How do you manage a very large, very complex organization that is geographically disbursed in many different countries around the world? You already know that the outdated hierarchal organizational structure won’t work and if you are like many companies you are probably beginning to realize that the matrix type structure (where each employee reports to both a task manager and a resource manager) has its own limitations.  Electronic Arts (EA) established cross-company virtual communities that provide the benefits of coordinated decision making while preserving the independence required for creativity and innovation.  These communities are supported by a unique governance structure and a fun and engaging technology platform.

Context

Electronic Arts Inc. is a leading global interactive entertainment software company. EA develops, publishes, and distributes interactive software worldwide for video game systems, personal computers, wireless devices and the Internet.  The company’s 2011 revenues were more than $3.5 billion, and it has 8,000 employees in more than 23 countries.

Recently EA underwent a transformation like it had never experienced before. EA had to reinvent itself by embracing the digital disruption affecting the media and entertainment industry and transform itself from a packaged goods business to a fully integrated digital entertainment company.  EA’s digital business now supports nearly $1B of its revenue.

Triggers

Navigating through EA’s recent transformation required EA leaders, managers, and employees to find new way of working together. EA has long proven that the concept of fostering communities of gamers provides a great source of ideas and requirements that produces a higher quality product. Until recently, EA had never really embraced this same concept internally – to engage your workforce to connect, share information and ideas, and ultimately to collaborate to deliver innovative solutions to complex problems.  EA set forth to establish a set of services and capabilities that supports a set of social networks and communities to:

  • Leverage (re-use) existing services, processes, technology solutions
  • Reduce complexity and duplication  (of services, processes, technologies, capabilities)
  • Promote principles of simplicity, standardization, efficiency, integration and continuous improvement
  • Mentor & develop careers for our team members so that they feel empowered to their job better or are able to pursue new and exciting opportunities

Key Innovations & Timeline

Electronic Arts launched internal collaborative communities in 2009 across its globally distributed workforce. Its goal was to gain the efficiencies of a large enterprise without compromising local teams’ autonomy or creativity.

The concept was based on an analogy described by EA’s CEO, John Riccitiello, that was used to communicate EA’s transformation to a new social organization as the difference between a swim meet and water polo match. At a swim meet, each group competes by having its swimmers compete individually in different events and by swimming in their own lanes with little interaction between teammates. A water polo match, on the other hand, features two teams, each comprised of individuals working together by collaboratively passing the ball to score goals.

The communities formed at EA were more than just like-minded people discussing topics of interest. They were empowered to make decisions and to deliver. EA’s communities could recommend the next technology roadmap or they could change a business process to become more effective or efficient. There were no limits placed on the types of communities within EA. A community could be a service-based community (business intelligence, enterprise application support, facilities); it could be a role based community (project managers, system engineers, security specialists); or it could even be formed around a technology (servers, storage devices, ERP) or business process  based (game development lifecycle, order fulfillment, etc.) . Whatever the type, the goal was that this community would improve the organization or the products it produced.

What makes EA’s approach to communities distinctive is the “light” governance model to manage and operate their communities.  Socially, people naturally gravitate towards each other to share experiences or to explore a common interest. Many of these interactions are conversational in nature. Within the enterprise, the real power of communities is to embrace these same concepts but also to  work collaboratively to achieve a common goal – to create a new product or service, improve the effectiveness of a business process, or even to eliminate operational inefficiencies. To achieve its goals and to empower its communities to make decisions, EA explicitly focused on a “light” governance structure that promotes the organic interaction of social networks but also empowers them to produce a desired business outcome.

The defining characteristics of EA’s community governance model include:

  1. An overall community steering committee. The steering committee oversees the investment in and achievements of the communities across the company or business unit. Steering committee members are from the upper levels of management and its mandate is to make sure—through better tools and resources, for example—that communities can operate as effectively as possible. One team at EA formed its steering committee with the senior-most staff of the business unit and also included the team leads from each community. This steering committee reviewed the charter and responsibilities of each new community to ensure that it was distinct enough from other communities already in operation.  The steering committee met for about 90 minutes once a quarter and was chaired by the community champion. Other responsibilities of the steering committee were to monitor the progress of the community program itself and ensure that it was growing and serving its intended purpose to promote collaboration within the organization.
  2. A community champion who facilitates the firm’s overall collaborative efforts and evangelizes the benefits and goals of a communal structure within the enterprise. The community champion was also a senior staff member of the organization and was known for his/her passion around communities and the benefits that it could achieve within the enterprise. The community champion also ran the competency center. The competency center developed and maintained a set of services, processes, and technologies to establish and support the community and social networking program. The community champion had a very important role in incubating each community and ensuring that each community had enough engaging content and direction to eventually become self-sustaining.

3. Roles within the actual communities themselves. Each of EA’s  communities have the following roles: 

  • Community sponsor: a community sponsor represents each community in EA’s leadership ranks. Sponsors are members of the leadership team and give the community access to the rest of EA’s leadership team in order to ratify or to solicit executive support for a decision made within that community. Many times when you have new community members come together there are many different ideas and thoughts of how a decision or solution should be developed.  Sometimes the community would be in a stalemate and not be able to move forward. In this situation, the community sponsor would act as a mediator and help the community move past its sticking points.
  • Community team lead: a community team lead is initially nominated by the EA community steering committee, and once the community is thriving, the next team lead will eventually be elected by the community members themselves. Often a manager in the organization, the team lead facilitates the discussions and drives the efforts of the community to achieve the goals set forth by the community’s charter.
  • Community council: if the community membership is very large, each community has the option of forming a community council. This council can form within a community to achieve specific results. Councils provide focused resources concentrating on achieving a specific goal or deliverable within a set time period. The use of councils reflects the fact that communities can grow large enough to lose their effectiveness.

EA’s approach is only one of many possible, but it does illustrate the kind of light governance structure needed to support the ongoing work of effective communities.

Challenges & Solutions

There were many lessons learned when communities and social networks were first introduced to Electronic Arts.

The first hurdle was explaining the role that the communities played within the enterprise.  Employees were used to the traditional organizational team structure and they were used to working in project teams. Initially there was some confusion about how this new communal model would not conflict with the efforts already underway within teams and projects. The solution was to educate, communicate, and use real life examples of how and where a community could act as a catalyst to find information quicker, make the work easier and/or allow decisions to be made quicker. Through many seminars and meetings the Community Champion educated the staff that communities really transcended traditional organization structures and in fact fulfilled much of the “white space” or interactions between different teams. Communities were really there to harness the creative power of individuals no matter their role, their team, or if there was an officially funded project in place.

Another challenge was convincing the employees that participating in a community was not another “job” they had to do on top of their existing workload. Initially the employees were convinced that they were going to be forced to participate in a community, contribute to a discussion, or write a knowledge article. Again through education and examples, people eventually understood that the communities were a source of help and a way to make decisions even faster. When people collaborate, they have to connect with each other, collaborate in white boarding sessions, and follow up with emails or meeting notes. Communities still embraced these concepts but made the interactions virtual, quicker, and in some cases fun.

The platform used to enable the communal and social interactions was also key to adopting communities. The platform had to be intuitive, engaging, and offer the content people need in a way they can easily digest. Some capabilities offered in the EA solution capitalized on many Web 2.0 technologies readily available like personalization, single sign-on, advanced search, member ranking, ask-and-answer forums, activity streams, just-in updates, rich media content, and some kind of rating of the most popular content and contributions.

Getting people to interact in a community was also a challenge. How does one ignite the community so it can soon become organic and self sustaining? EA explored many different options.  Healthy completions and incentives were offered to promote interactions and contributions. Even something as simple as peer recognition was also a powerful tool. The more a community member contributed or spent time within the community, the more that person’s “ranking” would increase. For example a new member would have a ranking of novice, while an experienced member would have a ranking of subject matter expert.  EA even turned to launching some of their communities with an old fashioned meeting, but a meeting where people would want to attend. For example when initiating the Project Management Community many years ago, Agile software development was still a new concept. Working with the community team lead, the community champion invited an outside instructor to come talk to the community in a brown bag seminar. After the seminar, the questions and discussions were held on the community platform which in turn spurred other related discussions. It wasn’t long until the Project Manager Community was off on its own.

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