Best Buy taps employee talent to create intranet

Retailer turns to its work force to build a dynamic, newsy intranet at low cost.

The site cost a fraction of what vendors quoted, but to executives, there is an even greater value: employees are interacting and getting involved like never before.

“The leadership at Best Buy created a culture that is honest and open, not hierarchical, so it is right for social media,” says Barry Johnson, director of employee news at Best Buy. “We focus on employees’ strengths; we focus on what they’re good at.”

Figuring that they already had the talent in-house, Johnson’s team posted an online help wanted ad and chose six U.S.-based retail employees from 100 respondents with skills to handle development and design.

Two are on the Geek Squad, the rest work in computer sales, and home theater installation departments. Some create Web sites as a hobby, others freelance but all consider the work fun.

“The millennial employees share a deep second-nature understanding of the Web, everything from the structure, navigation, usability and what’s hot and what’s not,” said Johnson. “And they have very strong technical skills.”

With the blessing of their field managers, the employees were flown out to corporate headquarters in Minneapolis.

Drowning in newsletters

The home page of Best Buy’s intranet, Employee News. Click for a larger image.

Best Buy Employee News was finished for an amount in the low six figures. It is smart; it reads employee login numbers and displays News for My Job, News for Everyone and News for My Location. Each section contains a list of headlines that reveal a summary when moused over. Users can subscribe to industry and competitor information and internal stories—even view them in Spanish.

“What’s in it for me” is spelled out for each audience. A story about a new partnership, for example, cites Three Things You Should Know About This Deal.

Prior to Best Buy Employee News, Johnson’s staff of 10 was saddled with a manual process that weighed the department down.

The Retail Insider newsletter was published three times per week. But any change, like a new sales strategy, kicked off another newsletter issue. To generate even one newsletter, content was created and finalized in Word, formatted using desktop publishing software and adapted as a PDF for online use. “We were drowning in versions and my staff was burning out,” said Johnson.

On top of the constant content demand, it took three separate systems to distribute via e-mail and reach corporate and stores.

“Our old-school approach to managing news could not keep up,” said Johnson. “We knew we couldn’t revise it or tweak it slightly, we had to blow it up and create an entirely new system.”

That system allows employees to choose the news—most subscribe to an average of five content categories on the site. Subscriptions offer freedom to learn about other aspects of the business. It also simplifies production and distribution for communicators.

Employees add comments after each story, which is proving to be the most powerful part of Best Buy Employee News. “Millennials are very open,” said Johnson. “And our philosophy is to encourage an honest, transparent exchange of views. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, as long as it doesn’t violate our guidelines.”

Violating the guidelines includes: using objectionable language; demonstrating a disrespect of an employee, employee group or customer; or threatening violence. “[My team doesn’t] filter comments,” said Johnson. “We include a Flag as Offensive button, but we don’t prescreen comments.”

Employees have on occasion noted comments they feel are inappropriate or don’t reflect Best Buy values. Employees may flag a comment as offensive, which alerts the employee news team, but they must provide a rationale. In turn, the team will discuss its point-of-view: offensive material is deleted but sensitive comments are not.

Johnson’s team listens to comments on the news site and other social media tools, namely the ‘Watercooler,’ Best Buy’s “message board on steroids” used for business conversation, and Blue Shirt Nation, a site that evolved around hobbies and interests. When the talk turns to ideas about how to alter a process or requests for clarity, the team takes it to executives.

Some comments give management a heads-up. When a new product was put out on store shelves, retail employees used Best Buy Employee News and the Watercooler to share their experience: customers didn’t like the product. Corporate merchants took note and decided to pull the product off the shelves.

“Historically, executives would have made the decision,” said Johnson. “But store employees made that call.”

Johnson’s team reached out to a number of employees to handle site refinements since the launch of Best Buy Employee News. It’s an ongoing practice.

“The real value to [Best Buy] is how this site has engaged employees,” says Johnson. “It validates that they have a voice, are being heard and that [their] voice has actually driven business decisions.”

Can your employees beef up your intranet?

Barry Johnson, director of employee news at Best Buy, offers these suggestions:

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