Forrester Research: How Northwestern Mutual Deployed Enterprise Web 2.0

By G. Oliver Young, with Matthew Brown, Bradford J. Holmes, and April Lawson


Enterprise adoption of Web 2.0 tools and services is growing, and The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (Northwestern Mutual) is among the early adopters. The traditionally conservative company began investigating Web 2.0 in 2005 and has since deployed blogs and Really Simple Syndication (RSS) to its entire employee base of about 5,000. Northwestern Mutual has seen improvements in corporate communications, team productivity, and worker productivity as a result. Like many firms though, Northwestern Mutual has struggled to determine a hard return on investment (ROI); questions about the further applicability of Web 2.0 to the enterprise still linger; and the company has seen strong, but not blockbuster, employee usage.

For information and knowledge management (I&KM) professionals, the Northwestern Mutual case holds valuable lessons.


Founded in 1857, Northwestern Mutual is not the kind of firm people would expect to find in the vanguard of Web 2.0 adopters. Operating in the highly regulated financial services industry, the Fortune 200 firm has prized such attributes as stability and strength over its 150-year existence, an image not associated with risk-taking early technology adoption. However, in late 2005 the firm began its push into Web 2.0, bringing blogs, RSS, and eventually wikis into the business to help foster more open and honest dialogue within the company and increase worker and team productivity. While the benefits are just beginning to build, the firm's journey thus far gives and knowledge management (I&KM) professionals a framework for launching Web 2.0 and some good ideas on how to execute a successful deployment.

Northwestern Mutual's road to enterprise Web 2.0 began in the late summer of 2005 as an exercise in reputational risk management. The communications department had been paying close attention to how the blogosphere was changing both media and consumer behavior. The time frame for response to media cycles was shortening, and, increasingly, ordinary people were breaking news and driving content into the mainstream media (see endnote 1).

For Northwestern Mutual, a business fundamentally tied to its reputation, these changes presented not only an opportunity to become closer to its policy holders but also a growing threat—a blind eye to blogging would leave the firm open to public relations problems percolating on the Web.

In October 2005, Andrea Austin, assistant director of corporate relations, appeared in front of Northwestern Mutual's public affairs committee — a cross-functional steering committee designed to keep up with changing consumer and government trends affecting the business — to discuss blogging opportunities and potential threats with senior management. The committee was intrigued, and in December Austin returned again to suggest alternative courses of action, including an external public-facing corporate blog and various internal-facing blogs. While Austin and the communications department had been focused on external blogging, CEO Edward J. Zore quickly embraced the concept of internal blogs.

For Northwestern Mutual, blogging fit squarely into an overall corporate communications strategy that was intended, as Zore put it, to "open the windows" and foster a more open and honest dialogue within the company. As part of that initiative, blogging was expected to bring efficient and accurate communication from management to employees, a feedback loop from employees back to management, and better communication between employees.

What Northwestern Mutual Has Deployed

To date, Northwestern Mutual has deployed a blogging solution (Mutualblog), an RSS solution (Mutualfeeds), and wikis (in a limited test deployment). The firm began with blogging, engaging Awareness (formerly iUpload) in January 2006 to provide an on-demand blogging platform (see Figure 1). Mutualblog was up and running a mere four months later in June 2006 and now supports close to 100 active blogs. RSS followed in December 2006, with NewsGator Technologies providing a private-label feed reader service (see endnote 2). Currently, the firm is piloting a full-featured wiki deployment from Atlassian Software Systems within the information systems (IS) department.

From the very onset, the communications department worked to bring Web 2.0 tools into the firm through established protocols and corporate processes. While the company could have easily circumvented those protocols, strong executive buy-in — most importantly from CEO Edward J. Zore — was critical to Northwestern Mutual's success.

Ultimately, executive support:

Marshaled necessary resources. Due to a quirk of timing, the communications department missed the budget setting period for new projects; however, Zore's strong support of the project easily overcame that obstacle. Even beyond that particular timing issue, executive support ensured that the proper funding and resources were behind the project. Without such buy-in, competing projects with stronger ROI support could have overwhelmed Web 2.0 during the budget allocation process.

Brought key stakeholders in line. Because Northwestern Mutual operates in the highly regulated financial services industry, there were many eyebrows raised at the notion of bringing unstructured tools like blogs into the enterprise. While the gut reaction to blogging may have been to ask if blogs were even necessary, Zore's commitment changed the conversation away from the necessity of blogging to how to bring blogging into the enterprise in the safest, most reliable way possible.

Signaled to employees that blogging was a key initiative. While some employees were thrilled to see blogging come to the enterprise, others were skeptical, and most were unsure how corporate blogging was supposed to work. Mutualblog was intended to foster open and honest communication, but few employees wanted to be the first to question company policy in a public forum. Strong management commitment—with some managers maintaining their own blogs—helped set the tone for how important blogging was to the firm, as well as how open and honest employees could be.

At the direction of Zore and the public affairs committee, Austin organized a working group with decision-makers from legal, human resources, and corporate IT to address how to bring blogging into Northwestern Mutual and the lingering concerns about the project among the employee population as a whole. Among other issues, the group addressed employee usage guidelines, compliance, security, technical integration, and rollout strategy.

The communications department was the originator of the initiative, and it ultimately led much of the project. However, creating a cross-functional team to tackle the major issues before deployment proved to be beneficial. The group took perspectives from all major stakeholders into account, and concerned departments were given the opportunity to preview the application, resulting in lowered concerns about the implementation.

Were There Any Major Technological Concerns? Download the rest of this report, including graphics and notes, free of charge at

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