Case study Enterprise 2.0
Westaflex is a large global HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) owned by Westaflex Holding and based in Gütersloh, Germany. Founded in 1933 by Lorenz and Ferdinand Westerbarkey, who developed a coil-based tube forming machine, the first stable and any-shape tube of its kind. During the 1960s, expanded into other international markets and is now present in 32 countries on five continents with a strong focus on Europe and North America. Westaflex products are used in a variety of applications including automotive production, train technology (ICE ventilation), for the air supply and ventilation of living spaces, exhaust technology and water treatment.Westaflex has 2700 employees worldwide with around 250 at their headquarters in Gütersloh.
Westaflex places a great deal of emphasis on the quality of its products and the role of employee participation, engagement and communication in achieving this quality. CEO Dr. Peter Westerbarkey owns and runs Westaflex Industries and put a lot of effort into establishing a productive, innovative and open corporate culture. Westaflex's corporate motto is "connections which pay"; something which applies not only to their products but also to the value they place on the connections they have with their customers and with each other.
Dr. Westerbarkey explains that when he and his brother took over the management of Westaflex, the prevailing attitude towards workers was that they were there to work and not talk. Dr. Westerbarkey relates a story of watching an office worker talking to a telephone operator on the day of the interview saying that it is precisely this sort of informal communication that he and his brother wanted to establish at Westaflex: one where open dialogue was prized as being critical to the success of the company. They believe that everyone needs to have a sense for the work of the company as a whole. For example, the people working the machines in the factory need this to understand what the ramifications of a mistake in the production process are.
Dr. Westerbarkey also believes that this openness needs to extend outside the firm walls to the company's customers and the wider world. He describes how is Grandfather would keep close contact with journalists that might write about the company in order to try and influence their message for the better. Nowadays, customers can talk to each about the company, its products and prices in open public forums; everything is transparent. Dr. Westerbarkey believes that the only way to deal with this is to engage in open dialogue with their customers and the public in the same way that they do internally.
This change in culture is a gradual process rather than a one-off initiative. It takes a lot of time and will probably never be finished. Moreover, not everyone is happy about these kind of changes. About eight years ago Westaflex introduced an initiative allowing people to have their own person profile page sitting underneath the company's homepage. Middle management objected heavily citing risks that headhunters would be able to contact employees directly. But in the end those fears proved to be unfounded. Instead, there was very positive feedback from prospective and existing clients and partners saying that they were now able to put a face to a name and had direct access to the people they needed to talk to.
Background to Enterprise 2.0 Efforts
Westaflex began their experiments to find a technology to support their open communication culture in 2006 using OpenGroupware. However, after a bad experience with a failed database update they decided they needed another approach. Dr. Westerbarkey also believes that the top-down nature of the OpenGroupware project was another reason why it was not so successful: potential users were not personally invested in its success. Westaflex began looking for a new product. An employee suggested that they just start building something, with the aim of developing a solution that could support communication along the production process, that would allow people to share informal notes and have them on one information platform and to reveal information about the status of a client or a project to, for example, sales colleagues in other countries.
Creating a New Platform
At the time, there were very few suitable products on the market but some contacts they had at the Universität Bielefeld recommended that Westaflex try using Plone: an open source content management system. They advised against using wikis as they thought them too rigid; instead they advised Westaflex to build a system based around documents with rich metadata - a more semantic approach. Westaflex went down this route, integrating the system with DB2, in order to allow the project to aggregate all the company's information.
They made sure to involve the company's employees in the development of this new platform. They had open discussions and workshops using techniques such as metaplan to get employees to contribute ideas for how the platform could work, features that they would like to see and tools that would be particularly useful for them. Employee engagement only increased when with every new iteration of the design employees could see their ideas being realised. They wanted to make sure, in line with their open culture, that this was not a management project imposed from above and that everyone was engaged in making it better. In designing the platform they drew on interface elements that everyone was familiar with: a prominent google-like full-text search and easy browsing of documents in an Windows explorer-like way. Because users were so involved in creating the platform and they taken steps to insure its usability, they have not given any formal training in its use or written a manual.
Westapedia also includes Westatwitt - an internal micro-blogging application which is used by employees to exchange short messages about projects, about what they are working on and more informal communications. It is also possible to invite other users to a workspace using an @-sign and follow the progress of a project or an initiative using a # (hashtag). Any message that includes the latter is automatically pulled into the project space and archived. That way, people joining the project later have the possibility to follow previous conversations and get up to speed much quicker. An interesting fact to highlight for Westapedia components is the interchangeability of data. Any message from Westatwitt can be easily transferred into a user's todo list or calendar for example, so a message mentioning a delivery can be added to a calendar to remind the individual to do something about it. Similar to Twitter, the system is kept fairly simple by design in order to allow interaction via phone. A totally different approach though was taken towards read acknowledgements. Whenever a users sends out a tweet on Westatwitt and someone else reads it, the author is notified. The idea originated in email lists, where the author of an email can be notified whenever some read the message. Just like with email, this option can be turned off though.
In homage to Wikipedia the new system was called Westapedia which is, however, misleading, as it is much more than an encyclopedia. It integrates collaborative document editing, team calendars, todo lists, chats, microblogging and data flows from enterprise systems. It provides users with a personal dashboard, where they can find all the information relevant to them. A user can use his personal dashboard to keep track of documents, organise his time and maintain personal to-do lists. Westapedia also has private spaces where employees can talk about non work-related issues.
Outcomes and Conclusions
Dr. Peter Westerbarkey tells us that all employees are using the system for a variety of purposes and that adoption was never an issue because of the way they involved users from the very start. The most common and fundamental usage is for project work. A top-level hierarchical framework exists within Westapedia but within this users are free to create their own groups. Creators of groups are asked to keep groups open to other Westaflex, so that the entire company can benefit from it. Only a few groups are private.
Documents are the basis of the system and there are now over 600,000 on Westapedia. These documents can have arbitrary metadata assigned to them so, for example, documents can have a reminder date that is used to send the creator a reminder to update it or documents can become events by giving them a start date and an end date. All documents can be commented on, tagged and bookmarked.
Westapedia's support of manufacturing projects has been extremely successful. The combination of all documentation being available to everyone and the flexibility of the communication tools around a project allow people to keep a clear awareness of what is happening. This has had a couple of concomitant benefits:
•All projects have a backup manager so that when the person in charge is away, the project can continue. With Westapedia, almost anyone on the project can act as a backup manager because they all have access to the relevant information.
•The incidence of costly production mistakes has been reduced. When managing client product samples, there is potential for making costly mistakes in moving to a full production run before a client has fully agreed to it. The project awareness that Westapedia has enabled has helped reduce this sort of mistake.
As well as supporting project work, they also have internal groups and communities to facilitate the internal communication and the sharing of ideas. Ph.D. Westerbarkey says that this is particularly useful for helping employees learn new techniques and approaches, particularly when combined with video tutorials which have proved particularly popular with younger employees.
The success of the platform has now turned outwards. Westapedia are using it not only to manage their internal communication and collaboration, but also their company website. They no longer have an individual responsible for maintaining the website. Instead, it is everyone's responsibility.
Dr. Westerbarkey says that this new platform has changed the basis of communication within the firm. Instead of proactive, push communications characterised by internal memos and management dictats, the onus is now on every individual to stay informed about what is happening. All the information they need is available on the platform or through their colleagues. Internal email has reduced by as much as 80% and they are aiming to completely stop internal emails within the next year.
In Dr. Westerbarkey's own words Westapedia is now a self-organising system that gives Westaflex enormous flexibility and helps them perfectly meet the needs of their clients.