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.

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.

Altruism In The Workplace

Enough has been written about how Enteprise 2.0 can possibly help with expertise location. A few days back, Mike Gotta highlighted some of the potential flaws in this argument by pointing out problems that we need to solve – with or without technology. Towards the end of the post he says:

However, I typically find “expertise” over-sold when framed in techno-centric manners or when it is based on altruistic participation and contributions that may not exist in many workplace environments.

As I was reading this, I was wondering if building altruistic work cultures was something HR/OB strategists need to be thinking about. Maybe, but then it is important to remember the tension between self-interest and altruism and how both of these are deeply influenced by the culture of the organization. Self-interest may not be bad after all within organizations as long as we have the mechanisms to relate those actions into a peer recognition model.

Warning: The example that follows refers to “mailing lists” – E2.0 purists please avoid.

Lets assume we have mailing list that a community uses within the organization. Someone posts a question and 10 people from around the world reply within a few hours and the person who asked the question thanks the people who answered the question. Let’s dissect this a bit – Why did the 10 people take time out to help this person who asked the question – Is it altruism? Is it self-interest? Is it a mix of both? What is the impact of the person who asked the question thanking the people who answered the question? This happens in the organization I work for almost every single time – almost every question gets answered on mailing lists – and at least in this case, I believe people contribute not because they are altruistic but because they want to let the community know that they have a point of view and use this as a way of positioning themselves in the community as an expert – and this peer recognition matters in this culture – the fact that peers look up to you for suggestions matters – This may not be the case in every culture. However, the point I was getting to was that people acting out of self-interest in a community is ok as long as there are mechanisms to ensure that this act is socially situated [ happens in a mailing list or a workspace of some sort ] , is visible and fits into a larger peer recognition model.

Organizational Capabilities & Knowledge Flows

I came across this interesting document on organizational capabilities and have been thinking about how Enterprise 2.o could affect some of them. Specifically, understanding the implications of informal communities in helping organizations identify, build and expand organizational capabilities is an interesting area.

Some of the capabilities mentioned in the document are more foundational than others – some of them are necessary for other capabilities to be in place. For instance, collaboration and learning have a huge impact on other capabilities like speed, customer responsiveness, efficiency etc., Building institutional capability leveraging formal organizational structures and frameworks has never been easy.

Part of the problem is that formal structures and process frameworks like P-CMM try to force fit a solution to this problem with  linear models while completely ignoring the existence of the informal organization. Informal communities of practitioners play a significant role in keeping the knowledge flows going in the informal organization. The interplay between these communities and more formal structures responsible for institutionalizing organizational capabilities is becoming increasingly important. Orchestrating this coordination is an area where Enterprise 2.0 can play a key role.

Informal communities tend to have a greater sense of emerging opportunities given that they bring practitioners across multiple formal business units together. They usually send out signals that may be of importance to strategists. For instance, in the organization I work for, I am seeing a new community – about 10-15 people speaking a lot about functional programming over the past 6 months – Having mechanisms to detect these conversations and helping the community scale [ with the help of an associated formal business unit/practice ] if there is a business driver is a key capability for organizations. So how can Enterprise 2.0 help? By helping organizations orchestrate knowledge flows between informal communities and formal organizational structures – Not that this was not possible in the pre-E2.0 era, but just that it has become all the more easier from a technology stand point. Many a time, informal communities may not have the time and space to take ideas to a logical end whereas formal units may have the time and space but not the ideas. By setting up/identifying the right knowledge flows and having mechanisms that allow people to be part of these flows and creating a culture where managers keep their ears to the ground, you have the opportunity to accelerate the institutionalization of key capabilities that matter to your organization. I believe, orchestrating knowledge flows inside the enterprise and across the value chain will be a key organizational capability. The complexity that is inherent in these extended networks is likely to be a key competitive differentiator in the coming years and the Enterprise 2.o mindset will be at the heart of this.

What organizational capabilities do you see E2.0 impacting in the coming years?