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Communicate, Collaborate, Succeed: How EMC Gives Employees a Voice

Polly Pearson, Vice President of Employee Brand and Strategy Engagement, discusses how the company helps build a strong brand – internally and externally – by encouraging employees to collaborate via social networking

By William Keenan Jr.

Digital information processing giant EMC has had a customer-centric mission and a family-like culture from its beginnings in 1979. Its early years were characterized by a period of rapid growth, which continued until the 2001 recession caught the company off-guard and it had to contract a bit, laying off about 30%-40% of its workforce.

That’s the downside. The upside is that the U.S.-based company – which also has offices in some 60 countries worldwide – maintained its strong customer base through all of this, even though it had to do some rebuilding and reinforcing in terms of its corporate culture. “The truth is, the extreme focus on the customer kind of made the employee second fiddle,” says Polly Pearson, EMC’s Vice President of Employee Brand and Strategy Engagement.

By 2006 the company was growing again, adding some 20,000 new workers through roughly 50 acquisitions in the previous 18 months. “Sometime in 2006,” Pearson says, “the head of HR came to me and said, ‘We’re nailing it in the marketplace – customers love us, and the financial results are great. So why don’t we feel the heat in the hallways?’”

Since that time, Pearson – who has a PR and corporate marketing background – had refocused her efforts from maintaining EMC’s external brand to working more exclusively on building the company’s internal brand.

Engagement Strategies Magazine (ESM) recently had a chance to sit down with Pearson before her appearance the recent Marcus Evans Internal Branding & Employee Engagement conference in Miami to discuss how things are going.

ESM: How do you like the new, internal focus of your work – and how do you define and approach internal branding or ‘employment branding,’ as you call it?

Pearson: I love the focus on employment branding. My focus before was going outside and really worrying about campaigns and visuals and tightness of message. And while we’ve got the foundation of that, internally the branding effort is really more about connecting with the people – because that way you’re going to get the genuine brand. You’re going to find out what’s important to them.

Dr. John Sullivan writes quite a bit about employment branding, and he uses the image of the red velvet rope. It is defined as the experience by which talent will clamor for an opportunity to wait in line to get inside. And the flipside that I add is: “…and that those on the inside know that they’re where it’s at.”

That’s my goal, my definition – that’s what I would like the experience for EMC to be. So part of my job is engaging with the external talent market, and the other part is the internal talent market, because job search today is a two-way street. Candidates are consumers, and they need to understand the company they’re looking at. There are no more ‘jobs for life,’ so we as companies need to market to prospective employees – but in genuine terms. Because if we market to the talent market and say we are orange, orange, orange, orange and they show up and we’re green, it is a bad match and they’re not going to stay with us.

ESM: And if the message you’re delivering isn’t entirely accurate, that information is going to get out to others – via social networking or just word of mouth.

Pearson: The way a potential candidate engages with EMC and other companies, it’s no longer just with the recruiter or the hiring manager because candidates are able to go on FaceBook and other social media sites and it’s easy for them to plug into employee discussions about the company. The line is now blurred between what’s going on in the company and what the outside world perceives. And that petrifies most companies. I think that’s why I’ve been doing so much speaking on this right now. We actually have a really terrific model that leverages the new social phenomenon.

ESM: Tell us about the social media model you’re using and how it helps to build your internal brand and employee engagement.

Pearson: We find it works very well with an educated workforce. And if we look at our workforce, these people are PhD’s MBA’s, BA’s – even the high school graduates are highly educated and competent. So for us, the old command-and-control model – the model of telling them what to do and giving them rules and policies – is not only outdated, it’s disrespectful.

One thing that really helped us – serendipitously, with our being a high-tech company – was the growth of the MySpaces, the FaceBooks and other social media models. We looked at all that and realized we’re a high-tech company and we need to make sure we understand this game. We need to make sure our employees are proficient at it and have the skill set to use it in order to be competitive. Because if we don’t we’ll be at a competitive disadvantage. That was the premise boiled down to its simplest notion.

So we started researching different types of social networks and came up with a strategy. We decided the best thing was not to worry so much about the tool, but worry about the proficiency – and to bring it in-house. We created an internal social media network. Our goal was to teach our workforce how this stuff works. What’s a Wiki? What’s a blog? What are the behavior norms in this social space? And then once we teach them how to swim, we tell everybody this is a safe environment. Don’t worry about making mistakes. We’re going to catch you and support you. Then what happens naturally, organically and with our full support is they go outside. They go outside of our walls and use the skills they’ve learned to connect with external audiences.

Chances are, the people whom your workforce will connect with externally will serve your business – whether they’re potential prospects, customers or talented employees. And that’s really the model that happened. We had our internal social network running for about a year, and some unbelievable voices started to emerge. And what I personally find very exciting – working with an awful lot what are, frankly, brilliant introverts – is to see how they thrive in this online world.

ESM: How have EMC’s employees taken to this social media initiative? Are they taking advantage of it?

Pearson: From a human dimension, it’s almost a sin that we’ve lost all of those voices up until now. Those voices have only been heard by the guy in the cubicle next to someone, or maybe his manager. But now, I love how all these introverted engineers are becoming rock stars in our industry, because people are hearing their thoughts. And some of our smartest inventors are realizing this social phenomenon can help them socialize an idea to the “tipping point” that would get others passionate enough about it to say, ‘Yes, you need to invent this, there’s a market for this.’ Or, ‘Did you think of X, Y, and Z – which would make your idea even more compelling?’ So they’re engaging with external customers, partners and developers on idea generation as well.

And there are no limits to that sort of thing in this social space. Whether what you love to do is write software code or you’re a photographer or you care about green sustainability – whatever drives you – you’re now suddenly able to blend your personal passion with your day job and make a greater impact. Today over 50% of our workforce is active in the internal social network to the degree that they’re posting something like 4.5 million pages of content per month!

One of the things that draws people into it is a very popular area called “The Water Cooler.” Here, anything goes. You can talk about how long your commute was, about the latest business book you wrote, or about that dumb memo HR just sent – whatever you want. And then, once they’re in there, they’ll see the latest customer response to this new strategic offering and it’s “Hey, wow. What are customers thinking about that?” It sucks them into the true, heavy-duty business content that they wouldn’t necessarily have been involved in. But as an educated adult, a worker who wants to be more successful and have more knowledge about the company, they can now get information and provide comments on any topic.

The topics and communities have all been created and determined by the community itself. So if somebody says, “I think we should have a community on green computing,” all they have to do is send in a note to the team that would put it in. Then they’re asked, “How are you going to draw an audience? How are you going to keep the conversation going?” So the communities that do end up thriving are very Darwinian. Today we have 160 communities, ranging from one on our latest technology strategy to a community on innovation where engineers can post abstracts of ideas and connect with others who might have ideas about how they can make it better. It’s very grass roots. It’s a real silo-imploder.

ESM: Do you offer any support for those employees who choose to explore social media outside the company – or for those who are writing blogs for external audiences?

Pearson: Not everybody wants to go outside the firewall, but for those who do we have a supportive environment. In fact, the bloggers who do go outside operate like a virtual department, though with no assigned leader. They communicate via the back channels constantly, and they support one another. If somebody writes a blog on a particular topic and needs to vet it beforehand, they’ll send a note to the other bloggers saying “What do you think about this? Is this controversial? Is this good? Is this bad?”

The only vetting by the organization is that they have to show evidence of commitment – because most bloggers will stop in under six months. Generally, they’ll have to show that they’ve been blogging for six months or more and/or that they’re well known enough by their habits of internal blogging.

And what’s amazing is that most of those people were fully anonymous in the company hierarchy, and yet they’re now seen as top voices in the industry. In fact, our industry just had an independent poll look at who were the top blogs in the information management and storage industry, and EMC people won the top four out of ten slots. We had a clean sweep of the top of the list! And one of them was a real junior guy sitting on the help desk in customer service two years ago. Now he’s a rock star, with one of the biggest voices in this $60 billion industry.

ESM: Do you have any evidence that what you’re doing is working? Proof that your employees’ use of social networking and your internal branding efforts are having a positive effect?

Pearson: One of the benefits is that these people are doing your brand work, doing your recruiting work, and they’re doing all of that for you simply because you enabled them. Another benefit is that when you listen to the voices of your people being their natural selves, it becomes very clear to you what your natural brand attributes are. For us it was clear that those attributes were putting customers first, being the best at everything we do and being passionate innovators. Those come out in spades in all of the voices of our people.

But how do we actually measure engagement? Well, we look at our continued high revenue growth. For the last two decades we’ve been recognized as one of the best performers, if not the best, in the technology space on the New York Stock Exchange. We have high customer satisfaction. We have consistently high shareholder value. And we do an annual employee satisfaction and motivation survey where our numbers are about twice the industry average. Now we’re starting to measure a sort of “net promoter score” for our employees – making sure that our people feel they can recommend EMC as a place to work for their loved ones.

One of the best examples of how well this has worked, however, came out of the most recent recession. When the economy started imploding in October or November of 2008, we were having discussions inside our social network warning people – blogging about what we did in the last recession and offering some key strategies and asking everybody to start watching costs. As other companies started laying off workers, those discussions continued and people became more prepared. So the workforce was conditioned in a way because people were saying, “Gee, I’ll give up my vacation,” Or, “I’ll take vacation unpaid.” Or, “I could take a pay cut if that would help us save jobs.”

So when EMC eventually made its decision – based on what it was hearing from informed, legitimate voices – we announced a 5% pay cut as a way to save 2,000 jobs. We suspended the 401K match, but we instead gave restricted shares of stock in the company.

And when the CEO announced this at his “All Hands Quarterly” meeting about a year ago, I won’t forget the response from employees – they applauded. And now we can say to employees that, because of your efforts in this, we just posted a record quarter. We prevented the layoff of 2,000 people. We have the same amount of staff exiting the year, roughly, as we did entering the year. And, again, we’re in a competitively stronger position.

ESM: Thanks for sitting down with us. We appreciate you taking the time.

Pearson: My pleasure.

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