Kevin Prentiss has dedicated his career to increasing engagement in learning – in both the corporate and college setting. Kevin regularly delivers keynotes about opportunities to use technology in innovative ways to create community, increase group engagement, and foster retention. He has presented lectures to the US Military, Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola, Disney, and MMC, and over 200 college campuses. Kevin is also the founder of four technology companies, with Red Rover being his most recent. Red Rover aggregates employees’ internal and external data to provide an employee directory that lets users quickly identify subject matter experts on any topic, so that employees can learn from each other.

NTT: Red Rover was founded on the idea that everyone is a teacher. What does this idea mean to companies today?

Prentiss: There are a number of key trends that make teaching and learning critical to every company. One is the aging workforce population. As baby boomers retire, companies will lose the experience of 75 million workers. Knowledge transfer is a huge need and opportunity. That said, companies are also being asked to be more responsive, nimble and innovative. Teaching is not just sharing known best practices. Incoming workers of a different generation must be encouraged to teach their new frameworks and worldviews to experienced employees because the winning innovation will likely be some mix of new and old. Everyone is a teacher; and everyone is a student. This type of culture drives employee engagement across generations.

Another key trend is content marketing. Customers are increasingly resistant to flashy slogans—they want substance. The best marketing actually teaches. Internal blogging as a teaching platform, for example, is a very powerful way for companies to find and develop strong content creators who can be the voice of the firm and attract high quality clients. A robust internal conversation, where knowledge is freely shared, empowers the sales people with the best of the company. They, in turn, teach the clients and drive growth.

NTT: You initially built this system by working with universities to connect their students and encourage engagement. In what ways do the lessons of building student interaction apply to fostering employee learning?

Prentiss: On an individual basis, people are people. Eighteen-year-old community college students in Georgia and 44-year-old insurance brokers in Taiwan are both driven by the same psychological forces. They both care about the activities of relevant peers. They both look to models of success who are like them. They both appreciate an interface that filters out all the noise and lets them tune in to just what interests them in that moment. They both like to be acknowledged for their expertise. They want to be helpful more often than not. So on an individual basis, the software is the same.

Starting in college was terrific for us, because engaging an 18-year-old is very difficult. The basic challenges of boredom, repetition, and distraction are all similar, but they have no manager making sure they do what they are supposed to do. If we can take an indifferent and hormonally addled 18-year-old who is distracted by Facebook and inspire them with the thoughts and activities of people just like them who are successful, then we’ve truly made the world a better place.

We started out intending to work on these challenges in higher education, but we heard over and over that corporations had the exact same challenges and exact same needs. Working with 18-year-olds forced us to focus on the psychology, not the technology, and that’s critical in corporations as well. Corporations don’t need more technology; they need more usage, more engagement, and more purpose around their technology.

NTT: Red Rover aggregates employees’ internal and external content so that their colleagues can access it. What led you to use social media as a platform for employee learning?

Prentiss: Seventy percent of learning is informal—this happens in conversations, through informal mentoring, and through topic exploration. Social media tools enable these activities very well. At its core, Red Rover starts as an introductory service. “Joe, meet Jenny, she’s working on the same thing you are and may have the answers to your questions.”

Getting work done is intensely social. We are simply making that process efficient. IDC says that 30 percent of knowledge workers’ time is spent looking for information they need to do their jobs. Half of these searches fail because most of the information in a firm is trapped inside the heads of workers. We have to make these people discoverable and enable a conversation online that will collect that knowledge for future searchers. By connecting the disparate content sources and providing a social interface, we reduce the wasted time and increase the opportunity that is captured.

The Internet is at least five years ahead of the typical enterprise. On the Internet, all employees have an incredible array of external publishing platforms: LinkedIn, Twitter, Slideshare, WordPress, YouTube, etc., and they have built a lot of value on these platforms. Most of these tools are more powerful and easier to use than their legacy internal counterparts. Companies have an incredible resource in their employees’ networks and published content, we simply allow employees to contribute that value and their companies to utilize it.

NTT: Specifically, what type of employee information gets funneled into the system and how do users access it? For instance, if my employer uses Red Rover, would all of my Facebook pages be searchable by any company employee?

Prentiss: Everything is opt in. Each employee will determine what is appropriate for him or her to share or not share, then the system does the work of filtering for relevancy. So an employee may decide that their Twitter content is professional enough to connect to the service. On the receiving end, individual employees may have said they are following “health benefits” as a topic—they will only see tweets from other employees that have to do with “health benefits.” This two-step process is critical, otherwise the system is noisy and employees are turned off.

NTT: How have employees reacted to the idea of having information from their external social networks used inside a company network?

Prentiss: Generally positively. For the savvy employees, connecting their LinkedIn profile is another way to advance their career inside the company. They can show off their experience and connections, and this builds their reputation inside the firm. The same goes for other types of published content online.

We are coming to a time when what we now call social media will be a key driver of career advancement. Soon, career advancement will be determined by the participation, reputation and connections embedded in social media, both inside and outside the corporation. We are currently in the middle of this shift, so employees and employers are reasonably cautious and trying to figure out the appropriate trade-offs. Progressive firms and progressive employees are already embracing and benefiting from this shift; everyone else will adopt at their pace.

NTT: What is the implementation process like for a company that wants to connect their employees using Red Rover? Is it a stand-alone system accessible online or is it incorporated into existing company intranets?

Prentiss: Red Rover is both a process and a product. As I mentioned, how the technology is positioned for employees is often more important than the technology itself. The technology needs to land as an opportunity for the employees or it won’t get used. What is typical are “big bang” technology rollouts that fizzle because the manager or buyer brainstormed features in a committee first and bought the software that checked the most boxes. This process leaves out what the employee cares about and usually leads to clunky software that is painful to use. The combination of these two factors is what gives “enterprise software” such a poor reputation.

Instead, we start with a small core team, typically in Human Resources, Human Capital, Organizational Development or the CIOs’ department. We consult to ensure clear goals, measurement plans and performance or culture objectives. These get mapped to the Red Rover “playbook” that combines internal advertising campaigns, change management and staged rollout of features. We are very careful with the technology, we want to make sure that we’re creating demand as we go, not shoving extra technology onto anyone.

While Red Rover can be a standalone product, it is delivered as white label software as a service and is usually integrated with multiple internal systems. Similar to aggregating external social media sites, Red Rover focuses on being a “hub for spokes” for internal systems as well. We don’t replace anything that is currently working; instead we aggregate the activity and content from those other services.

NTT: What kind of employee use rates have you seen among current clients?

Prentiss: In a larger client with 25,000 employees globally, they had almost a 50 percent adoption rate four months after the service was available. Even more importantly, much of this growth was due to employees inviting other employees to sign up, rather than from management pressure. This is critical for long-term activity.

NTT: Can you give specific examples of the results your clients have seen since implementing Red Rover?

Prentiss: At one client, recruitment of employee bloggers exceeded goals by seven times. At one client, the first rollout stages increased employee perception of usefulness of learning offerings by 40 percent. Clients experience increased knowledge sharing with thousands of conversations and hundreds of thousands of visits and increased engagement, based on both qualitative and quantitative metrics.

NTT: You have described Red Rover as a “peer-to-peer learning platform that increases employee productivity and company profit.” Do you see learning as the primary long-term goal of this system, or do you think Red Rover promises other communication possibilities for the companies that use it?

Prentiss: As I mentioned earlier, informal learning is a very expansive concept, so we are only bound by old ideas of “learning.” Conversations are core: between employees, between the company and clients, or between the company and the market. Red Rover, by acting as a relevancy filter for people and information, has incredible possibilities as an internal and external communication platform. At least one of our clients is planning on replacing their intranet with the Red Rover platform, simply because it connects their employees to the information they want, and easily aggregates so many disparate sources of content. As our clients become increasingly comfortable with social media we expect to see more of this.

NTT: Gartner has indicated that it expects social networking services to gradually replace email for employee communication in business. Do you agree? How does Red Rover fit into this trend?

Prentiss: Yes and no. Email will evolve. Look at how 18-year-olds use Facebook, this is the future of communication. Facebook has done an incredible job of integrating all of these various mediums—chat, text messaging, mobile messaging, and email—and yet 18-year-olds still use the email inbox in gmail and still use an email-like interface on Facebook itself, when it suits them. The key is that all of these mediums are blended, and the user simply uses what is convenient or appropriate and Facebook integrates it all. Email won’t be replaced, it will be assimilated. I suspect some people will hold on to an email interface in the same way many people still like to take notes on paper. We are creatures of habit.

Red Rover leverages email as an interface that employees are comfortable with. When an employee receives a question initiated through our platform, they simply respond to the question in their email, without having to log in or go to a new interface. The question, and their answer, is then stored in the searchable knowledge archive. The same is true of text messaging—employees can send and receive text messages into the system to communicate with groups, join groups, ask questions, etc. So Red Rover makes it easy for the employee to use whatever communication method is appropriate or convenient and Red Rover does the technical work of normalizing that data so it’s useful to everyone else.

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