Learning and Community at Mindtree

Raj Datta never set out to be a knowledge manager or create a community and a collaborative culture at Mindtree, it just happened.  Mindtree is a large Indian  IT services firm that started in 1999, and Raj was one of it’s first employees in the U.S. where he was responsible for the off shore delivery of these services to U.S. customers.

Raj had a background in IT before joining Mindtree. A few years after he joined he went back to India and realized that more knowledge sharing was necessary for Mindtree to be successful. Many people had learned different aspects of technology, but others didn’t.  Recognizing this he did his first unfunded experiment in knowledge management (KM) in 2000. The main problem was Mindtree was a project –oriented company, however there was little knowledge sharing within and between project teams.

InitializingKM

The initial way Raj got KM started was to create various study groups.  Each group would be on a specific topic and you would read a book or white paper and then meet to have a discussion about it. It was through these groups that people started sharing their experiences.  Raj realized that Mindtree needed some sort of repository to capture this knowledge so it could be shared with more people than just the study group. As the company grew to hundreds of people, file sharing no longer was an option.

At that time Raj got the objective to do KM, he still had his day job of dealing with the delivery of IT services, but KM was his passion. He worked on this objective part time from 2001-2003 and was still able to show a marked improvement, and this was noticed by upper management. In 2003 he was finally given the KM job and resources to do it right. His initial staff was one other person, but soon after he got 5 developers, his staff continued to expand until he left Mindtree in 2010 when he had 30 people.

Because KM is intangible and hard to measure he did surveys (mostly internal) about communities, computer-based learning, etc. and communities was shown to be the top topic. Other surveys were on employee satisfaction where employees got to rate all the functions of the company.

Raj believed that KM was “social-technical” and needed to be powered by a knowledge culture, which means it was socially lead. Mindtree was one of the first organizations to use communities in India. Their social culture ended up being a big differentiator for Mindtree.

Technology

Mindtree started by using open source tools like Zope and Plone to create the first communities. Wikis were widely used in the company, for project and account level project sharing. They were also used for day to day learning, blogs, discussion forums, social Q&A, micro-blogging, etc. In the early days they did automatic updates to home pages, and a community portal would show what is going on in the community. But it was not specific to your own social graph, but did show what things the community was most interested in.

They looked at the 2003 version of SharePoint but it was expensive for their organization, and they did not feel it offered the functionality they needed. They finally did move to SharePoint in 2010, but by then the company was much larger and SharePoint had a lot more functionality they were looking for like activity streams. Activity streams make things more dynamic, they make you feel like more of a participant, you want to come back again and again, and you can see what leadership and others are doing. In this version you can not only “follow” people but you can “friend” them too. They followed all of the new and developing social technologies and when they did their SharePoint implementation they made sure to include these social features.

LessonsLearned

  • Dealing with intangibles (like knowledge and culture) it is more difficult to show value
  • They used internal surveys to map what you are doing vs. the traditional way of measuring value.
  • Because Mindtree is a project management organization it is important to look at the health or output of the project and correlate it with KM activity
  • If KM increases the project productivity level and gross margin improved by 5%. By measuring output, schedule and cost over runs and profitability
  • Software projects are almost never on time and budget, but with KM Mindtree was able to cut this down to zero or even negative i.e. you can put in less effort than you estimated which almost never happens in software projects.
  • 5% improvement on gross margin is very significant
  • KM has to be a “core” activity and part of the culture, if it is on the periphery it will die.
  • How do we make KM to be part of everyday work, we first built a social culture, and then started to introduce collaborative tools. Because most of the company were engineers, we started with communities. Social starts faster if people are encouraged to get together and talk with each other.  Based on self selection and volunteers, but they were encouraged to be part of self organized community activity which lead people to define what it is, how to do it, and what they got out of it.  Even engineers understood the value of talking to others. Let people connect and they will figure out the process and flow. All we had to do is to give them a common (physical) meeting space (informal or formal) and helped create a social culture.
  • The community platform was the single biggest thing we did to create a community culture
  • Social culture has to be an everyday thing, when you walk in you need to know it is a social company. I got bulletin boards posted by every elevator, it was very visible, flyers posted for all community events.
  • Trained community champions, and also had specific requirements for champions, one of which was to make a flyer for the next week’s events
  • Created a weekly highlight for events, blogs, ideas
  • Company philosophies, initial indoctrination program for new employees in which the social culture and KM were covered

Clearly the tools and technologies are enablers, but without creating a social/collaborative culture first (which is the hard part), any tool will not be as useful.  Raj was able to stumble his way through this by doing a lot of experimenting to see what worked. What he learned can help you make your culture more social, and derive the same financial benefits Raj did.