Around the Company Campfire

REI has created an online campfire where top managers can share ideas and experiences and employees in far-flung store locations can comment and engage.Lots of attention is given to customer engagement, but employee engagement is often overlooked. REI has created a user-friendly online company campfire that allows the retailer's top managers to share their ideas and its 11,000 employees in 30 states to comment.

Writing for Ragan.com, Matt Wilson says REI launched its intranet earlier this year centered on an executive blog, but also includes news about employee awards, featured products and research, as well as "the question of the month." All are designed, Wilson writes, to spark employee engagement.

The campfire is the brainchild of Diana Kowalsy, REI's internal communications manager based in Seattle. In her LinkedIn profile, Kowalsky says she loves to "help employees connect with their company to see how they can learn and grow while helping the company succeed."

Executives write blogs on topics they choose. Their posts are lightly edited (even typos are left in) to ensure authenticity and give employees a peek at their personalities. Each post, Wilson notes, routinely earns 30 to 40 employee comments.

"We let executives say what they want," Kowalsky explained to Wilson. "We really try to push them to let that be a personal connection to employees. You don’t always have to talk about business. You can talk about a book or a trip you took."

The campfire is getting warmer, Kowalsky says, as more employees log in and speak up. Wilson says 4,500 of REI's employees have logged in at least once.

The exchanges have been gratifying and put to rest initial anxieties of top managers. "Leaders and employees seem to be feeling a sense of ownership about their contributions Around the Campfire," Kowalsky says.

Disagreements have been expressed around the campfire, but Kowalsky says they have been civil and largely constructive. As the monthly usage of the online campfire has grown, Kowalsky says REI is exploring opening up the blog to more authors with the aim of stimulating even wider employee engagement.

Intranets sometimes are forgotten in the shadow of newer and sexier social media sites. But they can work if the goal is to do more than spoon-feed employees company-spun information. REI's goal is engagement and the intranet platform it is using is up to the task.

The key takeaway — put the same amount of energy and creativity into employee engagement as you do into customer engagement.Diana Kowalsky