits. “Build up a network” was translated into “Now it’s going to be easier to find experts on any subject.” Key visuals were chosen to illustrate that the network is about people, not technology. Networks of BASF employees of various nationalities, professions, levels and generations were assembled and photographed for these visuals.

Our sponsor on the Board of Executive Directors also took part in the photo shoot. Two weeks before launch communication began he distributed a personal letter to the senior management asking them to support connect.BASF. All staff members were then invited to join the network in a two-part mail campaign. It started with a mysterious teaser whose secret was then revealed a week later. We were keen to secure acceptance for connect.BASF throughout the world. This prompted us to depart from our usual rollout pattern, i.e. starting at headquarters and then spreading out to the regions. The first mails were sent in North and South America followed by Asia Pacific, Europe, with headquarters coming last. This was a powerful signal underlining the network’s global character – a message supported by the content of connect.BASF, which is mainly in English.

The mail campaign was flanked by central information pages on the corporate intranet, teaser boxes on regional intranet start pages and announcements in internal online and print newsletters (global and regional). Storytelling was employed, too. Flash animations were available on the intranet showing staff struggling with a task that they were then able to solve much more effectively with the aid of connect.BASF. Again, a global approach was adopted. Building up a network was illustrated with a story from North America; the e-story on knowledge sharing was based in Ludwigshafen, and online collaboration was demonstrated using an Asian example.

The launch communication efforts increased the number of employees registered with connect.BASF from 1,000 to 8,000 in just six weeks. Growth was apparent everywhere, with North America taking the lead. Positioning as the corporate network was a proven success.

8. Creating online and offline support

Using connect.BASF is voluntary. Rather than making its use compulsory, we rely on the pulling power of interesting content and employees who are role models. The member of the Board of Executive Directors responsible at the time for North America not only personally invited all employees in his region to use connect.BASF but switched his own video blog from the intranet to connect.BASF. His move also helped position connect.BASF as a platform for communicating with staff.

Our plan was to make things as easy as possible for people wanting to get started. We offered web-based training in a variety of languages during the introductory phase. Employees had the chance to get to know connect.BASF offline as well. We still host learning events in Ludwigshafen, which are booked out for months in advance. It is always a very special feeling to see staff investing two and a half hours after work to find out more about connect.BASF.

9. Not taking sustainable growth for granted

Development and the global launch of connect.BASF closed officially end of June 2010. The network has gone viral since then. A user survey carried out in December 2010 indicated that 36 percent of registered users heard about the network from a friend. The value proposition has been taken on board too, with more than 80 percent saying they associate connect.BASF with the three aims of building up a network, sharing knowledge and collaborating with others.

To understand how utilization will progress, we looked at the Technology Adoption Lifecycle and its further development by Geoffrey A. Moore (“Crossing the Chasm”). These models describe the way new technologies are adopted successively by various stakeholder groups with diverging needs. The models are suitable for making predictions about connect.BASF, even though IT is not the dominant element in our network.

According to the models, the first users are innovators who are interested in new developments for their own sake. Many of these technology fans were among our pilot users. Then the early adopters come on board. These visionaries instinctively recognize the potential of the new technology and join up provided the platform is fairly user-friendly. The next group to adopt the new technology is the early majority. These pragmatists are totally uninterested in performance features. The main thing that interests them is: Does it make the job I have to do faster, better or easier? If the answer is a definite yes and there are examples to prove it, this group will be won over. Their example is subsequently followed by the late majority (termed “conservatives”). The very last to be convinced are the skeptics.

To make a new network like connect.BASF a sustainable success, it is necessary to convince the early majority and convert them to active users. A small community management team was set up for that purpose after the development and rollout project were completed.

10. Practicing active community management

The responsibilities for supporting connect.BASF are clearly mapped out. The technical platform is supported by BASF’s Information Services & Supply Chain Management. Internal marketing, user advice and development of best practice guidelines are the job of a global Community Management Team under the aegis of Corporate Communications. There are two Ludwigshafen-based Enterprise Community Managers in charge of global coordination and European user support. They are assisted by regional community managers, one for North America, one for South America and one for Asia-Pacific.

The community managers promote the active utilization of connect.BASF in many ways:

  • We run demos (e.g. at department meetings) showing the benefits connect.BASF has to offer.
  • We go on the road to large sites and subsidiaries.
  • We help business units, project teams, expert communities and senior management to meet their business needs using connect.BASF. If connect.BASF is intended to help achieve more complex goals, we provide advice and support for several months at a time.
  • In collaboration with the users concerned, we develop best practice guidelines based on successful examples of using the network.
  • We set a good example in the network itself by openly making knowledge available and showing virtual collaboration in action. By doing so, we provide hands-on examples of bridging organizational silos, self-organization and the principle of give and take.
  • We provide guidance to users and help them to help themselves, for example by networking employees who have similar concerns.
  • We identify highly active users and encourage them to promote the use of connect.BASF in their organization as advocates.
  • To promote information-sharing and dialogue, we organize regular live events for advocates, other active users and senior management.
  • We evaluate the degree of utilization of connect.BASF by methods including continuous monitoring and regular user surveys. This enables goal-directed further development of communication, community management and the platform itself.

A wealth of online communities

As of April 2013, more than 35,000 employees are registered connect.BASF users. ?65 percent are also community members which is a good sign of active utilization. connect.BASF is a success in every world region, with Asia Pacific and North America leading the way. Growth is somewhat more sluggish in Europe but by hosting our connect.BASF roadshow at larger sites we address this and help build knowledge and understanding of the site for European employees. More than 3,700 communities are usefully characterized by a typology developed by my colleague Dr. CheeChin Liew on the Community Management Team.

I.Expert networks and professional groups (Communities of Expertise)

Communities of Expertise are set up by employees to serve the organization. Communities of this kind exist in a variety of areas, including controlling, communication and project management. Knowledge sharing is the main focus. Members provide mutual support in solving problems. Membership in this kind of community may be equated with a certain degree of recognition as an expert.

Marketing and sales employees from all over the world make up one of the largest expert communities. They use this forum for things like discussing new trends in customer relations management and recommending interesting seminars and literature in their field and in doing so benefit from the new perspectives brought to the discussion by colleagues from other parts of the world.

II. Social networking groups (Communities of Interest)

These communities are set up by employees wishing to network with like-minded people. Examples include a network of people on transfers in Ludwigshafen from other countries and alumni groups from various universities or training institutes. The shared interests create an atmosphere of trust between employees. The bond thus forged strengthens their sense of identity with the company and hence promotes constructive collaboration.

This group includes the “Origami Cranes for Hope” community, which was set up by communicators from BASF in Asia Pacific after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. BASF employees from all over the world were able to publish news and good wishes for their Japanese colleagues here. This community grew very rapidly to number several hundred members and certainly contributed to the success of the employee donation campaign for Japan.

III. Corporate initiatives and corporate units (Communities of Engagement)

These communities are founded by the organization itself to facilitate dialog with employees. Those responsible for corporate strategic initiatives use these forums to talk to interested employees. Service units present their offerings and receive feedback from their internal customers. Managers invite their divisional employees to articulate their views, and use the community structure as a means of making corporate decisions transparent.

A very large number of corporate change initiatives and strategic projects now have their own communities in connect.BASF. Team members often use such communities to talk about their work in a very personal way, which makes it easier for employees to understand the thinking involved. At the same time, the feedback gives the project teams a strong sense of the mood inside the organization.

IV. Workgroups and project teams (Communities of Practice)

These communities are set up by organizational units to serve the organization. The main thrust is collaboration. To ensure that specific business goals are achievable, connect.BASF activities need to be integrated in the most effective possible way in business processes.

One such Community of Practice was set up by a team whose task was to evaluate various external service providers and select the most suitable one for a novel service. The members of this team were from four continents. To maximize the efficiency of collaboration, the people concerned agreed on the following rules for virtual collaboration: A teleconference took place once a month. All other communication took place in a community, which as a result became the hub of collective project work. The two project managers recorded progress in a project blog, questions were discussed in the forum, and working documents were uploaded in file format.

The project documented itself virtually automatically as it progressed. All team members were able to keep track of the latest status at all times and found all of the information they needed in one location. Open information exchange ultimately cut the crucial project stage – evaluation – by 25 percent.

Direct, authentic and interactive communication

As the Communities of Engagement show, connect.BASF serves as a communication platform as well as a working tool. However, it is not just yet another channel for conveying corporate messages to employees. It is about dialog and ensuring that many voices within the organization are heard.

Several hundred employees now have their own blogs. Board members and other managers use their blogs to pen their thoughts on important issues and ask employees what they think. The comments can give rise to lively discussions with the blog authors commenting in turn on the comments.

connect.BASF facilitates Internal Communication 2.0 which is direct, authentic and welcomes participation from employees. The medium-term impact for internal communicators is a decline in their relevance as gatekeepers of content. At the same time, they are increasingly in demand as enablers who help managers and employees to acquire expertise in using interactive media. This approach has won BASF multiple awards already, including the International German PR Award 2011.

On the way to Organization 2.0

Just three years after corporate launch, we have accumulated a wealth of experience in the use of connect.BASF to add value for the organization. That experience has formed the basis of a new phase in the maturation of Enterprise 2.0, which is professionalization. This phase involved technical optimization of the platform. Polls can now be used to ask employees for their opinion on different topics, ideation blogs are used to present new ideas to the internal audience who in turn can vote on the idea they like best. Another function called “activities” allows employees to organize a project completely within connect.BASF. The different workflows of a project can be documented in the activities function and each can be assigned with a deadline to the responsible colleague. We also continue driving the value-adding business utilization of connect.BASF on the basis of identified best practices.

For the next phase, Enterprise 2.0 maturity models propose more extensive integration in business processes. The platform needs to adapt dynamically to user needs for that purpose. To realize the potential for efficient information-sharing and collaboration, the voluntary network will most likely become a tool critical to business. Partial opening, for example to external development partners, has been evaluated. This would enable open innovation processes.

The end of the maturation process might see the birth of an Organization 2.0 in which open information-sharing and global, transparent collaboration are quite natural. In that manner, social media can contribute to the further development of corporate culture toward a self-organized network. This power can unfold in particular if social media tie in with overall strategy. This is the case at BASF, as shown in the corporate values articulated in BASF’s “We create chemistry” strategy in late 2011. Creative, open, responsible and entrepreneurial: these properties are not just the perfect match for connect.BASF, but employees can actually experience them in action there. In that manner, the online network helps us to put our corporate values into practice.

This article originally ran as a contribution to the book, “Social Media in der Internen Kommunikation” (Social Media in Internal Communications), edited by Lars Dörfel and Theresa Schulz. (Krooß, C. (2012). connect.BASF – an online network for the best team. In Dörfel L. & Schulz T. (Eds), Social Media in Internal Communications (pp. 283-296). Ort: Berlin, scm c/o prismus GmbH).

The piece has been edited and adapted by simply-communicate.

About Cordelia Krooß

Until early 2013, Cordelia Krooß worked as Senior Enterprise Community Manager at BASF. She has been one of the driving forces behind the internal online business network connect.BASF since 2008.

In this role, her responsibilities included community management, user advice, developing value-adding best practices, and global coordination. Her previous job experience includes working in employee communication, social media, online communication and media relations at BASF in Ludwigshafen and Hong Kong. She was recently promoted to Senior Expert Process Change Management at BASF.

(Photos courtesy of BASF.)