When Beat Knechtli, Chief Knowledge Officer at PwC Switzerland, presented their recently launched social collaboration platform at the i2 Summit in Zurich, he surely had the audience hanging at his lips. His case study was not one of those “we are experimenting with a more collaborative and social intranet”, but one that gives practical meaning to the notion of “digital business transformation”. Not only does the solution outlined in this case study take social collaboration to a new level, also the project approach holds true to the new paradigm.
Beat Knechtli summed up both aspects very adequately by saying: “everything that is not fully dynamic is simply too slow to support our business any longer”. Just think of how many aspects of traditional projects and intranet solutions fail to meet that criterion.
Imagine that your organisation defines business goals that are impossible to achieve with traditional ways of doing business or incremental optimisation, but require radical new approaches. Imagine also, that your business has to deal with nearly mind-blowing level of dynamics that include integrating over 40’000 new employees into the company per year and catering to a highly qualified, global workforce that has an average age of just 27.
A glimpse of the “future normal”
What may sound like an organisational nightmare to most, might just sound a “too good to be true” business case for those wanting to give collaboration and social networking a jump start in their organisation. With over 180’000 employees in 776 locations spread over 158 countries and the goal to double turnover in a relatively short span of time, this is just how the starting situation at the global PwC network of firms looked like in 2011.
With a long history of advanced knowledge management solutions, it was clear from the beginning, that “doing things better” would not be enough. Instead, bold new ideas were needed. A group of about 15 people in knowledge management functions teamed up to deliver such an idea, that, under normal conditions, might not have stood a chance to see the light of day. Given PwC’s organisational structure with highly independent national legal entities, cross-border collaboration and information exchange was always a nearly insurmountable issue in the past (involving many legal, risk and compliance related obstacles).
But before the background of PwC’s ambitious business goals, the pitch for a radical new initiative was a self seller. And there simply was no alternative option how the company might achieve things like:
- Much faster offering processes
- Having knowledge flow instead of it being hidden in emails and other non-transparent information systems
- Having 180’000 experts at your fingertip to help with every question or issue imaginable
- Leveraging the potential of enabling people to work in a manner that they are already used to and proficient in from their private life
- Turn documentation from a activity done after a task is finished (what I call “post mortem information management”) to an integral part of every normal work process
The project team didn’t even have to go much further in defining specific use cases to convince management, as it was obvious that defining what people will be using the future solution for in order to solve their individual business issues and optimise their own work activities would be impossible.
What was also clear from the outset, was that no system already existing in PwC – and there are lots of them, including many advanced ones – could be used for this new solution (too much legacy involved) and that no systems would be integrated into the new solution at the start, as also this would slow the project down too much.
The Project is the Message
So when the team got the assignment, they set out with the goal to provide “one common social networking & collaboration platform that accelerates PwC’s ability to connect with each other and collaborate together to create value for themselves and their clients”.
When working out some fundamental principles for the project, it already became evident, that this was not your usual intranet project:
For an intranet this is quite a radical approach. At PwC it was met with surprisingly little resistance. Neither Communications (losing all their “news/homepage real estate”), nor HR objected. Some convincing still had to be done with technical stakeholders (preferring a more structured approach, e.g. in regard to information architecture) and risk & compliance related stakeholders (who quickly understood that the then current situation posed a greater risk than the future one).
Also here, the decision not to integrate or replace any existing systems in the first step helped the project team greatly in advancing quickly and without obstacles, as current system owners could be won much easier.
A classical project approach (with extensive analysis and specification phases) was not deemed fit for the purpose. Instead the team wanted to demonstrate the new way of doing things also in the project itself. Therefore an agile project approach with 7 sprints was used. At the core of the approach were two concepts:
- Use “Waves”, not pilots: pilots can be stopped if stakeholders don’t see enough value or success. A wave, once started, cannot be stopped by anything.
- Go where the energy is, not where the pockets of resistance are: the project team actively looked for the solution to be carried forward by a broad base of enthusiastic people. They found more than 1’000 of them (called “advocates”) and involved them in the project by already making use of the future solution.
Feature richness meets Web 2.0 simplicity
Following a short but intense technology evaluation process, Jive was selected. Given the products richness in functionality, the project team was careful not to “overdo it” in the first rollout. Spark – as the platform was named – is unusually feature rich, but due to a clear design and high usability, it still does a great job in not overwhelming users. For instance, it is always very clear what the key elements of a page are, everything else can be used at leisure.
Spark offers all the community, collaboration and social media functionality you can think of (see also screenshots below). What’s even more important: it is making information accessible in a variety of different ways, using as much context as possible. Taking the omnipresent, personal activity stream of each user as an example, this means that rich filtering options exist, enabling the user to…
- See only topics and groups relevant to them
- See only posting from people they follow
- Hide information on a very granular level (e.g. whole groups, individual discussions, single threads, …)
- See what information is most relevant in regard to the user’s own behaviour and interests
- See only certain types of notifications, for instance just personal messages or tasks
And while all the filtering and search mechanisms (which of course also exist and work quite well) won’t do away with information overflow in itself, they serve an important psychological purpose as well: putting the responsibility for managing information needs into the hands of each individual user. Want to complain to IT because there is so much (and irrelevant) information on your start page? Not anymore! Now it’s you who is in the driver seat.
And given how simple and intuitive adapting your filters is, optimising your experience is much easier and quicker than living with an information tsunami right on your homepage.
A question coming up related to that was, whether filtering would lead to a situation in which people would miss out on information that might potentially be relevant for them. While the answer naturally is “yes, of course”, this situation still is vastly better than…
- The old situation in which people didn’t even have the possibility to get the information at all
- A situation in which no filtering is used and the sheer information volume makes people miss out on a large proportion of what is relevant to them
A closer look at Spark
Due to the confidential nature of PwC’s business, the following screenshots were taken from the implementation phase of the project. They don’t portray all facets of the current system and the rich interactions going on there!
The activity stream bringing together information from all over Spark in a highly personalised way
A sample community (called “groups” in Spark) – the interaction elements used can be adapted freely by the group owner
While many details of how communities are supported, how workspaces are built etc. would be worth mentioning, it is not possible to look at all the options Spark offers in more depth here. Instead let’s take a quick look at four areas that stood out for me in the intranet tour given by Beat Knechtli:
- Recommended Content
- Office Integration
- LinkedIn Connector
Gamification is a concept that uses playful methods in order to foster user activity and engagement. Contributing to Spark will automatically give you points (different actions being worth a defined number of points in relation to their value) and a certain number of points will earn you badges, like for instance a “Super Spark” badge. This form of user recognition not only helps increase employee motivation to make use of Spark, it also shows that using the system is something that the company encourages you to do (as opposed to seeing it as a way to waste time for people who have not enough work on their desks). It is also helpful in identifying experts in the employee directory.
There are 5 status levels:
||0 – 50
||51 – 250
||251 – 1,000
||1,001 – 3,000
Points can be gained by the following activities:
|Posting or responding to discussion
|Correctly answered discussion questions
|Helpful responses to discussion questions
|Creating new documents
|Creating new blog posts
|Completing tasks in a project
|Creating a new status update
|User’s status was liked
|User’s status update shared
|Add comment for idea
|Vote an idea
Using “collaborative filtering” technologies, Spark makes context-based recommendations for items potentially relevant for a user. This can be content that is related to what you currently have on your screen, a community that is similar to the one you are using at the moment or any other content item that is in the context of what you are doing.
Related content recommended to the user in the context of what he is doing or interested in (taken from his activities and his profile)
This function relies on a piece of software (called “Jive Genius”). However, this doesn’t mean that users are not active in recommending as well. With groups, for instance, it quickly became clear to community moderators, that the more relevant people they have in their group, the more value the group will create for its members. That started group owners to go “hunting” for members with interests and expertise in the community’s respective topic area.
With over 9’000 communities (as of December 2012) already established, competition for user attention among groups should help drive creativity and motivation to make communities as attractive as possible.
Also, using the “share with” function, you can share any information you find relevant with a target audience that you define. This can be people from your networks, a group of people or a community. This also helps foster exchange among communities and linking content more tightly.
The share function makes it easy to channel content to target groups of the user’ choosing
Files in office format can be opened from Spark and saved directly back to Spark. Via a user pane integrated into the MS Office applications, also all metadata belonging to the respective document is visible and usable. Want to know how a document has been rated by other users and what tags have been assigned to it? All that is available right there in Word, Excel and Powerpoint.
With the “Dashboard” pane in Office applications the chasm between the intranet and Office applications is made much smaller
The employee profile in Spark’s people directory serves as an aggregation point for people related content from all over the system. Of course, it also offers the possibility to enter additional information about yourself, your interests and expertise. You can also tag yourself with the keywords that you would like to be found with in searches.
As many of PwC’s employees already have profiles in LinkedIn (more than 100’000 by end of 2012), your personal profile also contains a direct link to that profile and the option to import data from your LinkedIn profile into spark (e.g. your employment history).
Direct access to a colleagues profile data on LinkedIn
Given Spark’s direct link to a strategic business goal, management buy-in was gained rather quickly. This, of course, was not a guarantee that people would accept Spark and adopt to the new way of doing things. Remember, that even though PwC’s employees have a low average age (27!), open collaboration among countries was anything but the norm in the past. So, in addition to the already mentioned user advocates, the project team used a number of additional approaches to make sure that Spark would be a success. This included:
- Promoting success stories: as the project team didn’t define use cases for Spark, they promote the successful, real-life use cases that people come up with and use Spark for. There is a whole collection of such cases that gets cultivated and keeps growing. Among the success stories you will find things like offering processes being cut in half, version control issues being reduced by 80% or solving business problems in your sleep through a worldwide community.
- Asking the countries to come up with their own innovative ways to introduce Spark. This led to outstanding approaches, that really got people’s attention. While some were of a more playful nature (but always connected to the theme of doing things in new ways), others were strictly business oriented. In Switzerland, for instance, information about the yearly promotions was made available only on Spark. So, if you wanted to know whether you had moved up the ladder or not, you had to visit Spark. This catapulted adoption rates from a little over 20% to 92% in a matter of days.
What will come as a surprise to many is, that the rates didn’t collapse after the event but remained on a high level. The value of a system needs to be pretty self-evident to create such effects.
Spark Adoption rates in Switzerland – the red line indicates the non-returning users
One of the videos created for promoting Spark:
While discussions about the business value of a social platform can be endless (and often fruitless as well), PwC can already show good evidence on how Spark is affecting the business. Here are some examples:
- A first survey a few months after the launch shows that already some 80% of the frequent users think that Spark increases both their efficiency and effectiveness. This supports data collected by Jive with other clients who show similar results.
(see page 9 in the attached PDF “The business value of social business” by Jive Software for more information)
- Some systems with a similar scope used on a national level have already been partly or fully replaced by Spark, directly saving cost
- For potential hires, Spark can be a unique selling proposition, as the direct competition seems to be less advanced in that area. Beat Knechtli anecdotally tells the story of a new employee who explicitly stated that Spark was among the key reasons for him to decide for PwC and against offers from the competition.
Further acknowledgement comes from external sources: PwC won the “New Way to Business” award at Jive World 2012 as a recognition for demonstrating “a strategic organizational change in the way work gets done”.
The heat is on
What does Spark’s success mean for the business of other companies? Your organisation might not have to double its turnover, hire 40k new employees a year or have an average employee age below 30. Furthermore, the relation between your employee’s capability to do something and your bottom-line might not be as direct as PwC’s, where additional knowledge (for instance) can directly translate into more hours billed or better service delivered.
While all these points will apply for most organisations, it would wrong to conclude that they are in a completely different situation and can therefore just lean back and watch developments in this area for some more time.
In reality, the situation differs only in the degree of pressure to transform your organisation into a much more connected and knowledge-based one. So it is not a question of whether or not you are affected, but just to how high a degree. Consider this:
- Market realities force all organisations to move at an ever increasing pace (this might translate into need for growth, need to specialise, faster time-to-market, etc. – all scenarios that are directly linked to better execution in collaboration)
- Increased competition for talent affects all organisations – in this “war for talents” employer marketing only goes so far. A nice employer brand won’t keep people happy for long once they discover that the shiny external image isn’t reflected in work practises, culture and tools as well.
- Employee age will be much less important for demand and adoption of such solutions in the future as social and collaborative technologies permeate the society in general ever more
- And finally, access to the right knowledge and people has already become a key success factor for every business, even if more indirectly as in PwC’s business. If the project team working on your new product has to resort to traditional, inefficient and ineffective work tools and practises, the result will not be left unaffected by this.
The future of work is already here. As Spark shows, smart work will lead to better results and more engaged employees. To cite Richard Branson (the founder and chairman of the Virgin Group with more than 400 companies): “Have fun, success will follow”.
A big thank you goes to Beat Knechtli for making this case study possible by answering all my questions and providing the material used here!