BT is rolling out a cloud-based social networking, blogging and data sharing service across 40,000 current and former employees.
The service, herecomeseveryone, aims to offer support for different social groups within BT, including women, ethnic minorities, retired staff and other groups of workers, by connecting them to each other and external support services.
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The platform will allow BT staff to chat online, share documents, videos and other files, and set up their own special interest groups. It will also link staff to experts who will be able to offer help and advice.
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"We want to have a vibrant embrace of different groups, and to bring those views, talents and capabilities together," says Chris Hurst, head of security services for information assurance and risk at BT.
The service has allowed BT to make savings running into tens of thousands of pounds a year by moving its 10 organisation-wide people groups from individual websites and social media platforms onto a single cloud-based service.
The company plans to tap into the expertise of its different employee groups for feedback that will help the company to design products that will meet the needs of a wide range of customers.
BT began looking at potential solutions about two years ago when it became clear that the costs of providing support services to each group individually were rising rapidly.
"Each of the groups had their own budgets, and they were buying in services from other organisations external to BT, and some internal to BT. The cost of providing support to those groups was escalating," says Hurst.
The company evaluated nearly 70 technologies to find a solution. It had to be usable out of the box, be accessible from any location, and give its members the ability to tailor the system to their own needs.
"We wanted to have to have a self-managing structure that could be implemented immediately. People would be able to create groups themselves, create private groups, manage events and publish content, including video and sound," says Hurst.
The company is a major user of Microsoft Sharepoint, which it uses to share data and documents among staff internally. But BT ruled out developing Sharepoint beyond the company firewall.
"To take the solution outside our environment and develop a solution around the requirements of HR, would have required a lot of work. We needed to make the savings now, not in a few years' time," says Hurst.
BT chose a software as a service solution from Mvine, a social business software consultancy firm, because, says Hurst, it met BT's specifications, and Mvine had already shown it could implement large-scale social networking platforms.
"Mvine ticked all the boxes in terms of technology. It was proven. It was operating with a similar user base of 40,000 with other organisations," he says.
The IT livery company, the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, which runs a smaller platform with 700 users, had shown that the platform worked well when it was managed by volunteers - a key requirement for BT's platform, which is a voluntary system for its employees.
BT's running costs for the service are relatively low, says Hurst. Mvine is able to make a return by offering relevant services to the different user groups, such as access to training or external experts.
BT, which began work with Mvine in November 2009, says its main concern was ensuring the social networking service was secure against cyber-attacks, and was capable of offering its users strong controls over their privacy.
"We wanted to provide a service that was as secure as the kind of service your bank would provide to you. We used a secure https site. Both the channel and the server are encrypted. And we needed to secure the users who unwittingly cause us problems by uploading executables," he says.
BT called in penetration testing company Qualys to test the Mvine code. Mvine also carried out work to harden its code against security vulnerabilities.
"We had to turn off the auto-fill for passwords, which we had set up during testing. We had a trace comment for tracing errors, which might allow a skilled programmer to gather enough information to attack your system. That was switched off. And a domain name server redirect. That was switched off," he says.
Individuals quickly bought into the idea of the platform once they had seen a demonstration, says Hurst. "All ability groups can participate in discussion groups. They can start their own blogs. They can communicate with people in other geographies with similar interests and bring them into other groups," he says.
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