The story of myThoughtWorks – A social intranet

This is the story of myThoughtWorks – a social intranet that is turning into a hugely valuable knowledge commons and collaboration hub for ThoughtWorks. ThoughtWorks, for those of you who haven’t heard of it is a global IT consultancy providing agile and lean based systems development, consulting and transformation services to Global 1000 companies.We are about 1700 strong with offices in about 22 cities in US,UK,Germany,China,Australia,Canada,India and Brazil.

The Problem

We were getting bigger and more distributed than ever before. To add to the distribution complexity, most of our consultants work out of client locations. Interconnectedness was becoming a huge problem. There was a plausible gap between our purpose which was “to be a home for the best knowledge workers in the world” and the internal knowledge/collaboration platforms that we had at the time. People were not able to find and get to know people in other regions, people were not able to find content, we had far too many destinations for knowledge and collaboration – to sum it up we weren’t in good shape on the knowledge/collaboration front.

How Did We Go About Solving This?

We started working on a few key dimensions that mattered to us:

  • Rich People Profiles: We wanted to make sure that there was a face against every name – Rich profiles was something we wanted to get right. Profiles that would give a holistic view of a person – contact information, groups they are part of, stuff they have been creating, tags they have been using etc., Profiles we knew would be at the front and center of this enterprise community. Profiles formed the cornerstone for identity, relationships and serendipity.
  • Authoring & Discovery: We wanted to make it dead simple to get stuff into and out of the platform. Reducing the barriers to authoring content be it discussions, documents, blog posts, bookmarks or ideas was one of our key objectives. We wanted to ease change management with tight email integration so that people can create and consume content from email and their mobiles. On the other hand, we wanted to make finding stuff seamless. Search, tag based navigation and “in-context” recommendations like related people and content were some of the key things we wanted on the discovery side. Enterprise search to us had to be more than 10 blue links on the results page – we needed it to be a bit more faceted – we wanted to be able to look up for something and filter down based on content types, people, groups etc.,
  • Ridiculously easy group forming – We knew early on that groups are one of the key constructs to get right. We wanted to make group creation as straightforward as possible. We did not want any IT intervention in the creation of groups. Anyone in the company can create a group and invite others. We now have a number of groups ranging from scuba diving and photography to social justice and software development. Making it fun and easy has led to an explosion of groups.
  • Serendipity – Given that we were extremely distributed, we wanted to make sure that people in different regions keep bouncing into other interesting people and ideas. This then sets the stage for new ties.
  • Send out signals that the community is alive – One of the things that went wrong with intranets in the past is that they hardly sent out any signals of activity that you can act on. We knew upfront that activity streams are a cool way to do this. The activity stream on our landing page is our “information radiator” in many ways sending out constant signals to the community about content and people.
  • Manage Noise – We wanted to make sure that we get a platform that allows for personalization. The biggest risk with activity streams is that if the community gets active, the stream gets flooded. So we wanted to make sure that there are filters and other alternatives to managing noise.

Adoption

Here are a few numbers for the past 3 months:

  • 1044 blog posts on multiple things like post-mortem analysis of projects, client strategy, technology etc.,
  • 1021 bookmarks
  • 1272 discussion threads across ~240 groups
  • 2565 documents
  • ~1500 active users and ~850 contributing users so far

The numbers don’t mean much in isolation – we plan to continue focusing on anecdotal evidence to understand the usefulness of the platform.

Why we think it worked?

On the technology front, Jive is an awesome platform and that definitely played a huge role in helping us get here and their technical support has been phenomenal. Having said that, we believe there are more fundamental reasons for the success of this initiative. ThoughtWorks is a “positive deviant” in many ways – Over the past 17 years we have experimented with and evolved a number of organizational and people practices that are fundamental to building a collaborative work culture. These practices and beliefs form the corner stone of what we call our “Global Social Infrastructure” :

  • Our belief that culture is the long term advantage not business models
  • Small Offices – We limit the number of people in each office to 150. People get to know each other better, there is better trust and deeper knowledge sharing
  • Open workspaces act as change agents – None of our offices have cubicles – None in leadership team have a private cabin.
  • Loose Hierarchies – our organizational structure resembles a fishnet with “temporary centralization based on purpose and need.
  • Smart Incentives –Peer recognition and intrinsic motivation drive collaborative behavior
  • Informal Communities – We have always had thriving communities & fantastic conversations. None of them are “official” per-se. Most of them are self-assembled groups of passionate people – Irrespective of the platforms we have used in the past [ Mailman, Google Groups etc., ], we have always had intense conversations and debates in these communities. This is a side effect of the kind of people we hire and the traits we look for. Face to face community meetings are another key aspect of the culture. Every region has its own style and rhythm – Friday Pubs, Lunch and Learn sessions etc.,
  • Transparency and trust – This is a key part of our culture – Giving people on the ground access to resources they need and letting them make decisions is a major way of engendering trust. The rule of thumb on the transparency is “as much as people can tolerate “.

EdTech & Social Business – The Problem Of Assimilation

Euan Semple wrote a very interesting post a few days back describing the assimilation of social tools in the workplace to strengthen status-quo rather than disrupt it. This is one of the reasons purely bottom-up approaches don’t really pay-off.

Incidentally, I have been reading through some pretty old conversations between Seymour Papert and the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire around the future of school and in part 2 of the series one of the things that stands out is this:

The school bureaucracies know very well how to use the computer … in order to reinforce their own concept of school. And I find it very interesting that … in the 1970s the first times I saw any microcomputers in schools, it was always through the efforts of a visionary and rebellious teacher who didn’t like what he or she — often she — was supposed to be doing and saw the computer as the way of doing something different. And often … this is a bit romantic … they felt the potential of this thing and they wanted change.… So it was an instrument of radical change — that’s what they thought it was. And then around about the middle of the 1980s … this computer got into the hands of school administrations and the ministries and the commissioners of education, state education departments.

And now look what they did with them: no longer are there computers in the hands of visionary teachers in the classrooms. The establishment pulls together and now they’ve got a computer classroom, there’s a computer curriculum, and there’s a special computer teacher. In other words, the computer has been thoroughly assimilated to the way you do things in school.

Looks like assimilation is a problem with deep roots in institutions in general and not limited to enterprises alone. Be it schools,  governments or enterprises – many are likely to mangle the “social” out of social business and make it business as usual. Typical manifestations of this within enterprises attempting to use social platforms are:

  • Lots of private groups for no real reason leading to more silos than before
  • Extensive use of folders/sub-folders as opposed to tags
  • Using discussion forums for every conceivable type of interaction ignoring wiki pages, blogs and status updates
  • Building custom workflows for content like documents to keep gatekeepers happy
  • Community samaritans and their contributions are ignored
  • Very few middle and senior managers actually contribute to any conversation – as a matter of fact, they wonder if the people who contribute actually do any work!

The list is potentially endless. What this means is that an institution can choose to deploy a social tool and then take the social out of it by using a deadly web of structure, process and politics. Well, Drucker is right: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and any social business strategy is no exception.

Aligning Social CRM & Enterprise 2.0

I have been reading Dave Evan’s new book on social media marketing over the weekend. I enjoyed reading some of his ideas around Social CRM and how it dovetails into E2.0. Of interest to me are the challenges in orchestrating internal collaboration and knowledge sharing mechanisms to take advantage of streams of conversations [ and the insights ] that a Social CRM program can bring in. All of a sudden, there are a whole range of questions to be answered :

  • Which departments need to see this stuff? – Operations, Marketing, R&D, Product Development?
  • Do you push this or do they pull it themselves?
  • Are they empowered to act collectively across department silos with the knowledge they have access to and would they [ engagement ] and can they [ technology] act? – Remember people can continue to act the way they have been acting always with access to new knowledge – I remember seeing a good Larry Prusak interview on how IBM missed the PC revolution even though managers had access to all the knowledge they needed to make the right decision.
  • Do employees have the necessary media/information literacies to leverage social tools for business impact? – Mike Gotta’s post on Enterprise Publics and the need for media and information literacies is a great starting point.  While Gotta speaks about “Writing” – we can easily extend this to other skills knowledge workers would need – bookmarking, aggregating, commenting, filtering, following, tagging etc.,

In summary, for organizations that are treading the social CRM space, it is pertinent to get internal collaboration mechanisms in place for real value to emerge – and it’s going to be more about empowerment, engagement and literacy [ media/information ] rather than the technology itself.

Opportunity To Join The ThoughtWorks Enterprise 2.0 Team

The Knowledge Management/Enterprise 2.0 team in ThoughtWorks is expanding !! This team focuses on building next gen enterprise collaboration/knowledge management applications for use within ThoughtWorks. The impact of social software on enterprises has been huge and we are all set to leverage these trends in innovative ways. Here is your opportunity to be part of this team.

We are currently looking for a Senior Developer, Developer, Solution Specialist and Quality Analyst. Read on if you are interested :

Senior Developer

Number of position(s) : 1

Location: Bangalore

Years Of Experience : 5+

Position Responsibilities

  • Architect, design and build next gen enterprise collaboration/knowledge management applications [ Enterprise 2.0 Apps ]
  • Constantly endeavour to discover or develop better tools and techniques
  • Mentor and support colleagues when they’re working in areas where you have expertise
  • Work collaboratively with solution specialists, developers and QAs to deliver great applications

Skills and Experience

  • Good experience with web application architectures
  • Deep understanding and appreciation of Web 2.0 concepts and it’s use in enterprises
  • Deep knowledge of object oriented design, including design patterns
  • Demonstrate expertise in Java. Expertise in Ruby or Python is also acceptable
  • Good experience with Ajax, Javascript and web services
  • Experience with the Google Apps stack + Google App Engine and Force.com would be a plus
  • Familiarity with multiple programming paradigms and openness to learning new ones
  • Good experience with relational databases
  • Exposure to Test Driven Development would be a plus

Developer

Position requirements for this are mostly similar to that of a senior developer except that we would not look for serious architecture/design skills

Number of position(s) : 1

Location: Bangalore

Years Of Experience : 2+

Position Responsibilities

  • Help build next gen enterprise collaboration/knowledge management applications [ Enterprise 2.0 Apps ]
  • Constantly endeavour to discover or develop better tools and techniques
  • Work collaboratively with solution specialists, developers and QAs to deliver great applications

Skills and Experience

  • Deep understanding and appreciation of Web 2.0 concepts and it’s use in enterprises
  • Exposure to object oriented design, including design patterns
  • Strong skills in Java. Expertise in Ruby or Python is also acceptable
  • Good experience with Ajax, Javascript and web services
  • Experience with the Google Apps stack + Google App Engine and Force.com would be a plus
  • Familiarity with multiple programming paradigms and openness to learning new ones
  • Good experience with relational databases
  • Exposure to Test Driven Development would be a plus

Solution Specialist – Enterprise 2.0

Number of position(s) : 1

Location: Bangalore

Years Of Experience : 3+

Position Responsibilities

  • Work closely with internal stakeholders to understand and refine requirements
  • Map requirements in the Knowledge management/Enterprise 2.0 space to relevant tools/platforms
  • Set up proof of concept demos to internal stakeholders
  • Work closely with developers as need be

Skills & Experience

  • Excellent business analysis skills
  • Excellent functional understanding of enterprise collaboration tools and content management systems
  • Good understanding of pros and cons of using these platforms in multiple contexts
  • Hands on experience in configuring and customizing these tools for demonstrating value to internal stakeholders
  • Excellent communication and presentation skills

Quality Analyst

Number of position(s) : 1

Location: Bangalore

Years Of Experience : 3+

Position Responsibilities

  • Test software during development
  • Prepare software for deployment to production environments
  • Respond to questions/issues logged by users of a live system
  • Help refine our QA best practices

Skills and Experience

  • Experience in testing complex web applications with multiple integration touch points
  • Experience reviewing requirements and creating prioritized test plans based on business needs
  • Participation in full life-cycle business system development with teams of developers, analysts, and testers
  • Experience with integration and regression testing
  • Familiarity with defect tracking
  • Exposure to automated testing would be a big plus

Write to me if you are interested with your CV : dinesht [@] thoughtworks.com

The Nature Of Knowledge

This is a great post by David Weinberger on the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid and why it completely misses the point about the true nature of knowledge. Towards the end, he says :

But knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially “actionable” knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.

This is one of the best descriptions of the nature of knowledge I have come across. This dovetails well into what Ross Mayfield had to say a few years back about leaving complexity where it belongs – in social networks.

Evolving A Collaboration Strategy

Evolving a collaboration strategy is a complex affair – there is no one right way to do it. Having worked in two dramatically different organizations over the past 8 years or so, here are a few things I think are key :

  • Who and how you hire will eventually affect your ability to build a collaborative work culture. This in my experience is one of the most obvious and often over looked areas when evolving a long term collaboration strategy. And to add to this, HR/OD/OB strategists are rarely involved in these strategy sessions. Key to building collaborative capability is to look for traits that matter to make collaboration happen – empathy, trust & respect  to name a few. Irrespective of the tools we deploy, people have to choose to share and collaborate and these are voluntary decisions people make.
  • Physical Workspace Design. Building and workspace design is another area that needs to be factored in. Do your physcial workspaces allow seamless collaboration? Are they flexible enough to be reconfigured? Can employees move seamlessly between heads-down and group work and will workspaces assist them in doing this?
  • Understand decentralized decision making. Re-looking at Thomas Malone’s decentralized decision making structures would be interesting given where we are with Enterprise 2.0/social software. Understanding the right structures for the right scenarios will enable decision makers to choose the right set of tools. New experiments like SAP’s 12sprints are interesting in this context.
  • Prepare for porous enterprise boundaries. There are numerous theories around the development of organizational capabilities and RBV has been one of the earliest ones. Resources no longer need to reside completely within the enterprise and models like Innocentive have proved this. Preparing for a future where knowledge flows seamlessly within and outside enterprise boundaries is something a collaboration strategy needs to take into account.
  • Understand Incentives. This has been a very controversial and highly debated topic for a long time and will remain so given the complexity involved. Dan Pink’s TED talk on the science of motivation is a great source to get started on understanding incentives and rewards better. Understanding altruism, self-interest and everything in-between is challenging but any effort in this direction will have an impact on building support structures/mechanisms for collaboration to happen.
  • Foster Communities. Nothing new here but understanding informal communities and it’s role in building organizational capabilities is important. Fostering communities would also mean that decision makers acknowledge the existence of an informal organization.
  • Invest in social software. There is a specific reason why this is the last point – between throwing tools at people and they doing something with it, is one important magical thing that remains constant – the choice people make to use it or dump it – It is important to create the environment where people will choose to use these tools and then change manages itself. And creating that environment involves leadership,strategy and a commitment top-down and bottom-up.