Since most companies are still in the “early observer” stage when it comes to using social networking tools for business processes other than marketing and customer service, it’s great when an early adopter shares its experience publicly. Last week, MIT Sloan Management Review published an informative interview with Ron Utterbeck, the CIO for GE Corporate and the Advanced Manufacturing Software Technology Center in Michigan, about GE’s implementation of GE Colab, a social networking platform the company launched in January 2012 that is currently used by 115,000 employees worldwide.

I encourage you to read the article for all the details, but here are some of my key takeaways and lessons to consider:

Focus on power users, not business function. Investments in technology are often driven by the needs of a specific business function. A big obstacle many companies face with social networking tools, however, is that they don’t know where to begin, where within the company to conduct the first pilot test. GE took a different perspective. Instead of looking for WHERE to begin, the company looked for WHO to begin with. “We rolled it out to our power users,” Utterbeck explained. “We didn’t focus on a function – the functionality [in the platform] is needed by every function. We really sought out the most experimental people in the different functions, and seeded [the network] with them and then got their feedback.”

Don’t wait for the “perfect” solution to get started. First, the perfect solution doesn’t exist, and won’t ever exist, so stop waiting for it. And second, you don’t know what you don’t know — in other words, since social networking for business is a new frontier, the only way to truly know what you need and want is to start the journey and see where it takes you. In GE’s case, the company started with a base product and “extended the heck out of it” based on feedback from power users. According to Utterbeck, “We launched [the platform] knowing that it was good enough to get people to start moving on it, and then we started to get feedback…and we incorporated that feedback into quick releases.”

In short, implementing a social network solution is not enough; you also need to have an easy process for users to provide feedback and ideas for new capabilities, and a process and resources to turn that feedback into new functionality quickly and frequently.

Strive to create an integrated and seamless user experience. GE employees were “inundated with collaboration tools [email, telephone, video, chat] that were seemingly not connected to each other,” so a key goal was to bring those tools together into the platform. The company is using APIs to integrate desired functionality from other apps, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Salesforce Chatter. What I found most interesting, however, is the potential for GE Colab to become the default user interface to execute business processes. Utterbeck gave the following example:

One area that hasn’t caught on right now but is going to go like wildfire over the next year is an app we’ve instituted that brings purchase orders to the right staff person to approve with a click, and avoids having to go through the separate purchasing system.

This is similar to the FedEx® Ship to Friends app that FedEx introduced last week “that allows people who use Facebook to prepare and pay for a U.S. domestic shipment without ever leaving Facebook.” Simply put, if an enterprise social network platform becomes the preferred workspace for employees, then the more information and apps users can access from it, and the more processes they can execute using it, then the more value it will deliver.

Don’t waste time coming up with an ROI. As I’ve written before, one of the main reasons why companies aren’t using social media in supply chain management is the difficulty in quantifying its business value. However, that didn’t stop GE from getting started. “We haven’t tried to come up with an ROI,” said Utterbeck. “Haven’t wasted a moment’s notice even thinking about it.” The company tracks usage, adoption, how people are using the system, and what their connections are. Utterbeck goes on to say:

The biggest thing about usage is that no one in this corporation has to use this platform to get their job done. It’s not a system that people have to go to, but people still come back every single day. They come back because it makes their job easier, because they’re getting value out of it. Going and spending money on ROI would be, honesty, in my opinion, just a waste of money because your true value of this is people are coming back.

Utterbeck mentions that GE is solving problems faster, which is a benefit that TEVA Pharmaceuticals, another early adopter company, has also experienced (see “Want a Fast-Response Supply Chain? Facilitate People-to-People Communication”). No doubt, the ability to solve problems faster is enabled by the ability for employees to communicate and collaborate more effectively across business functions, geographies, and business units. Utterback mentions the following statistics: “One in three of the connections that we have on the site are across functions. One in four is across geographies, whether between North America and Asia, Europe, South America. And one in five is across our business units.”

Obviously, GE’s decisions and actions might not be the right ones for every company. But I hope that by sharing its story and experience, GE will inspire other early adopters to share their stories too, and in the process we can begin to assemble a set of leading practices in this emerging field of enterprise social networking.

(Note: For related commentary, see “The Risk of Fearing Social Media” and “Searching for Metrics: Quantifying the Value of Social Media in Supply Chain Management”)