This is a translation of the original press release from Bayer Material Science, which was in German and got published in the German CIO magazine here:

It all began with an annoying discovery. Different teams at different Bayer MaterialScience AG (BMS) locations out of the 30 scattered around the world were working on the same subject, not knowing of each others’ existence. This resulted in unnecessary duplicate work, which is not a seldom occurrence in corporate groups the size of BMS with just less than 15,000 employees, but in any case a reason to take action.

“That was the starting point”, remembers CIO Kurt De Ruwe. “If the teams had known they were all working on the same problems, they would probably have stumbled across the solutions sooner.” [see also box: Benefits for the companies]. And yet another aspect played an important role when it came to BMS introducing a collaboration tool: the demographic factor. In the chemicals group boasting a large number of well-trained employees and a large research and development department, the knowledge in the employees’ heads is more than just “human capital”. Even today, it is foreseeable that a series of highly qualified BMS employees will be retiring in the next ten years. “A knowledge management system is to be one of several ways of passing on experience to younger staff”, says De Ruwe.

A good two years have passed since BMS decided to take countermeasures. The first attempts to install a new software tool failed, with both externally purchased and user-developed solutions. “Employees worked with it for a few months and then the whole thing blew over”, reports De Ruwe. BMS was about to suffer the fate of many companies, where attempts to introduce knowledge management end in a huge data cemetery. One essential reason for that is certainly the fact that knowledge management has less to do with technology and more with psychology. De Ruwe knows that. He estimates that “technology perhaps contributes ten percent towards success”. But nevertheless he goes on to say that, “a tool is important if we are to implement the project at all.”

It was by sheer coincidence that De Ruwe stumbled across different software. This wasn’t knowledge management but collaboration software. Connections from IBM. Here, the crucial parameters aren’t databases, information structures or knowledge sources, but simply the way in which human beings are able to communicate something and work together virtually.

BMS is moving in simple steps towards becoming an Enterprise 2.0. A small group of 50 people from research and development is launching a new attempt. Without any assistance in the form of instructions, training or advertising, the circle of users grew within the shortest of times to more than 700 employees worldwide. It is easy to handle. You set up your profile and you tell others about your special areas and interests and what you’re currently working on. Departmental and national boundaries disappear and colleagues who would probably have otherwise never met find each other.

Collaboration goes beyond pure information. A member of De Ruwe’s team had got in touch with other people through Connections. Together, they were able to work out five different ideas that BMS could now even register as a patent. “Without that tool, he’d never have known that these people existed at all”, says De Ruwe.

It has been a while since its use was limited just to research and development. The number of colleagues who collaborate is more than 2,600 on the worldwide scale and is growing continuously. “Because people like how the tool works”, is De Ruwe’s simple explanation. And yet the software does not necessarily offer particularly cunning functionality. Its actual trump card is its simplicity. “Other solutions cope with far more functions”, says the CIO. “But that only leads to confusion.” By contrast, what is far more important than extra features is the fact that all options are embedded in one application. There is no toing and froing between different applications.

In terms of operation, IBM’s solution reminds you of commonly known social networking sites. If Xing or Facebook can do it, so can Connections. Mind you, the tool allows you to do more than just network employees or distribute notifications in an uncomplicated fashion. Using Connections, you can exchange and edit files and documents, you can write a blog and you can draw up a company lexicon using wiki technology. Employee profiles are more detailed and extend far beyond the descriptions in business networks. Employees tailor them more to the company’s needs. And BMS profits from that. “Nowadays, the tool is becoming a crucial source for finding out who the best people for a project are”, says De Ruwe.

The tool is also easy to install. BMS began with Version 2.5 and only just recently changed over to Version 3. “The complete migration process was completed in one weekend”, explains De Ruwe. Worldwide, three people from his team were involved in technical implementation with support from IBM. This is also because BMS has not made any adjustments and is using the pure standard. Only the LDAP application protocol was integrated so that employees don’t have to log in separately.

At the start of this year, BMS had more than 500 active groups, co-called communities, that the employees had created out of their own initiative. Be it for departments such as IT, Accounting, Marketing or topics such as sustainability or women in the company, there are no limits to the imagination. Similarly to Xing groups, the initiators lay down the rules for access to the groups. These range from open communities that anyone can take part in and where everything is visible to closed invitation-only user groups that are invisible to non-members. That’s not all that difficult either, explains De Ruwe. “Starting a community takes 30 seconds and setting up the rules takes ten.”

The CIO himself sets a good example. He is now a member of 30 communities. And they don’t necessarily have anything to do with IT. What’s more, he has got used to hardly ever writing e-mails, instead posting many communications through Connections. “E-mails always go to a closed circle of recipients”, he says. “Often, though, the information is interesting to far more people.” For the opposite approach, he has set up his system so that it keeps him up to date. A message opens up when a certain person has posted something or a subject crops up in a message, a blog or a wiki entry. For example, this is the case with the key words “Program One”, the large SAP project at BMS.

The success that De Ruwe regularly witnesses in user figures and an activity index is now ringing in the next phase at BMS. In 2011 the CIO wants to launch active marketing to push ahead with staff participation. “Collaboration is one of the top three IT issues this year”, he announces. Now, it will be all about continuing on the basis created up to now and expanding it.

BMS will have to master two essential hurdles. Firstly, collaboration takes up time. This is because it takes time to read things and writing takes even longer. Nevertheless, De Ruwe doesn’t allow that argument to count. “That only leads to a situation in which you never begin”, he says. Anyone who knows how to organise themselves well won’t have any problems with the time it takes. “Ten minutes a day is enough.”

Things ought to be far more difficult when it comes to people’s need to express themselves. Anyone who doesn’t say anything in real life will not necessarily become more conversant in a virtual environment. Collaboration calls for an effort on the part of users. Which, contrary to common opinion, doesn’t have much to do with employees’ age. De Ruwe waves aside doubts, saying that “our five most active users are all over 40”. It is rather more the case that many are inhibited when it comes to comparing notes in the semi-public arena of a worldwide corporate platform. They are afraid of compromising themselves or they are not comfortable with the knowledge that they don’t know who is also reading their messages. “The first step is the most difficult”, De Ruwe has learned in the past years. He does not tire of repeatedly encouraging his people to also take this first step.

Conclusion: an exchange of ideas that can lead to patents, problems that can be resolved faster across national borders, feedback from customers that circulates throughout the company, open communication that strengthens employees’ feeling of belonging, and knowledge that is not lost, but is recorded and can be developed further: the list of advantages that justify the collaboration tool at BMS is increasing on a daily basis. “Even today, we have reached the point where we just couldn’t switch it off any more”, says De Ruwe. And he has yet another argument up his sleeve for anyone who is not yet convinced by that, and it’s probably one that will not leave a single CIO unconvinced: “we pay one euro per month per user.” [Text Ende]