placemakinglogoIntrawest Placemaking’s wiki intranet allows practically unrestricted editing to all 250 employees. This has led to a tenfold increase in use over the previous intranet, and some excellent examples of knowledge sharing: One manager created a page with an idea that saved the company $500,000.

Company Backgrounds

Intrawest Placemaking is the real estate development division of Intrawest, a Fortress Investment Group company. Founded in 1976 as an urban real estate development firm, Intrawest now owns and operates 11 ski resorts, including Whistler Blackcomb, as well as warm-weather resorts and golf courses. Placemaking develops the real estate assets at these resorts by master-planning the villages and by designing, building and selling luxury resort accommodations. Placemaking has 250 employees in 7 regional office locations in North America and Europe.

OpenRoad Communications is a technology consulting firm located in Vancouver, Canada. In 2006, OpenRoad launched ThoughtFarmer, a wiki intranet platform. This software now powers intranets for organizations like Intrawest Placemaking, Vancouver Coastal Health, and NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts.

Introduction

In April 2006, Intrawest Placemaking undertook a bold technical initiative focused on empowering individual employees. Using OpenRoad Communication’s ThoughtFarmer social software, they built a democratic, collaborative communication platform that could capture the company’s intellectual capital and strengthen the workplace community. The result was a read/ write, employee-maintained internal web site that has permanently changed the way the company interacts.

Turning users into authors

Employee web sites, or intranets, have been around for more than a decade. Most follow a one-to-many publishing model: a small group of editors publishes pages and documents that are viewable to a large group of users.

OpenRoad’s primary goal with ThoughtFarmer is simple: turn all users into authors. All employees at Placemaking can add, edit and annotate content on the ThoughtFarmer-powered wiki intranet. With the exception of a few policy documents, Placemaking’s intranet is a completely open, malleable, living collection of current thoughts, processes and key learnings.

By turning every user into a contributor with wiki intranet software, OpenRoad envisioned several benefits for Intrawest Placemaking:

  • Fewer barriers to knowledge sharing. By letting users publish their own content with only a few clicks, they would be less likely to hoard knowledge and more likely to share it.
  • No distortion in knowledge transfer. Ideas would be exchanged person-to-person, in one step, eliminating distortion and filtering.
  • An increase in employee engagement. Users that could add and edit content would feel a sense of ownership over their intranet. Because the leadership of Placemaking would be putting considerable trust in employees, employees would, in turn, be more likely to trust the company and its leaders.
  • Self-healing content. If a user saw an error, he or she would beable to fix it immediately, reducing inaccuracies.
  • No excessive burden on a couple of administrators. The users would be the editors. Content maintenance would no longer require a dedicated team.

Shortly after ThoughtFarmer launched, Placemaking began to see an immediate impact. People began having dialogue on the intranet. They started sharing ideas. They started creating content. And this new collaboration brought real business value—one project manager shared an idea that saved $500,000 on one project (see below), and that could be implemented across the organization in future developments.

A second goal of OpenRoad’s ThoughtFarmer platform is to turn co-workers into friends. ThoughtFarmer creates an internal workplace community, exposes the existing social network at Placemaking, and clearly ties all content to people. It also brought more clearly into focus the critical roles that humor and creativity play in defining Placemaking’s organizational culture; a culture that, according to employee surveys, is a key component of what makes Placemaking a great place to work.

The principle community-building feature of ThoughtFarmer is “Place” pages: a personal area where each employee can add a profile, upload photos and documents, create pages, and share favourite links. Every change an employee makes to the intranet—every comment posted, every file uploaded, every page added—has the employee’s name by it, linked back to his or her “Place.” Other employees can follow the links, learn about each other, explore each other’s content, and develop relationships.

OpenRoad expected this community-building to have several positive impacts for Placemaking:

  • Build cohesiveness across Placemaking’s geographically dispersed workforce
  • Improve the attraction and retention of new talent—especially with “Generation Y” employees
  • Improve the willingness to share knowledge due to the formation of stronger networks and relationships

ThoughtFarmer certainly achieved these desired effects: Placemaking employees on separate continents are now ‘meeting’ through the intranet and gaining insight on each other’s ideas, thoughts and innovations around real estate development.

 

Pervasive Use

Placemaking had a traditional, one-to-many intranet prior to ThoughtFarmer. Since the launch of the collaborative intranet, use has increased tenfold. Use is also pervasive. There were 1,486 unique users in the second quarter after launch; with just over 250 employees, this means that over a thousand non-Placemaking employees (mostly employees of the parent company, Intrawest) used Placemaking’s intranet. As one Intrawest employee wrote, “I love the dynamic nature of your intranet. I wish the rest of the organization would go the same route. I find it difficult to go back to the corporate intranet after using the Placemaking intranet… thank you for sharing this wonderful resource with the rest of the company.”

Reduced Cost

Placemaking’s vision for the ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet was to develop, launch and maintain it without an increase in staffing and with a minimal capital investment. ThoughtFarmer’s ‘everyone-as-editor’ concept complemented this plan perfectly, as it resultedv in an employee web site that is group-maintained by the entire company. With all 250-odd Placemaking employees as editors, the intranet is constantly updated and self-healing.

Attracting and Retaining New Talent

Intrawest Placemaking consistently strives to attract and retain top talent within their industry. The ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet provides Placemaking with a strategic hiring advantage over their competition.

The generation of employees currently entering the workforce grew up immersed in a digital world. The internet plays a significant role in their personal and social lives, from instant messaging to peer-to-peer file sharing to virtual communities. They publish and participate in online social networks and swap ideas as casually as they swap songs and videos. When this generation joins a firm only to find a staid, traditional intranet with a tightly-controlled publishing model, they can become disappointed and unengaged.

By contrast, ThoughtFarmer embraces the principles of openness, participation and interactivity that are the norm for both “Generation Y” and the online social systems they dominate, such as MySpace, YouTube and Facebook. One recent hire at Placemaking commented, “The intranet rocks!! What an incredibly powerful tool.”

All indications are that the ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet has been a factor in maintaining Placemaking’s reputation as a “cool” place to work—a reputation that has been, and will continue to be, key in attracting and retaining new talent.

Uniting a Geographically Dispersed Workforce

Placemaking has six regional offices in Canada, the United States, and Europe in addition to the Corporate Home Office. Most of the over 250 employees at these offices have never met face to face. But ThoughtFarmer has brought these people together and helped them to feel like part of a community, rather than just employees of the same organization.

As employees upload photos, amusing anecdotes, and reveal more of their individuality and personality, the popularity of the intranet continues to build.

Here are some examples of comments posted to Placemaking’s intranet:

“We have a lot of really, really, interesting and neat people working here. The general population at large cannot possibly be composed of this percentage of coolness per capita. Reading about everybody helps to connect.”
– Steven Culp, Land Development Manager, Florida

“It has been amazingly helpful to have detailed information about each employee right at my fingertips, including their contact information, subordinates, managers, photos and that special personal touch… It’s been invaluable in helping me connect with co-workers in and out of my Southwest office.”
– Jenny Foley, Administrative Assistant, Nevada

“I love the personal info people put up… That’s what adds to the real feel of the intranet.”
– Melanie Brannigan, Director of Employee Experience, Florida

Living Their Core Values

In 2003, Placemaking employees engaged in a collaborative effort to define the organization’s Core Values. Each Core Value has a set of behaviours that the organization tries to live by day-to-day.

Placemaking was convinced that their new intranet could be instrumental in putting these behaviours into practice. Since its launch, this expectation has proved true in the following ways:

Core Value #1: “Walking Our Talk”

Behaviour: We share information openly and expediently, whether the news is good or bad.

Information is definitely shared openly on the ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet—everyone is trusted with the ability to post news, even to the front page.

Placemaking’s president, Drew Stotesbury, takes the lead in openly sharing information on the intranet. Placemaking’s parent company, Intrawest, was recently acquired by Fortress Investment Group. During a period of uncertainty preceding the announcement of this acquisition, Drew used the intranet to great success in assuaging employee concerns. He posted regular updates on the impending transaction, invited questions, and posted answers. Drew has said, “If there’s a problem or concern, I’d rather know about it than have rumours circulating. If we know about it, we can address it.”

Core Value #2: “Bettering Our Best”

Behaviour: We create an environment where creativity, risk taking and challenging existing premises are encouraged.

It’s much easier to say “we encourage the challenging of existing premises” than to put it into practice. The ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet vividly exemplifies how Placemaking invites new input on existing practices.

For example, Placemaking’s entire real estate development process—from land acquisition to building conception to homeowner delivery—is documented on the intranet. And on every single one of those 500-plus pages, everyone at the company can annotate or edit the page with their ideas and suggestions. Rather than leading to arguments or confusion, this open invitation has proved to improve existing practices, addressing defects or oversights that can be collaboratively resolved.

Core Value #3: “Team Play”

Behaviour: We weave humour, animation and fun into the business environment.

People often use their “Place” pages on the intranet to post photos, share fun tidbits and publish personal news. As Mike Hartigan, Director of Construction, says, “The intranet’s entertaining personalized input fits perfectly with the ‘professional fun’ ethic that enhances our employee experience.”

Core Value #4: “Leveraging Learning”

Behaviour: We have an aptitude and openness for change.

The very existence of Placemaking’s read/write intranet demonstrates this value. Senior leaders were initially hesitant about HR’s plan to roll out a collaborative open forum that any employees could edit. Despite this initial hesitation, however, they maintained an open mind, focused on the potential benefits, stood behind their stated Core Values, and approved its implementation.

Their commitment to the values they espoused was quickly rewarded and the tool embraced. Leaders and employees alike now depend on the intranet to surface new ideas—and everyone has become more open to the change those ideas will inevitably bring.

The Idea That Saved $500,000

Mike Hartigan, a Placemaking project manager in Vancouver, was overseeing the construction of a 66,000 square foot, heated tile entranceway for a new condo-hotel. The project would traditionally have required the radiant subcontractor to return for each of the 33 concrete pours to lay piping amongst rebar. Then Hartigan had an idea: instead of laying tile, just complete the slab, lay all the radiant piping on top, apply a two-inch layer of coloured concrete with an aggregate, and then polish it.

Hartigan’s innovative method saved $500,000 on a $2 million job, improved coordination among the trades, reduced the project timeline, and gave a stunning, better-than-tile appearance. Hartigan then created a page about his experience on the ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet. Other project managers in Florida and Nevada posted comments to the page, asking further questions. In response, Hartigan posted photos of the finished job and addressed their comments. Other construction managers planned to use the technique on future projects.

Placemaking manages dozens of multi-million dollar developments a year. As Hartigan’s technique is implemented, Placemaking will save millions of dollars. Without Placemaking’s everyone-as-editor collaboration system, ideas such as Mike’s could never have been shared in such a discoverable, accessible, permanent format.

Moving to Green Development

On January 18th, Placemaking announced an organization-wide commitment to sustainable development. Within hours, new pages on Green Development started to appear on the intranet. Online discussions ensued on best practices in sustainability, resources for green development, and techniques for “greening” the office.

Within a few weeks, a “Green Team” had self-organized through the intranet and assembled a collection of over 100 pages, documents, links and suggestions on pursuing sustainable development at Intrawest’s resorts. As Placemaking’s thinking on Green building evolves, the intranet captures and reflects that thinking back to its users. Here again, ThoughtFarmer has helped the organization to collectively think, act and react more quickly than ever before.

No Misuse

In the 10 months since the launch of ThoughtFarmer at Placemaking, and contrary to initial expectations, there have been no incidents of employees misusing or abusing their ability to edit and post content. No content can be posted anonymously, because ThoughtFarmer integrates with Placemaking’s Windows network. Employees are accountable for their postings, and this self-policing has proved to be completely effective in managing misuse.

Impact

The impact that ThoughtFarmer has made at Intrawest Placemaking is summed up by Drew Stotesbury, President of Placemaking:

“One of the benefits associated with the Placemaking intranet, the Portal, has been a dramatic increase in the frequency and quality of collaboration across our organization, a feat which was a challenge in the past due to a geographically distributed employee base and email saturation. The Portal evolved in a short time from a simple news posting board to a living community which supported the sharing of news, ideas and information. It allowed our critical roles, our Development and Construction Managers, to share innovations that had an immediate impact on the efficiency and quality of our developments. It allowed our employees to share personal information, strengthening relationships between team members who often worked miles apart. It communicated that our leaders trust and value our employee base, now the authors of our intranet, and promoted accountability. And perhaps most importantly, it stimulated dialogue that inspired focus on important initiatives such as environmental sustainability across our organization, innovation, empowerment, work-life balance, and the celebration of individual, team and organizational successes.”

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