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.


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.,
  • 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.