Safeway builds connections with new intranet tools

With tools in the vein of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yahoo Answers, the grocery store chain is connecting and rewarding employees.

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Safeway, the second-largest supermarket chain in the United States, is slowly rolling out tools through its intranet that incorporate aspects of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Yahoo Answers.

But don’t call it social media, cautions Dan Pryor, vice president of corporate communications.

“There are a lot of people that panic when they hear, ‘social media,'” he says. “We’re really trying to push it more as a collaborative tool that allows people to share best practices, gather corporate knowledge and reward them for helping others.”

For now, those tools are available in what Pryor calls Safeway’s “backstage environments,” offices and store areas where employees are often on computers. Through their managers, employees who work behind the deli counter or at a register will probably have opportunities to answer co-worker questions soon, he says.

The goal, says Pryor, is to get Safeway’s people to share knowledge among departments and across states. “There’s a whole bunch of knowledge out there that employees have traditionally held on to,” he says.

New tools

Safeway usually does what Pryor calls “a refresh” of its intranet every year or two, to make sure the functionality matches the message. In the latest refresh, Safeway’s communications team looked at tools such as Jive and Chatter, but it wasn’t satisfied with the connections among employees that those platforms facilitated.

“What we found was they all did certain things OK, but they didn’t really combine everything that we wanted to do,” Pryor says.

So Safeway partnered with Intridea to add social-media-style tools to the intranet. The video component, which uses Qumu software, has been part of the intranet for some time, he says, but the other tools came as a package from Intridea. Safeway has been rather “careful and slow” rolling out those features, which are internally called Safeway Connections, Pryor says.

“Our primary objective with it is to try to make business connections and personal connections with people,” he says. “People will be far more engaged with the company if they can connect with people they need to from a work standpoint and a personal standpoint.”

The idea, he says, is that if employees can talk about their shared love of sailing through personal updates on the intranet or organize pickup basketball games after the shift ends, they’ll become friends outside of work. With friends in the workplace, employees will be less likely to pick up stakes and leave.

The gaming component

A prominent part of Safeway’s new connection platform is an Answers function, not too different from Yahoo Answers or Quora. One of the big challenges for Safeway is getting employees excited about using tools like the answers feature to share knowledge, Pryor says. So the company’s planning to add what he calls a “gaming component.”

“If you answer somebody’s question that’s put up there, you’re going to get what we’re calling today karma points,” he says. Employees can get points for other contributions, too, such as adding to a discussion board.

Eventually, Pryor says, those points will turn into real rewards, such as gift cards, free coffee or lunch with an executive. “We’re still kind of working through how we would do that,” he says.

Pryor says a leaderboard with the top karma points earners will soon be prominent on the intranet homepage, as a way to recognize employees who help the most, but also to identify on-staff experts whom executives can tap for ideas.

Retail riddles

Safeway is a highly unionized company, Pryor says, so communicators have avoided a mobile intranet or encouraging employees to log on at home, to keep the home/work divide clear.

“We do have kiosk computers with which any employee can go in and get on the intranet,” he says. “It’s also the way they get their pay stubs.”

Still, Pryor points out, the No. 1 way employees on the store floor get their information is through their direct supervisors. Frequent use of the kiosk computers—and by extension the collaborative tools on the intranet—isn’t really encouraged.

“We haven’t pushed it out to retail yet, and if we do, it’ll probably be very limited,” he says. “We don’t actually want those people on computers.”

Pryor says, though, that it doesn’t mean a bakery employee with a ton of experience won’t get the chance to answer a question perfectly suited to him or her. The store culture may soon get to the point where managers will identify employees best suited to answer questions posted to the intranet, and ask them to do so, he says.

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