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 “.
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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.

E2.0 Impact On People Practices

I have been trying to make sense out of some stuff I have been reading and explore how some of these ideas could redefine people practices in organizations. Innovation and collaboration are two areas where the impact of E2.0 has been significant and a lot has been written about these. There are three other interesting ideas that are important to HR/OD/OB professionals which can be augmented using E2.0:

Identifying Natural Leaders & Experts

There was this fantastic post in WSJ about Natural leaders sometime back. Quoting from the post : [ emphasis mine ]

Natural leaders today have the means to challenge ossified and change-resistant power structures. Thanks to the reach of the Web, a lowly but brilliantly effective leader can mobilize followers across a global organization and beyond—by writing an influential blog, by using that notoriety to get a platform at industry events, by hosting a Web-based discussion on a hot topic, by building an online coalition of similarly-minded individuals, by disseminating a provocative position paper to hundreds or thousands of fellow employees, and by using email to ensure that supporters show up at key meetings. The same technology that allowed Barack Obama to challenge the old guard in the Democratic party can help natural leaders in your organization outflank the bunglers and the obstructionists.

This in my view is a potential game changer for many organizations – Cisco’s council/board management model together with it’s adoption of social software is a great example of enabling this. There needs to be an openness though from senior management to “let” this happen. Continuous apathy from decision makers can still stifle potential leaders. The biggest take away is that “identifying and allowing natural leaders to emerge” has to be part of any E2.0 strategy. And this goes beyond just throwing in technology – you need to align your people practices to the possibilities  that these technologies bring to the table.

Talent Relationship Management

I bookmarked this post on Talent Relationship management from Gartner sometime last year. Quoting from the post: [ Emphasis mine ]

What do I mean by talent relationship lifecycle?  It is the relationship an organization has with a person over time.  I might be a student at a university and I schedule an interview on campus (become a candidate). I might then apply for a specific job, get hired, work for the company, decide to work part-time, leave the company (become an alumni), work as a contractor for the company,  maybe get re-hired by the company, and retire.  This is just an example.  The reality may be even more complicated for an individual as they might have as many 20 jobs before he/she retires.  The dynamics of the relationship between the organization and individual changes as the relationship changes.  When I am a passive candidate for a job, a company may use social networking as a way to find me (referral), interest me in the job (help me connect with like-minded and interested people in the organization), and ultimately, sell me on the job.  This is one way to do candidate relationship management.  It also might use me as a referral source.  When I am hired, an organization might want to foster a collaborative work environment leveraging social networking as a way to make connections between workers (internally and externally – customers, partners, vendors, etc.).  Relationships also play a role in movement within the company (think promotions, transfers, development, mentoring, etc.).  This is classic talent management territory.  When I leave the company, hopefully on good terms, the company may still want to continue the relationship with me as an alumni because I might come back as a part-time and/or contingent worker or I might end up working for a customer, partner, vendor, or even competitor.  The nature of the relationship changes over time.  Even after the employment relationship ends, the relationship still has considerable potential value.”

Gautam Ghosh of 2020Social calls this – Social Employee Relationship Management – which I think is an interesting name.

Let me go slightly tangential. I believe a more subtler thing that happens when you manage talent the right way is employee engagement. Social software gives HR/OD/OB professionals the leverage to impact major people practices that directly impact employee engagement – mentoring is one such area. One of the biggest challenges in scaling mentoring in large organizations has been time – time mentors can spend with mentees. This has largely been a limitation of the need to meet face to face always. With E2.0 it now becomes possible for a mentee to shadow the mentor virtually – A simple example is the mentee following the mentor on Yammer with the mentor posting stuff on what he is thinking about/reading/major things he needs answers for etc., I think E2.0 gives HR pros the opportunity to think about mentoring as a far more organic process rather than a formal program of some sort.

Fostering Trust

There are two forms of trust that are important in knowledge sharing scenarios – benevolence based trust and competence based trust – See paper here . When the seeker believes that the source will not harm him/her intentionally, that is benevolence based trust [ for instance trusting that someone will not hold back knowledge when I ask for it ] and when the seeker believes that the source has the necessary knowledge and skills to answer to help him/her, that is competance based trust. For effective knowledge sharing to happen, both forms of trust are necessary. And trust is also influenced by demography, age, shared context etc. E2.0 gives us the opportunity to make competence based trust explicit by showing a reputation score/badge against each name.  Benevolence based trust implicity surfaces by virtue of a person participating in a social system and leaving digital trails – comments, ratings, answers, questions etc., Huge opportunity for HR/OD/OB pros to scale and make trust a more tangible element within organizations.

What do you think? What are the other people practices that are likely to benefit from E2.0 and social software?