The idea that collectively we make better decisions is often accepted in the workplace. Indeed, in the 2005 book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowieck popularized the idea. Perhaps in 2016 we ought to be consider the wisdom of collaboration.
One company that places a big emphasis on collaboration is ThoughtWorks, a technology company and a community of purpose-led individuals, called ThoughtWorkers, who aspire to revolutionise the IT industry while creating positive social change.
Back in 2011, the company built a new digital workplace.
“We had several intranets and ways of sharing information. But we got to a point where we had lots of different small solutions, yet nothing was cohesive. So, we decided to put more attention and effort on finding the right platform,” says IT Business Partner, Andy Yates (pictured).
ThoughtWorks experimented with different solutions such as MediaWiki and Confluence. But those solutions still created a separation between the conversations and the creation of content on one side, and the archiving of that content on the other side. The company was looking to establish one location for interactions and the recording of information, in order to create a collaboration space for the entire workforce. Yates feels he found all this while experimenting with Jive.
“I liked the philosophy of Jive more than just its features. Jive talks about being a collaboration hub. It is a hub, a place where you can integrate systems – this philosophy really appealed to our organisation. Systems have to be part of an ecosystem. They have to work together. One thing that Jive does is that it approaches that integration in a very mature way.”
Since launching the Jive platform the organisation has grown substantially. Originally, 1,300 ThoughtWorkers were using the tool. Today, over 4,000 employees rely on Jive to collaborate, to learn, and to contribute to what is happening across the organisation. Plus, Jive makes it easy to find the right people and to ask questions – and people are confident that community members will respond.
“Those are regarded almost as commodity needs now,” Yates emphasises.
Integrating systems of communication
“A lot of our communication has been email, historically.” According to Yates, employees know how to use emails efficiently — how to use filters and tags, and avoid information overload. But he did wonder how Jive and email would work alongside each other.
Jive can accept input via email, just as Yammer can. But also Yates worked with Jive to build a more custom two-way integration. Essentially it allows people to interact in a tool of their choice – whether it is through the Jive platform or email. “I can have a conversation on any of the tools that I choose. But the conversation ends up in a single place. Because it is bidirectional, it syncs both ways.”
It’s not all about the actual conversation – other social signals provide feedback and cues. For example, Jive tracks the popularity of content, and comments and likes are clearly shown. This social meta-data helps people catch-up with, and join in, on-going conversations. Being able to find past conversations aids corporate memory.
Email and Jive integration is particularly useful when working with external colleagues or clients. When a client doesn’t have their own preferred collaboration platform, ThoughtWorks uses Jive for project communication. While the client doesn’t access the Jive platform directly, they are able to join the mailing lists that are synchronised with the Jive platform, creating a single place for ThoughtWorkers to keep abreast of progress and developments.
Training and supporting
As people join the organisation, they are introduced to Jive. There is an on-boarding checklist, right on Jive, to get new starters up and running a presentation that explains how ThoughtWorks uses Jive. Other than that, training is light – there’s no need for a mandatory process. Yates explains that the focus is on allowing experimentation and making Jive usable enough that people can figure things out for themselves.
Yet, he thinks that there is value in giving employees ad hoc support if they have greater needs. For example, when someone needs to set up and manage a community.
For this reason, he and his colleagues have created a team to focus on collaboration support and community management. “The team is a mixture of people with different skills – development, data analysis, and community management.” They are not dedicated, full time community managers, but act as consultants to the rest of the organisation as needed. “The team does not manage communities for other people. Instead, they encourage people to do community management for themselves. The team provides advice about the tools and our ways of working.”
For example, when a team such as Sales, or Brand, or Retail, wants to set up a community, they will go to the collaboration team to talk about their requirements and ambitions. “We would engage in a discussion with them to say, ‘If you want this kind of interaction, then you should design a page that looks like this, and has this kind of content on it’.”
Sometimes there are custom widgets that a group might want to create. For example, the Sales Hub wanted to be able to search across multiple Jive groups but not across the entire site. So, the supporting team built a widget for them to do an ‘in place’ search. Ultimately, the Sales Hub were able to create the types of interactions and find the information that they felt was most appropriate.
ThoughtWorks empowers its employees, encouraging them to get involved in various communities. “If you have an idea and are very passionate about it you can go and set up a community space. You will be well supported.” In fact, ThoughtWorks has over 3,000 communities on the Jive network.
The biggest community is a ‘community of interest’ called Software Development. About 50% of the workforce is following it. It became so big that community members realised that it could be intimidating for some people. So, they co-created a code of conduct that was designed specifically to encourage new members to join the community and its many conversations. The collaboration team were able to help shape and craft the guidelines a little, however, “the work was done very much by the community themselves. They published it as a welcome message to the new people of the group, helping them understand how it works.”
The second biggest community is called Town Hall. People discuss subjects of interest to the entire business. Other communities focus on specialist software and tech processes, for example, testing or experience design.
But there are also non-work related groups such as LGBTQAI or Social Justice. Yates considers being involved in such groups as still part of a ThoughtWorker’s job. “As an organisation we are very passionate about social justice. That is embedded into the nature of the organisation. We don’t view those activities as separate from the business. We view them as much a part of our work as anything else. So, it is important for us to make those groups part of our working lives.”
Nurturing corporate memory
What seems to drive Yates’s appreciation of Jive is that the technology challenges corporate amnesia. “Now, we have a single repository of information where people can go and find what we have done in the past. It gives us a sense of knowing how things are done. Plus, we have a set of information and tools in the same place.”
He also likes the experts search — being able to find people with specific expertise. “I often need a person or a group of people who are experts in a certain area. Not to give me an answer but to work with me to figure out an answer. Quite often people are searching to debate something with someone – Jive has helped us to surf the expertise that various people have by looking at their actions and the content they are creating. Ultimately, it is easier to find the people who can help us to solve a problem.”
Collaboration, as opposed to working in silos, helps harness the collective brainpower of employees and that can lead to better decision making and ultimately innovation.