The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is a key contributor to the defence and security of the UK. It is responsible for over half a billion pounds worth of research a year, and its records go back over a century: it is thus vitally important that information and knowledge are well-managed. Indeed, given the nature of some of the research, it can be a matter of life and death.
I already worked at Dstl, as a technical research lead in the information department, and identified two significant problems with our information and knowledge management. Firstly, the “silo” problem: project teams and organisational groups tended to operate independently, even in isolation. Tight permission rules on shared folders and SharePoint sites created demarcation boundaries. Secondly, much of the potentially valuable information was in informal systems – often just email. This was difficult to search through or explore – even the originators struggled to refer back to it after a while, and it was well-nigh impossible for others to make use of it or discover content which might be of value to them. The Dstl systems, although complicated, were little more than digitized paper.
In 2012, I joined the CIO’s team as the strategy lead in this area, appointed specifically to instigate the changes I had identified and to effect this cultural shift. I put together a major corporate change programme to radically reform Dstl’s approach and won the executive support we needed to implement it.
I led a great team, spanning our prime ICT contractor, immediate colleagues in the IT section, 3rd party software vendors and advocates across the organisation. We adopted a combination of collaborative technology and behaviours. One of the cornerstones was an implementation of MediaWiki with the semantic extension which enabled us to build a powerful internal encyclopaedic knowledge base. The other main component was the implementation of JIVE, a social software platform, which was a radical decision for Dstl.
Around 3,500 people were affected by the project: implementing procedural and behavioural change was critical. As well as getting our people to ‘work out loud’, we helped them develop their own approaches to ‘smart listening’. This meant learning to take responsibility for deciding what information streams to consume, to ensure that the new systems were a positive, productive addition to their working practice. We also had to ensure that a set of attitudes and behaviours were embedded that allowed us to continue to show compliance with various security, privacy and transparency frameworks.
The adoption and usage of both the wiki and the JIVE instance exceeded our most optimistic forecasts. Within a year the wiki had over 6,000 pages, over 100,000 edits and nearly a million page views. The social network was even more successful. We ran a four month pilot followed by a six month phased roll-out. Over 75% of the organisation adopted the platform, with over half of these responding to or creating content.
A few months later at the Civil Service TW3 (The Way We Work) awards in Jan 2015, we were team runner-up in Technology category, with the judges also citing our work on cultural change as a contributory factor to Dstl’s win in Corporate Leadership.
I’m proud to have pulled off what one key player described as a ‘wow project’. And I think I’ll always remember the scientist whose feedback from the pilot included the phrase ‘I’ll chain myself to the data centre if they try to take it away.’
The impact went all the way to the top. In an end of year message to all staff, the Chief Executive wrote: ‘I have been delighted to see the way that this has transformed interaction and communication across our whole workforce over the last year or so.’ He subsequently said, to a visiting senior US/NATO official, that we had ‘changed the way Dstl thinks, connects and acts.’