Enterprise 2.0 the Indian Way

On my recent trip to India (post here, pictures here and here) I got to sit down with Ashok Krish and his team. Ashok is the head of the Web 2.0 Innovation Lab at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Among his many other responsibilities, Ashok has been one of the point people for Enterprise 2.0 within the company. At a services firm of 150,000 people that’s growing like a weed, knowledge management is a massive challenge. A more optimistic way to say the same thing is that at such a firm, improving employees’ ability to find the expertise and information they need to do their jobs better would bring large benefits.

Ashok told me that he started trying to make progress in this area by rolling out, enterprise-wide, a tool that would let people ask and answer questions. As I’ve written, I like this approach a lot. It fulfills an important function not well supported by previous technologies, and it’s been shown to work by E2.0 pioneers like Euan Semple at the BBC (who I wrote about in my book).

Some might think that this approach is insufficiently targeted at a real business need. I completely disagree. The need was perfectly articulated a while back by HP’s then-CEO Lew Platt: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.”

As I listened to the TCS Lab team talk about how they went about their work, I heard a lot of good ideas. They skipped the constrained pilot and went enterprise-wide right away. They built in simple mechanisms to let people give feedback and praise, and signal especially helpful answers. This adds structure over time to the mass of information, and also gives people incentive to participate and be helpful to their colleagues.

This incentive is not ‘hard’ at TCS; a person’s scores and reputation in the Q&A environment are not directly tied to her compensation or performance review. Instead, they’re a lot closer to the incentives to be good at a multiplayer online game — mastery made visible, reputation within a community, position on top of a ‘leader board,’ and so on. TCS also made the smart move not to limit questions and answers to work topics; as they were showing me the live system I saw more than a couple questions about cricket.

So I liked what I saw, but I still didn’t know what to expect. TCS employees are busy people who are supposed to be putting in billable time on client projects, not answering strangers’ questions. So I asked “What happened after you went live?” with a bit of trepidation. I didn’t know if I’d hear back “We built it, but no one came,” or “There’s a small core of people who use it a lot, but we’re still waiting for it to catch on more broadly.”

“We had so much traffic that we crashed the server after a few months and had to get a bigger one” is how Ashok actually answered the question. He said that the system had become extremely popular at TCS, and that most employees now used it. He had about 20 of his team in the room with us, so I asked for a quick show of hands: how many of them had used the Q&A system themselves? All the hands in the room immediately went up, and there was a general impression that a dumb question had just been asked.

Now, in some important ways TCS is pretty well positioned to succeed with Enterprise 2.0. It’s full of younger workers – digital natives – who are natural technophiles. Most of them write code for a living, after all. So if a well-designed 2.0 tool comes along to help them collaborate and interact with their peers, they might be expected to jump on it. I want to stress, though, that they’re compensated and promoted by being billable at work, not by being good citizens of the enterprise. So they could also be expected to ignore it, unless it were scratching some itch of theirs.

It clearly is. It’s meeting TCS people’s need to get questions answered and their desire to be helpful to others. It’s also bringing them pleasure when they see themselves atop a leader board, and activating their competitive juices when someone knocks them out of the top spot. And it’s showing the world of TCS what they’re good at, and expertise demonstration matters to people even when is not directly tied to a paycheck. I heard that TCSers frequently responded to questions in areas that had nothing to do with their current job titles or assumed expertise.

So I’m left wondering: what are the good reasons, if any, not to do try something like this in every enterprise? Are there legitimate reasons to hold back from trying to replicate TCS’s successes? I’m struggling to come up with any. The TCS team had no horror stories to share with me – no instances where the Q&A system had been badly abused —  and as I’ve written I have less and less patience for arguments against E2.0 based on vague ‘security’ concerns. If the US Intelligence community thinks the benefits of more information sharing outweigh the risks, so should most other organizations.

The more I learn about Enterprise 2.0, the more inclined I am to encourage companies to throw caution to the wind: buy (or build) some well-designed lightweight tools that take advantage of emergence and game mechanics, find a few leaders willing to lead by example, and go live. Do you find this advice too cavalier? Is my high-level plan missing any critical steps? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.