Clunky communication in the public sector could soon be transformed by a Facebook-style network
Edward Saatchi is in his Washington DC office on Connecticut Avenue, about a mile and a half down the road from the White House.
He’s just returned from South by Southwest (SXSW), the music, film and interactive conference in Austin, Texas. What began as a music event has in recent years become a magnet for technology start-ups; it was at SXSW in 2007 that Twitter took off after being launched to no great acclaim nine months earlier.
Saatchi and his business partners Aharon Wasserman and Justin Lewis are the creators of NationalField, which they describe as “Facebook for enterprise”. The platform has its roots in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign on which Saatchi worked.
While Twitter was wowing the tech-savvy crowds in Austin, Saatchi was in Paris studying for a masters degree in philosophy and economics. The son of advertising executive Maurice (whose agency, with brother Charles, devised the memorable ‘Labour isn’t working’ poster), he had little interest in British politics despite his proximity to its upper reaches.
Saatchi found Obama inspirational, however, and took time out from his studies to inveigle himself into the Chicago senator’s team. It was there that he met Wasserman and Lewis, software designers who were working in Savannah, Georgia, on Obama’s 2008 campaign. Between them, they were responsible for synthesising information via email from hundreds of campaigners. It was timeconsuming and when completed the results were often out of date.
So the trio created a simple data-entry form which saved time and speeded up the process of reporting to campaign managers. But they soon realised that the volunteers and Obama staff in the field wanted feedback, rather than have their efforts disappear into a black hole. So the rudiments of a campaign social network were devised, complete with leader boards that showed the number of doors knocked and telephone calls placed.
“The first thing we said to ourselves is we should have all the data, we should have all the numbers. But instead of it being some kind of patched together dashboard that people would have to learn, it had the look and feel of Facebook.
“We were building this in the small hours of the night and people were using it in the small hours, because they were out campaigning during the day, so people had to be able to use it straight away, without training and feel comfortable with it.
“The core of it is the communication that’s taking place in the feed; so much of our time is spent on email and not knowing what else is happening down the corridor let alone across the other side of the country.”
Positioned in the middle of the campaign team, they knew how important the flow of information was both up and down the organisational hierarchy. As well as senior managers having the ability to gauge progress, they added the ability for volunteers to collaborate and share tips; making their campaign work social.
“Tens of thousands of staff were using it to communicate back and forth with one another, state to state,” said Saatchi. “They’d login and see all of the data of the campaign – bar charts and graphs – and also be able to communicate with each other. Instead of it being email, you would logon on to a Facebook-like interface and it would really feel as though you were part of one community on the campaign.”
The network couldn’t swing it for Obama in Georgia, but by then it had caught the imagination of Obama’s senior team and was used to particular effect in Ohio. After the campaign, the three returned to Georgia, working for senate candidate Jim Martin.
With Obama in the White House and his campaign team back with their companies or in government, Saatchi, Wasserman and Lewis were urged not let their technology go to waste. Today, NationalField provides its networking and information-sharing platform to corporations, political campaigns and causes, non-profi t organisations, educational institutions, membership associations and government. Among their clients are Unilever, Ocean Sky, the London-based aviation company, Hub, the global shared workspace group, Oxford University, Kaiser Permanente, the US healthcare organisation, and the NHS.
On a cool, grey day in America’s capital earlier this month, Saatchi showed NationalField to Connect. Clicking through a demonstration interface, Saatchi pointed out how the traditional means of communication within a company or organisation are not interactive in the modern sense and don’t engender a sense of community; information is ‘top-down’ and people on the ground can’t easily provide feedback.
“NationalField has resonance with today’s workforce as it looks and feels like social networks such as Facebook,” he said. “But it also gives managers a chance to see exactly what is happening in their organisation at any given time.
“Employees of all ages are now used to updating their status and getting instant feedback in their personal lives. We’re giving them an outlet to show what they are contributing to their company every day – not just once a year in their annual review.”
Saatchi’s references to Facebook are unabashed; Chris Hughes, one of its founders, sits on NationalField’s board. The company is also advised by Sam Lawrence, former chief marketing officer of Jive, the social business software company, and Jay Rossiter, a senior vice-president of Yahoo and vicepresident of Oracle.
“And it goes beyond social,” he emphasises, “you can see all the data and all the metrics of an organisation. When those are transparent people get engaged and excited that they are getting credit. Surprisingly, people want to be held accountable for the work they do because being held accountable is a sign of respect.”
Social media tools for communication within business do exist, acknowledges Saatchi, but NationalField deals effectively with hierarchy. Using patent-pending technology, it allows information to be intelligently filtered vertically and laterally to the right people within organisations. The platform is built, he says, to solve a major problem in organisations; how to communicate information from top to bottom, receive feedback from the edges, and break down the barriers to communication.
Saatchi says that by creating a culture of accountability, NationalField allows people within organisations to leverage learning and communicate effectively internally. The degree of transparency can be tailored, but he believes the result of using NationalField will always be that more information is being shared in real time. Information and the speed in which it is communicated is key, he says.
Leader boards are not a new concept, but the ability for someone to see in real time the progress of an organisation and those people working within it, is transformative, says Saatchi. New features are being added all the time either by NationalField or often as the result of it working with companies and organisations. The software is updated every fortnight and, as a platform, outside developers can build applications for users to adopt.
While take-up has been faster in the private sector, Saatchi says: “The difference between government and enterprise isn’t as you might think. We have found people who are willing to be the early adopters in government as often as in enterprise.
“In the technology we use, work is feeling more like our personal lives – which it should, because it’s embarrassing to go into the offi ce and step back ten years. There is a shift coming, though; the IT department is moving from being the gatekeeper to being an enabler.”
NationalField has been working with the NHS for 18 months but Saatchi is limited in what he can discuss, beyond: “It’s going terrifically.” And with that he is off to a series of meetings in Washington to discuss the launch of the company’s next product; making the whole of America’s data social.