Real intranet managers: Dinesh Tantri aligns gamification with culture

Real intranet managers: Dinesh Tantri aligns gamification with culture

When Dinesh first walked into the ThoughtWorks office he was surprised to see no cubicles or offices. Everyone, including executives, worked around tables in teams.

June 6, 2011

*Update: Whoaaa, this blog post is really old! Check out some more recent posts here. 

ThoughtWorks Intranet Manager" width="200" height="215" /> Dinesh Tantri, Head of Knowledge Strategy at ThoughtWorks[/caption]

Dinesh at a glance

  • Name: Dinesh Tantri (pronounced "dee-naysh")
  • Age: 31
  • Hometown: Coimbatore, South India
  • On Twitter: @dineshtantri
  • Blog: Collabware
  • CompanyThoughtWorks is an IT consultancy with 22 offices in 7 countries. ThoughtWorks specializes in agile software development and consulting for clients around the world.
  • Headquarters: Chicago, Illinois
  • Employees: 1,700
  • Where are you based? Outside of Bangalore
  • Role / job title: Head - Knowledge Strategy
  • Name of intranet: myThoughtWorks
  • Date of most recent overhaul: In March, 2011 launched a new intranet
  • Intranet history: Have tested different types of intranets for past five years (wikis, Lotus discussions, etc.)
  • Technology stack: Jive (social collaboration platform), with Google Apps, Google Search Appliance & a few small custom apps
  • Size: 2,949 documents, 1,577 discussion threads, 1,222 blog posts, 1,136 bookmarks (after less than three months!)

The challenge: Build a new social intranet where past ones had failed

In March 2009 Dinesh joined as Head of Knowledge Strategy for ThoughtWorks, a global US-based IT consultancy specializing in agile software development and consulting. When Dinesh first walked into the ThoughtWorks office he was surprised to see no cubicles or offices. Everyone, including executives, worked around tables in teams. This contrasted starkly with his previous experience at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), an Indian IT firm with 100,000+ employees, where everyone sat in cubicles and leaders had their own offices.

It was his success with internal knowledge sharing at TCS which made him a perfect candidate to lead the Knowledge Strategy group at ThoughtWorks. But from day one he realized the differences in organizational culture meant solutions for one company might not translate to the other.

The big challenge before Dinesh: Build a social intranet for a company of dispersed and highly intellectual software developers and consultants where several past intranet efforts had failed.

Past success with gamification of knowledge sharing

Dinesh started out at TCS as a C++ developer working on mainframes back in 2002, then joined the internal knowledge sharing team and eventually became involved in TCS's Web 2.0 Innovation Lab. One of the key projects he was involved in was the launch of a social questions & answers (Q&A) application that leveraged gaming principles to achieve outstanding adoption and provide tremendous value to the company. Working with Ashok Krish, now head of the TCS Web 2.0 Innovation Lab, Dinesh conceptualized and built the application to help tap the knowledge of TCS' then 60,000 employees from around the globe.

Dinesh started off with the question, "Why don't discussion forums work in large enterprises?" They explored Yahoo! Answers and other online forums popular at the time, learning every possible lesson before starting to design the application.

The Q&A application took off like wildfire once launched, quickly gaining hundreds of thousands of questions and answers. According to Dinesh, "The amount of learning when conceptualizing was phenomenal."  Dinesh felt the success was due in large part to the gaming principles used to spur on adoption. With a built-in points system and online leader boards, the Q&A application created an environment of friendly competition that allowed major contributors to shine.  This was a good fit with the culture of TCS. According to Dinesh, "In Indian IT firms there are a huge amount of young guys who are eager to compete."

Dinesh knew that his success using gaming principles at TCS rested on an organizational culture that valued competition, but he wasn't sure how that might translate to the culture at ThoughtWorks.

Collegial culture didn't cater to competition

ThoughtWorks Bangalore
Photo by ThoughtWorks Bangalore

During his first one and a half years at ThoughtWorks Dinesh felt like an outsider -- purposefully:

"When starting a project like this it's helpful to have a somewhat external perspective. You need to keep your eyes and ears open to pick up every possible cue from the culture. An understanding of these types of cultural cues feeds into how you run your change management and your communications campaign when designing a new intranet or system."

Dinesh learned that colleagues at ThoughtWorks trusted and respected each other very much and also carried very strong opinions. Most of the software developers had worked on open source projects for years and had histories of contributing to efforts in highly collaborative ways. It started to dawn on Dinesh that a competitive environment wouldn't be the silver bullet at ThoughtWorks that it had been at TCS.

While thousands of young developers had competed for recognition in his social Q&A application, at ThoughtWorks employees had different motivations, different drivers. People were eager to share and had experience with respectful collaboration. Competition on the new social intranet "might have negative effects not just on the system, but on the organization's culture." In a high trust environment, competition could actually hurt the very positive aspects of organizational culture that the social intranet needed to capitalize upon.

So after consideration and some limited experimentation, Dinesh and his team decided that gamification was not the right approach for ThoughtWorks, at least for the initial launch. Instead, Dinesh leveraged other cultural cues to gain adoption.

Lesson learned: Listen to culture

It turns out that the silver bullet to social intranet adoption lay in the pedigree of open source community involvement at ThoughtWorks. Open source communities rely heavily on mailing lists for communication and employees carried over this behavior to internal collaboration. For all its faults, email was a critical part of collaboration on open source projects.

So Dinesh's team decided that email integration would be the number one criteria for assessing potential platforms for their new intranet. They wouldn't force employees to give up behaviors that resonated with their deeply held professional identities, but instead implemented software that allowed employees to interact with intranet discussions completely via email. Without this email integration, Dinesh would have forced employees to make a decision between using email or using the new social intranet. The payoff from the direction they took has been tremendous. Employees have connected with each other in ways that had never before been possible.

Dinesh likes to say that understanding organizational culture is not just about speaking to people, but is about "sensing the vibes in the workplace." You've got to listen and feel your way through to the right solution. At TCS, Dinesh learned how to design gamification to get specific results around knowledge sharing. But gamification will not provide good results if it's not a good cultural fit.

Dinesh and his team approached gamification with caution in order to ensure cultural alignment at ThoughtWorks and avoided the mistake of using gaming principles where they simply didn't fit with organizational culture. Instead, he found a thoughtful approach that capitalized on the culture of his company and which has led to outstanding social intranet adoption by colleagues across the globe.

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