Steve Bendt & Gary Koelling

Founders of Blue Shirt Nation

Best Buy

Steve Bendt and Gary Koelling are two of the more unusual change agents you're likely to come across. Laid-back hipsters with modest demeanors, they shatter the myth of typical change agents who are aggressive, decisive and demanding.

Yet somehow this duo managed to create something most established companies only dream of: real and informed employee engagement that cuts across boundaries, silos, departments and disciplines.

Bendt and Koelling are the creators of Blue Shirt Nation (BSN), a robust community of Best Buy employees who convene regularly to share knowledge, best practices, frustrations, aspirations and a few jokes. Community members include everyone from recent high school graduates to semi-retirees.

"BSN members form groups, make friends, stay in touch and prop each other up; they swap ideas and problem-solve together," explains Bendt. "It's really cool and it's also a total fluke."

Bendt and Koelling are two former advertising whiz kids hired by Best Buy a few years ago to work on various advertising campaigns. Marketing is a company's growth engine—from developing products and services to acquiring and keeping customers—and the stakes were high. The pair proceeded to come up with a "crazy idea to circumvent all the rules" and build an online community to tap into customer insight. Their source for the insight: The Best Buy employee.

"When we set it up two years ago, we weren't turning on a social network," explains Koelling. "We were turning on a research tool. Boy, did we have it wrong."

"We found out real fast that employees didn't want to play that game," says Bendt. "Instead, they gave us new rules and told us what they wanted on the site and at the company. We shut up pretty quickly and realized we needed to just listen."

Both Bendt and Koelling agree that the project quickly became more interesting than the original problem they were trying to solve. The site launched in June 2006 and within a year, 20,000 (of Best Buy's 150,000) employees had signed up.

Most change agents are cost managers driven to perform under hostile budgetary requirements. Improving marketing efficiencies by generating more growth with leaner operations is a challenge the Best Buy guys seem to relish. "BSN started with an idea that we couldn't get sponsored," explains Bendt. "When the site went live in June of '06, Gary had funded the whole thing on the QT. For the domain name and a year of hosting, it cost a hundred dollars. The software that built the site was free. There was one user, the administrator."

"We knew upfront that we had no idea what we were doing. It was the blessing of ignorance that allowed it to be flexible and go where it went," continues Koelling.

Four months after Blue Shirt Nation launched, Bendt and Koelling received buy-in from senior management and a budget to support the community in earnest. They hit the streets and traveled to 130 stores nationwide talking to as many employees as they could, one-on-one. "We'd catch a morning meeting, catch a few people in the break room, and talk to people on the store floor. These conversations fueled future iterations of BSN. It was also a great word-of-mouth strategy to get people on the site," explains Bendt.

For the most part, the community moderates itself although there are times when facilitation becomes necessary. "The fear factor that so many executives seem to have with open forums did not materialize on Blue Shirt Nation," explains Bendt. "We put the responsibility on the community and said 'listen, don't be stupid and take care of each other.'"

Koelling goes on to say: "People are called out all the time. But since the launch, we've only had to take down 3 posts."

Enterprise-wide, Best Buy's turnaround rate is 60%; the Blue Shirt Nation community is 8-12%. Senior management at the company has taken notice and up next for the pair is a project which might turn out to be their most challenging to date: transfer what they've learned into a sustainable, repeatable process that can be used in other communities. "It's a big idea," says Bendt. "But like everything we do, we'll go in small with nominal risk. I think our experience is the bigger the budget, the higher the risk of failure. But I also know that if we come out the other end, the money will be there. That's the Best Buy culture."