Founded in 1976, Canada’s CGI provides billions of dollars worth of sophisticated IT and business process services from 100 offices serving clients in 16 countries. CGI has members, not employees, because it treats its staff as if they were investors — and indeed, 80 percent of them are.
Three years ago, knowledge management at CGI was the proverbial black hole that sucked in information and energy but never let it out. The staff who fed the beast meant well, but it wasn’t equipped to provide CGI’s professionals the up-to-the-moment technical savvy they needed. In a firm that relies on its wits to outperform competitors in a fast-moving global field, this situation was not sustainable.
CGI executives tapped Ross Button, currently vice president of technology leadership at CGI, to head a project to raise collective intelligence. Button and his staff of two, with in-sourced assistance from specialist groups within the firm, assembled what came to be known as Internet Inside. Imagine having your own, custom version of the Internet running behind your firewall.
Internet Inside is more complicated than that, but not much. Most of the software is open-source: Drupal, SourceForge, MediaWiki, WordPress, some crawling utilities, browsers and RSS, coupled with a typical intranet infrastructure and the Microsoft Office/Exchange suite.
Because few people will willingly change the basic way they send and receive information, participants send and receive information via their Microsoft Outlook accounts. The other software is free or cheap — not a trivial matter. A typical proprietary application that goes for $50 a seat is a million-dollar expense for a company the size of CGI. Also, the open-source community continuously improves the software’s design, making incremental improvements instead of disruptive installations of new versions.
Most important of all, the Web software provides a social layer that connects people with one another and with information. CGI employees are geographically dispersed, but their collective intelligence system connects the dots.
Internet software travels with an invisible companion, the memes and processes I call Internet culture. The Net is an environment for sharing. The Net values pragmatism and immediacy. On the Net, people speak conversationally, absent the officiousness of the traditional business memo.
Button said he will never cease putting tools into CGI’s agile infrastructure. There will always be new requirements and better ways to support the business. For the foreseeable future, Web 2.0 and rich-Internet application techniques will influence not only CGI, but its customers and the business world at-large. By cultivating Web 2.0 inside, CGI incubates lessons it will later share with outsiders.
People who study networks use shorthand for a persistent phenomenon: the 100:10:1 rule. In a group of a hundred people, only one person is likely to initiate dialogue. Ten people will comment, argue, question, provide examples and stoke discussion around the one individual’s seed. A hundred people learn from observing and applying what they silently learn from the others. When social networking theory was immature, silent partners were denigrated as lurkers and losers. But without silent observers, everyone would be talking at once and chaos would ensue.
CGI has dozens of communities of a hundred or so like-minded professionals. Groups have formed around topics such as Java, enterprise architecture, banking, insurance, dot-net and business intelligence. For a group to be successful, Button makes sure each community has at least one person planting seeds.
Admission is by invitation only, limiting participation to like-minded individuals and keeping the groups to workable size. Participation in a community is based on need and qualifications.
About 4,000 CGI people belong to one or more communities. Every item that is shared as news is screened by a knowledgeable person before distribution to the group. Removing the noise of mediocre or erroneous outputs increases the fidelity of results. Applying one person’s time at the front end saves the time of hundreds at the receiving end.
CGI has begun tagging all dialogues, not just by topic, but also by roles of the participants. A few years hence, CGI will have sufficient information to identify in-house experts based on past discussion. Beyond that, collective filtering may be able to point to people who are the best bets for pioneering future technologies.
Internet Inside at CGI is proof positive that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.Filed under: Technology