Supervalu, Inc. has been in turnaround mode for a couple of years now, as it struggles to wring more sales and less cost out of it various supermarket chains and discount stores. But it has been making effective use of a social media tool to help in the effort: Yammer.

Supervalu, which owns supermarket chains including Shaw’s, Jewel, Acme and Albertson’s, plus the discount store Save-A-Lot, started using the social media platform in 2010, said Wayne Shurts, CIO of the firm. During his keynote address to close out day one of the CIO 100 Symposium and Awards event, he said Yammer has been effective at helping to flatten the company and foster more direct communication between associates in the stores and executives who are making the decisions that affect the company’s very future.

The company has grown through acquisition but found it difficult to integrate the piece parts into a whole. Jewel employees thought of themselves as Jewel employees, not Supervalu associates. Ditto for all the other lines of business. As a result, they didn’t learn from each other’s successes and struggles.

Yammer is changing all that. More than 11,800 employees use it to send more than 1,000 messages per day, Shurts said, making it one of the largest implementations of the platform. What’s more, they’ve formed more than 1,000 groups, which are proving valuable in sharing ideas.

For example, many Supervalu stores are located in college towns. Through the college stores group, associates came up with best practices for an all-important display: beer pong. “They share a lot of best practices on how to maximize beer pong displays,” he said, and sell more ping-pong balls, plastic cups and beer as a result. (Well, they probably would’ve sold the beer anyway.)

Another group is for stores located in popular vacation spots, such as Cape Cod and the Jersey shore. Such stores are plagued by long lines during peak periods. One of the Yammer users had an idea that’s now being used in such stores: associates with iPod Touch devices check out customers while they wait in line. (That, interestingly enough, is an idea that Paul Chapman, senior VP and CIO at Gap Inc., talked about at last year’s CIO 100 event.)

Prior to using Yammer, it was difficult to get good, constructive feedback from associates in the field. Maybe a bakery manager would send an idea to a store director, who might forward it to a district manager, then up the chain to a VP and on and on. “Nothing got to the CEO because it got filtered along the way,” Shurts said. That was frustrating to the CEO, especially given the need for a quick turnaround.

So the CEO was “jazzed” about Yammer, he said, and such executive buy-in was crucial to its success. Employees won’t engage in communication and offer up ideas if they don’t get a response. For some execs it took some arm-twisting to get them on board but now most typically respond within days if not hours. They’ve proven they are listening, Shurts said.

SuperValu has also seen a couple of unanticipated benefits from its social media platform. For one, employees use it to help each other with systems problems. Questions get answered faster and just as accurately as they would via the help desk. Some in IT aren’t too happy with that development, but Shurts is thrilled: it saves IT resources.

The platform is also used for crowdsourcing. If a manager has a position open, he can put a note out on Yammer. Yes, the company does have a job board, but few visit it. Yammer has proven more effective at getting the word out, he said.

Of course sometimes employees use the platform to pose tough questions, such as one about how the company can justify outsourcing some IT jobs in such a tough economy. Rather than skirt the issue, Shurts took it on head-on, saying the move was necessary to cut costs, keep IT’s focus on its retail business and ultimately save jobs.

“It’s better to have an uncomfortable conversation than to just ignore it,” he said. “You have to be ready for this type of transparent environment if you’re going to take on social media.”

As a next step, the company wants to bring its suppliers on to the Yammer platform, to help generate even more ideas that will help in the turnaround.

“We believe Yammer has really helped our turnaround. It’s helped us become one company, absolutely,” Shurts said. “One of the biggest lessons we learned: never underestimate the need for an employee to be heard and the value of listening.”

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