CGI Internet Inside

Three years ago, Knowledge Management at Canada’s CGI was the proverbial black hole that sucked in information and energy but never let it out. The staff who fed the beast were well-meaning but weren’t equipped to provide CGI’s 25,000 employees the up-to-the-moment technical savvy they needed. This is not sustainable in a firm that relies on its wits to outperform its competitors in a fast-moving global field. Executive management made raising staff satisfaction with KM a top priority.

Ross Button was tapped to head a project to raise collective intelligence. Ross and his staff of two, with in-sourced assistance from specialist groups within the firm, assembled what Ross and I have dubbed 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. Ross says people don’t go to portals; they just don’t sign up.

Participants already use the net and email, so there’s no learning curve . Yet the package of interoperable web software performs at the enterprise level. The software is free or cheap, not a trivial matter. A typical proprietary app 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 is geographically structured but its collective intelligence system connects the dots within the company. While we were talking, Ross monitored the flow of information in the system in real time with his Blackberry.

Internet software travels with an invisible companion, the memes and processes I call internet culture. The net is an environment for sharing, not a propriety package we complain about. The net is optimistic: its opportunities dazzle us; traditional software is negative: its flaw irritate us. The net values pragmatism and immediacy. We use email to communicate, not to swap polished essays. We value messages from the net if they do they job; it would be superfluous to hold things up while we fix split infinitives, sentence fragments, and English-teacher conventions. On the net, people speak conversationally, absent the officiousness of the traditional business memo.

Ross is tenacious. He says he will never cease putting tools into CGI’s “agile infrastructure.” as there will always be new requirements and better ways to support the business. New experiments are never dubbed beta; they are pilots.

Interactions inside CGI feel fundamentally different from the open internet such as Facebook. Community members act as they would face-to-face. Thereʼs no spam, flame wars, and offensive behavior. Behavior is casual but professional.

People at CGI have joint ownership of their community. The community designs and implements collective intelligence by how they participate. Itʼs in everyoneʼs interest to make contributions and improvements. And it would be unthinkable for participants to foul their nest.

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 living web 2.0 inside, CGI incubates lessons it will later share with outsiders.

The journey from initially downloading application code to nurturing a thriving collective intelligence environment is much more a cultural challenge than a technical one.

Ross was a disk jockey in high school at his local radio station. Some evenings, heʼd be all alone in the studio, broadcasting to an audience of thousands he could not see. He had to have faith in the network, to believe the listeners were out there. Itʼs similar at CGI.

People who study networks use a shorthand for a persistent phenomena: the 100:10:1 rule. In a group of a hundred people, only one person is likely initiate dialog, call it a seed for discussion. Ten people will comment, argue, question, provide examples, and stoke discussion around the one individualʼs 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 a lurkers and losers. This is inappropriate, for dialogs self-organize. Without the silent observers, everyone would be talking at once and chaos would ensue. For a group to be successful, Ross makes sure that each community has at least one person planting seeds.

The 25,000 people who work for CGI are not a community. Thatʼs too many people, and their interests are too general. Itʼs impossible to identify with tens of thousands of people, unless they share a rabid interest, such as fans of the Ottawa Senators hockey team.

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. Admission is by invitation only; this limits participation to like-minded individuals, and keeps 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 personʼs time at the front-end saves the time of hundreds at the receiving end.

Less is more. Putting hundreds of messages in memberʼs email accounts is worse than sending none. When overwhelmed by a gusher of content, people donʼt become selective; instead, they shut down entirely. Ross has found that people at CGI will pay attention to ten items in a message, sent once a week; they will not read thirty, nor are daily messages effective.

CGI recently installed the Google appliance to open the door to previously trapped information, some of it resident in legacy groupware applications. A Google search on the open internet inevitably returns spurious results. A search for Paris points to Paris Hilton, plaster of Paris, Paris, Texas, bateaux mouches, and the revolution of 1789. To leave the chaff behind, CGIʼs Google only crawls sources vetted for members of the communities using a crawling layer assembled with custom code, open source and proprietary utilities and a human collection manager.

CGI has begun tagging all dialogs, 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.

Innovation is often the top concern of CEOs. Imagine the value of assembling innovation teams for new and prospective services from their prior activities and demonstrated knowledge.

I suspect that CGIʼs collective intelligence project would not exist were Ross not its tireless cheerleader and champion. Ross is vice president, technology leadership. “We’re not advocating what we’ve done for ourselves as the ideal solution for everybody,” he says. “What it’s done is really explore the use of open source in the enterprise.”

Internet Inside at CGI is proof positive that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.


Podcast interview with Ross Button, vice president of Technology Leadership at CGI.


Observations on running online groups extracted by the CGI Internet Inside case

Few people willingly change the basic way they send and receive information. Email messaging is more likely to take hold than a portal.

<p>Internet software travels with an invisible companion, the memes and processes I call internet culture. The net is an environment for sharing, optimism, and friendliness.</p>

<p>In email and on blogs, people speak conversationally, absent the officiousness of a traditional business memo.</p>

<p>Behind the firewall, behavior is casual but professional. People don’t foul their nest.</p>

<p>Live on the web inside your organization to learn lessons to share with your customers. </p>

<p>People who don’t visibly take part in virtual communities are not lurkers; they are silent partners. Thank goodness, for otherwise everyone would be talking at once.</p>

<p>Group membership should be selective. A couple of hundred people is a common group limit to growth. </p>

<p>Filter out the noise of mediocre and erroneous elements of raw knowledge to increase the fidelity of the knowledge flow. </p>

<p>People will read ten messages embedded in a weekly email. They will not read thirty.</p>

<p>Don’t think <em>learning</em>; this is raising collective intelligence.