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The Future of Work has Collaboration at the Core

March 30, 2017 by Andy Yates, IT Business Partner, ThoughtWorks


Structural changes allow technology to enable new possibilities

ThoughtWorks is an IT consultancy that provides disruptive thinking and empowering technology for people with ambitious missions. Founded in 1993 by Roy Singham - himself both a technologist and political activist - we think of ourselves as a community of passionate individuals whose purpose is to revolutionize software design, creation and delivery, while advocating for positive social change.

Our clients are organizations where technology is at the heart of what they do. Where you are looking to make a real impact throughout your business, innovative custom software solutions have emerged as a core or strategic differentiator.

In working with our clients, we see a pattern in how their IT organizations have matured, and the journey they have been taking in providing their products and services. From IT being a support function, where information mattered, was important, but it was not the principal source of business value, over the last 10 years, we’ve seen business leaders collaborating more closely with technologists, increasingly seeing them as partners in developing differentiated services and products. Agile delivery techniques have become widely accepted and market-centric product development teams adopted User Centered Design and Lean Startup thinking.

The final step in this evolution requires a far deeper enterprise-wide disruption, a new way of thinking and working that moves technology into a position as the prime enabler of new business opportunities. Some call this ‘digital transformation’. We’ve been calling this “tech@core” and it will make-or-break most enterprises in the next 5-10 years. Semantics aside, we’re walking the talk by being an organization that thoughtfully innovates internally to better deliver best practices to the world beyond our walls.

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Our company is now nearly 4,500 people, spread across 40 offices in 14 countries - and still growing at a rapid rate. Despite the size, we have (and have maintained) a flat organizational structure. Reflecting the agile approaches we take to building software, there is no formalized hierarchy, and decision making is very much decentralized. We don’t really have a ‘headquarters’ - we were founded in Chicago, and whilst it’s still a relatively large office, our operations teams also sit in the UK, in India, and in China, as well as elsewhere around the world. Those folks that are playing a leadership role are spread across the world too - and much of our day-to-day coordination is done online.

By embracing this organizational model, we have learned to harness the power of networks, and have developed working practices that put people front and center. As the world of work continues to change, the role of our IT organization is to build on the strengths in this approach. To find the patterns in the day-to-day shifts, and, linking the theory to actions, to look for opportunities for innovation. This collaboration between business and IT enables IT to emerge as true partners for the business.

The model we have now works well for us, but getting to where we are today has been quite the journey - and the real lessons we can share come from telling that story, and exploring the decisions we’ve made along the way.

A Journey to the Cloud

This story of ours starts in the early 2000s. The company was less than 500 people, and we had a single on-premise application for collaboration across the organization. Everything was in this system - email and group discussions, timesheets, travel requests, asset management, and much more. Aside from supporting that application, the IT organization were largely considered to be solely responsible for laptops and maintenance of the network connection with the outside world.

Over the years, however, and with an already mobile workforce, new tools and ways of working were constantly being explored. As browser-based email clients emerged, our old collaboration application became viewed as a bit of a dinosaur. The pressures from employees to modernize mounted, alongside new demands from the business to do more with less, to replace legacy systems while expanding services. As we moved into the second half of the decade, we knew that we had to set an example for those around us, and a more flexible model of work was in order. We started by implementing a cloud-first directive, selecting a new email application from the very best that cloud technology could offer.

Finding Business Alignment

The path to the cloud is rarely linear: at the same time that we were evaluating email replacement options, our agile services and function teams were also looking for entirely new ways to collaborate. We are a strongly technical organization, with a very open, permissive culture. This means that teams are very capable of finding, and implementing for themselves, a range of solutions to address their needs.

And this sounds great - business units taking ownership of their technology, and empowered individuals and teams doing what is needed for them - but it turns out that it also creates a new set of problems. The applications chosen by different teams were often point solutions - each had been locally implemented, was hard to discover for others, and there was interminable negotiation over which was the better approach. When looking beyond the needs of an individual team or function, we soon found that no two groups could agree on the right tools for working together, and instead our IT landscape seemed to be a patchwork mess in desperate need of consolidation.

This is not unique to us. As cloud makes it easier for those outside of IT to discover and set up the services they need, many organizations are seeing a proliferation of competing applications within their landscape. In fact, according to the latest research conducted by Fuze, it’s still typical for employees to juggle an average of four video calling apps alone. While embracing cloud-based communications was the right move to make, adopting a cloud strategy is only just the beginning: it’s the mechanism that creates the flexibility to make more fundamental changes.

Asking the Right Questions for Growth

Over the course of this story, our company has been growing roughly 20% year-on-year. Often, people talk about growth as a fact of life, as a given. But, as an organization with a social focus too (as described by our three pillar model), it’s something we sometimes question - why is growth important to us? We do have a desire to grow, and to continue to grow, not particularly or solely from a financial standpoint, but instead because scale allows us to have a greater impact across all the areas that we care about.

With increased impact as our focus, it is ever more critical that we can leverage IT strategically - that technology go beyond supporting the current business, to allowing experimentation and innovation in developing our business.

A calculated trial-and-error approach to making structural changes to better support our business meant that we moved from organizing teams by the applications that they built (with a separation between ‘development’ and ‘operations’), to organizing them as ‘products’, by business function (where they owned the entire process end-to-end, for a long-term perspective). This approach relieves the pressure of the patchwork landscape, by bringing IT into the business conversation earlier - but it suffers as demand for IT support ramps up. Most recently, we are looking to shift from products to platforms - focusing on driving out what is core to each service, and enabling others to extend where local variation is necessary.

Rather than planning at the level of applications and features, by asking the right questions about how best to align with the structure of the business itself, we could more quickly support, change or create new business capabilities, adapting alongside the business and learning more from what worked and what didn’t.

Really, we’re talking about applying Conway’s Law, not to a product that we are providing to the market, but to our own IT services and systems.

Where Communication & Collaboration Fits in the Mix

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As we aligned our IT services with the business, communication and collaboration tools didn’t neatly fit into any singular category. Though most of the adopted technology was specific to the department it served – marketing, sales, and finance all had their respective platforms they required for their work – communications tools were outliers, in that they were “used by everyone, but owned by no-one.” Who could claim email, intranet, document sharing, and conferencing as their own? As we experimented with different models, seeking to find a home, we realized that for us, unified communication really belongs as a core IT service. By placing it in the center, unified communications becomes a shared resource, providing a platform for other teams to build on - with ownership distributed accordingly. It was this realization that led us to understanding that, in a similar manner, all of our services could be thought of as platforms. And it is this platform model that helps us shape a roadmap for true digital transformation.

Supporting – Even Encouraging – Shadow IT

When introducing new technology, as IT leaders we need to think about ownership, responsibility, priority, and business impact. To properly implement, monitor, and ensure adoption of communications tools, for example, you need to have a vision for the outcome; one that addresses a multitude of current needs, just as much as it supports a future of work. Our decentralized culture relies on a technology approach that empowers individuals and teams – and at the same time, we can see that a unified solution that addresses the collective needs of a distributed workforce would provide long-term advantage rather than short-term gain. These are often at odds, and there are no easy answers to getting this balance right.

With teams needing to work with a wide range of clients and partners, it is imperative that we are able to collaborate with them using their preferred tooling. It is clear that supporting every different tool, option or configuration is not possible - so instead we have a strategy to provide support for those that service the majority need, whilst not preventing others from choosing their own path, should they need to. Instead of centralized control, we aim to provide a common thread, allowing, encouraging, and enabling integration into a collective. The current vision for our services highlights the importance of thinking about integration from the outset.

As in collaboration and communication, the same is true across the company. The next step in this path is to establish a set of API endpoints for each core service in the platform - enabling teams across the business to customize applications to meet their individual needs. With an increasingly complex ecosystem, each team should be able to build upon one another’s insights whilst maintaining key technology platform standards. With open APIs, our organization transforms into a web of interconnected business units that collaborate through an internal marketplace, supporting a diversity of needs at scale.

Rather than trying to meet every need, IT can remain focused on delivering the small subset of common services. As new needs arise, regional teams can support and spin up their own IT services and custom applications, building on what has already been developed and adapting their offerings based on the unique needs of their customers and users.

In Summary

Once moved to the cloud, there have been several stages in our journey:

1) Create ‘product’ teams, aligned with business functions

2) Understand that ‘core’ services are also products, and replicate this model for those teams

3) Shift to a ‘products-as-a-platform’ model, focusing on compatibilities over capabilities.

And of course, the journey is ongoing. We believe the result of this will be a modern infrastructure flexible enough to support innovation wherever and whenever it takes shape. The journey may be different for you, but it’s important to keep in mind the core elements. Agility, experimentation, and responding to feedback are more important than ever to succeed in business today. It is as true for an IT services organization as it is for any company undergoing digital transformation. Understanding and aligning IT to the cultural contours of your business is the real story driving IT innovation, and we’re excited to continue to tell it with the help of partners like Fuze.

Get the full story in our latest joint webinar hosted by No Jitter. Download it on demand here.

Andy Yates, IT Business Partner, ThoughtWorks
Andy Yates, IT Business Partner, ThoughtWorks
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