Best Buy’s “Mix”: Enterprise Microsharing Goes Big


IBM’s got BlueTwit. Oracle‘s testingOraTweets. SAP‘s experimentsinclude ESME, SAP Talk (,ShoutIt and apparently others.Yammer has an ad-hoc base at thousands of companies. But so far, no large corporation has rolled out microsharing company-wide.

Enter Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt, Best Buy‘s Senior Managers for Social Technology, and better known as the guys who built Blue Shirt Nation.Drupal-based Blue Shirt Nation went on to become the prime internal enterprise 2.0 case study in Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff‘s Groundswell. Now they’re about to launch Mix, an enterprise microsharing application to better network, problem-solve and share ideas among Best Buy’s 160,000 employees. Around 24,000 employees are already active on Blue Shirt Nation, so the conditions are ripe for Mix to become widespread.

Gary and Steve took time recently to tell me more about Mix, HeadMix (the application it’s built with) and their plans for a “mobile Blue Shirt Nation.”

Until a few weeks ago, there weren’t many publicly announced applications that could do something like this. When did you start looking for a provider to build an internal “Twitter” forBest Buy?
We started talking to Headmix in March or April of 2008.

You’d personally just started on Twitter then, so how did you know what you were seeking?
We’re both social bookmarking junkies because sharing links is such a fast, easy way to share ideas. You just smack somebody with a URL. So we wanted something like that for Blue Shirt Nation. Something that combined mobile access with simple link sharing.

We also knew that for Blue Shirt Nation, the adoption rate drops off fast as you climb the hierarchy. Executives just don’t spend a lot of time using their browsers. Mostly, they’re attached to smartphones and Outlook, with some General Managers texting. So other than the short formats, the idea of a device agnostic network was appealing.

The other group of employees we want to reach better are General Managers in the stores. They don’t have a lot of time, but they might be able to fire off an update while they’re walking from the front of the store to the back. Again, looking at Blue Shirt Nation, the majority of use (by retail staff) is during breaks and before or after work. So for this group also, we wanted something with mobile access.

How closely will Mix integrate with Blue Shirt Nation?
We looked at a deeper integration and ended up with something simpler. It will look like BSN, and the applications will keep each other informed, but Mix will function like the mobile arm of BSN.

What’s the time frame for rollout?
It’s coming very soon. One big hurdle has been waiting for carriers to give us the short codes. That was long wait. There’s also been a lot of technical work on integration and authentication. By mid-to-end October we’ll have it live within one territory (out of 8).

How do you plan to manage the rollout?
Within that territory, we’ll focus General Managers, store GMs, territory managers, district managers — about 200 people. Really, we’re still wrestling with the rollout plan. Some mix of internal communications, Blue Shirt Nation, territory meetings, enterprise events and email.

Do you think it will be easier or harder than rolling out Blue Shirt Nation?
Harder actually, because there are more choices now of where (employees) can go to communicate online in general.

What do you think of Yammer?
We’ve seen some activity on it. A lot of excitement and conversation at the beginning, but then it tapered off. People didn’t want to maintain their Twitter and their Yammer accounts.

Also, we see a problem with Yammer. There are what, 160,000 employees at Best Buy? It’s like a few of you are thrown into a dark room together. You don’t really know who anyone is or who to trust. You’re told it’s okay, they’re all employees, go ahead, talk. But trust is an issue. Who are these people? How do we know them? What can we say?

What factored into the decision to build out Mix using Headmix?
We liked that it’s simple, but had the extra features when you wanted them. It sounds goofy, but we really liked the Outlook plugin — that’s where our employees live. That will make it easier to use. We really enjoyed getting to know the developer team and we’ve liked how flexible the application has been for moving data around and having different features.

We wanted to be able to make changes really fast, and had usually gone with open-source systems for other projects. But in the last 4 months the UI, features and data structure have been very flexible.

What’s Headmix itself built on?
Ruby on Rails. Ben Moore is a friend-of-a-friend met via a Ruby users meeting.

What else can you tell us about Headmix?
It’s a different but familiar feature set to Twitter — a few more places that you can click. We don’t have it set up to talk to Twitter but it could be integrated. There will be something like groups – channels, to use Headmix’ term, that act like containers for discussion. It’s behind a lot of security and encryption but it’s still an SaaS model. Location won’t be in the initial rollout, but might be in the future.

What has been the corporate perspective on doing this at Best Buy? Was it a hard sell?
Headmix has some good demo videos and was cool about explaining basically what it does — “here’s the cool use cases we see, etc.” We were able to talk about use cases and they were willing to adjust. Potentially this is just the advantage of working with a startup.

The initial assumption was that it would be hosted within Best Buy. But as is the case with a lot of enterprise systems, we had to look at whether we could really support and host it in-house, more politically than technically.

So many companies miss “Just Try It.” Nobody wants to just go ahead.

That said, we’re in a unique situation with BSN Labs — we essentially have a license to try pilots and see whats going to take off. So the conversation was, us: “We’re going to have a mobile version of Blue Shirt Nation.” Management: “oh, cool.”

People have stopped asking us about metrics, measurement and goals. They see that it’s a cost of doing business. Nobody questions whether you need to have phones anymore, its assumed.

Nice position to be in.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be cool to try it. We’ll learn something. Sometimes, the bigger things get the more fear it will fail.

I expect to see blowback on a lot of this stuff by next March. “I don’t need all this stuff.” People are going to start stepping back some. Enterprises are getting hammered so hard right now to try all this stuff. There will be some cutting back in what they can do, depending on what’s working.

Thanks guys. We look forward to hearing more.

More about HeadMix from our Enterprise Microsharing Tools survey:
HeadMix Inc.’s mission is to help employees collaborate and work more effectively by discovering knowledge that trapped inside their colleagues heads. It’s a lightweight, on-demand, easy-to-use messaging platform that promotes intuitive knowledge-sharing inside the enterprise via the web, email, mobile and SMS.

With HeadMix, users subscribe to other employees and/or relevant groups/topics allowing them to stay connected with the content that is most relevant. Questions get answered sooner; key conversations can weave into the workday; and news travels faster. HeadMix connects employees and makes them more valuable to other employees and their customers.


Deploy inside firewall? No. Most of Twitter’s functions? Most. Groups, Location and a Desktop Client? Yes. Integrates with Twitter? No. Size of largest company? 150,000 SMS? Yes. IM? Future. Built on: Ruby on Rails. Links and media sharing? All types. API? Yes. Largest trial group?20,000. Price/user/month: based on active users only. Twitter-compatible API? Yes. Smartphone applications? Future.

Other notes:

  • Fully integrates into enterprise daily existing workflow
  • Ability to integrate custom applications
  • Make customers’ existing apps more valuable by adding a social layer around them via email (Outlook), Sharepoint, etc.

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