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Using Social Media To Improve Employee Communication, Collaboration, And Even Compensation

It all started a little over a year ago as a crazy idea at Shopify, an Ottawa-based e-commerce software startup: Build a Twitter-inspired platform where employees can share information on the cool stuff they’re doing. They gave it a funny name, UNICORN, and turned it loose. Now, just over a year later, the folks at Shopify are using that crazy idea to redefine the way they communicate, collaborate, and even compensate their employees.

Tobi Lütke, Shopify CEO, was spending his weekends working on projects and prototypes. And like clockwork, every Monday he found himself wanting to tell other people about them. It was during those informal chats that he discovered two things 1) there were a lot of cases where his fellow employees were working on something similar and 2) they weren’t sharing their successes with others. That’s when the idea for the UNICORN was born.

Tobi and his team decided to create a custom-built social media platform. In keeping with the "unicorn" theme, they came up with their own lingo: managers are referred to as wizards, direct reports as apprentices, and projects as quests. As cool as that might sound (to fantasy geeks, anyway), reaction to UNICORN was mixed. So they went back to the drawing board to look for ways to increase employee engagement.

"What if we bribed them?" Shopify  decided to take a portion of its profits and put them into a pot. Management then divided the money up equally amongst all employees. When they found something they liked, they could give that person a cash bonus. And like magic, the postings increased.

The potential to receive a cash incentive was just enough of a carrot to get everyone on board. Then the system took on a life of its own. "When we hit 20,000 followers on Twitter, someone noticed and posted a message on UNICORN thanking our social media manager. Right away, there were high fives in the hallways and the person responsible was walking around with a huge smile on her face" said Tobi.

Collaboration also improved. Employees started using the system to break down internal silos. In one case, they were creating a recruitment video and needed help editing their content. Within two hours of posting a message on UNICORN, they were able to identify two people on the team with the exact experience they were looking for—skills that wouldn’t have been otherwise obvious given their current roles at the company.

Accomplishments were then tied to performance reviews. The UNICORN system is now capable of tracking every aspect of a typical performance review. Managers (or wizards) can communicate with their direct reports (apprentices) prior to the meeting, fill in goals (or quests) and incorporate other information that will be used in a more formal review. When employees finish tasks, they’re given  "experience points," which they’ll soon be able to use to buy cool stuff for their avatars (such as a mustache), stealing a page from game theory to appeal to employees' competitive zeal.

All this resulted in a group of genuinely happy, incredibly loyal employees. Shopify has been around for just about seven years and they have almost no turnover. And although a lot of that has to do with their existing culture, employee reaction to UNICORN has been incredibly positive.  

One of the biggest upsides of the system is the idea that accomplishments can be shared with everyone throughout the company, not just your direct supervisor. So that means, if you have a lame duck boss, you don’t have to leave it up to him or her to sing your praises—UNICORN will do it for you.

Since its launch, Shopify has expanded the system to include part-time employees and interns—something you definitely won’t find at a lot of other companies.

While a lot of businesses are sinking heavy investments into external customer-facing social media solutions, the folks at Shopfiy are going against the grain and investing equally in internal tools. "We’ve put some of our best developers on UNICORN and other internal projects. This is an area where big companies often suffer," said Tobi.

Will their internal investments pay off? If reaction to the UNICORN is any indication, it sounds like they’re going to reap some huge dividends.

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[Image: Flickr user traveling.steve]