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Achieving 'water-cooler moments' on a world scale.

Achieving 'water-cooler moments' on a world scale

Many people who work in medium-size or large organizations have examples of a 'water-cooler moment' - the time when a problem they have been working on for some time is suddenly resolved by a chance conversation over the drink dispenser with a fellow employee.

The water cooler is a great place for bringing together people from different departments, specialisms and levels in the hierarchy for a brief chat - often about the weather or the performance of a favourite football team, but sometimes about a particularly sticky project or other business difficulty.

When a company has around 100,000 employees in more than 170 countries, the water-cooler moment is difficult to replicate. But telecommunication giant BT believes it has the answer.

In the August 2010 issue of Computer Weekly, Goodwin describes how the firm is giving all its employees the chance to create a Facebook-like profile page to make it easier for them to see what their colleagues are doing and so help in finding the right expert for a particular project or problem.

BT does not intend to force its employees to take part; instead, it plans let them discover for themselves how good the latest social-networking technology can be, and so want to use it for themselves. Says the company: 'Harnessing and exploiting intellectual capital has long proved a challenge for enterprises, but the key difference in Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 technologies is that knowledge sharing and collaboration are driven by users. Blogs, wikis and tagging enable the enterprise to use knowledge that was always there but never previously captured.'

The company accepts that the precise return-on-investment of social networking can be difficult to calculate, but points out that it would be just as difficult to assess the benefits of more conventional office tools like e-mail and the telephone.

One obvious advantage of social networking in a multinational corporation is that it facilitates the daily transfer of work from employees in one time zone to colleagues in another. In this way, the flow of work can be allowed to 'follow the sun' and so speed product development or task completion. Following the sun can also help a company to provide round-the-clock services and client support.

Carmel et al. examine the advantages and potential drawbacks of 'follow the sun' working, in Volume 27, Issue 1 of the Journal of Management Information Systems, concentrating in particular on the efficiency of the hand-over process. The smoother this is, and the less time it takes, the more 'normal' follow-the-sun operations can be and the greater the potential benefits that can be achieved.

Cisco is among the major corporations to be adopting the follow-the-sun model, in particular through its $1 billion investment in India and appointment of a chief globalization officer. Most of the company's main business functions - including sales, finance, human resources, marketing, engineering and customer support - are now represented in India, where the firm has some 6,500 employees (of a total 68,000 headcount) and a global development centre in Bangalore that is the largest outside the USA.

In today's 24/7 global economy, social networking and 'follow the sun' are clearly ideas whose time has come.