Wired for Serendipity: How Smart Spaces foster Collaboration

Collaboration isn’t just a word

Businesses talk about collaboration all the time, but few talk about how hard it is to do, and even fewer talk about what it means to do it well. At Isobar we have been investigating how to actively foster collaboration both in our own business and across the Dentsu Aegis Network.

As Tracy De Groose, Dentsu Aegis Network CEO UK & Ireland puts it:

“A collaborative culture, we believe, is critical to delivering results. We have an operating system that breaks down silos across disciplines which enables us to create more agile, connected, cross discipline teams for our clients. Data connects us, and technology simplifies and keeps us agile. Working in this way means we can be more aligned behind our clients’ ambitions and deliver better results.”

Getting people to collaborate better/more can solve some very real business problems:

  • Processes to facilitate knowledge sharing (*58% of people spend an hour a day looking up information)
  • Processes to reduce work duplication (38% of employee time is lost to duplicating existing efforts)
  • Processes that allow people to increase their communication and other soft skills (feeling connected makes 63% of people more likely to stay with their existing employer)

At Isobar we have run a series of experiments to better understand office- and inter office-collaboration and believe that the best approach requires not only classic enterprise software tools-the intranets, sharepoints and task management programmes we all know- but networked spaces. Spaces that provide rich and dynamic data on how our workforces are interacting today and help nudge them towards greater collaboration tomorrow.

You can’t get people to collaborate just by telling them they must

One thing any manager or CEO knows is that it can be hard to get people to use intranets and other share point software. Well-designed tools are critical in managing cognitive load in the modern workplace, and we undoubtedly need them. But no matter how well designed they are or how well we incentivise participation, the fact is, we’re busy. So busy in fact that asking someone to use a new tool is a big ask, and if that tool is something we have to actively go to rather than one which tries to anticipate our needs, it’s even less likely we will use the tool over time.

However, there is ample evidence that when it comes to collaboration, it’s perhaps less about creating a better or worse intranet than it is about ensuring that the spaces we work in are designed with collaboration in mind. Steve Jobs (of course) understood this, designing the Pixar building to maximise serendipitous encounters and thereby increase collaboration, knowledge sharing and shared problem solving.

Unlocking collaboration across the network

Isobar’s office In London is on the 7th floor of a building which we share with 1600 people from other businesses in the network. Why do we share the space? Ostensibly we are here in order to unlock the latent potential of collaboration by being physically close to one another.

We’ve invested a lot in being in the same building, but just being in the same building is not enough to foster and encourage collaboration, as I’ve outlined above. Proximity is a key predictor of likely collaboration, but proximity alone has its limitations, as documented in “Influencer” and brought to our attention by John Stepper:

“Scientists who worked next to each other were 3 times more likely to discuss technical topics that lead to collaboration than scientists who sat 30 feet from one another. Put them 90 feet apart, and they are as likely to collaborate as those who work several miles away! The probability of collaboration sharply decreases in a matter of a few feet.”

So physical proximity alone isn’t enough, and not every organisation has the luxury (like Pixar) of designing spaces that consciously encourage people sitting more than a few feet away to run into each other more often.

So: How do you get busy people to talk to other busy people they don’t yet know? There’s no “Chief Collaboration Officer” (and there shouldn’t be), there is no ‘Really Getting People to Collaborate Efficiently’ department (thank God), and I don’t have a ‘Number of Collaboration Meetings Attended this Month’ metric to achieve (the horror).

Understand collaboration at a small scale first

Isobar is a full service digital agency with innovation front and centre in its approach, and we have been tenaciously experimenting with technology to solve the Hard Problem of Collaboration.

If you want to crack collaboration for 1600 people across 8 companies (in our London office alone) understanding what the barriers are in a smaller group is a good place to start.

We have high production workflows across much of the Isobar business and a need for small, tight knit teams. Many software development companies will share this structural challenge-think Jeff Bezos’ famous “two pizza teams”. Indeed, for many software companies these small, tight knit teams aren’t a problem, but a conscious choice-Bezos also famously declared that “Communication is terrible”.

For agencies, however, with familiar challenges across clients, with teams that are dynamically formed and reformed in response to changing briefs, it’s a challenge. Many people simply will not have the time during work to interact with other teams and get to know them and unlock the potential for collaboration.

I wanted to find a simple and quick way to intervene in this dynamic, so I hit upon the idea of using a very simple mobile app and web service along with iBeacons to introduce people to one another (hat tip our friends @lighthouse), based on physical proximity.

First I needed a baseline survey to give me a sense of people’s perceptions of a core business metric I could test using this experimental approach: Feeling connected to colleagues.

I showed 4 colleagues how to use the backend system – just to add a picture of themselves and some text, and then after 3 days they then had to show someone they hadn’t met before how to use it.


The app itself is really simple; when there is new content loaded onto a beacon, the app notifies you as you pass:

2  3


It’s not a million miles from the “Face Game” developed at Zappos to ensure the rapidly scaling start up retained its close knit, familial feel.

After 2 months we re-surveyed the company and were able to increase the sense of Feeling Connected to Colleagues by 28%

That’s really encouraging, and shows that with a simple technology intervention you can genuinely affect change. The benefits of that change are really big ones – things like reducing employee churn through people feeling more connected to their job and colleagues, creating new business opportunities by getting people talking about other clients in the business; those are Real Money benefits, and if we can do it in one business we can do it across the network.

Scaling the learning – Meet Your Familiar Strangers!

The ‘Familiar Stranger’ is a fascinating phenomenon first observed in 1972 by famed sociologist Stanley Milgram. Essentially, a Familiar Stranger is someone that you regularly observe but do not interact with. That basically defines the relationship that every person in our building has with the majority of others. There is good reason for this dynamic to emerge, and much as you cannot enforce collaboration across groups, if you are looking to create organic connections across groups then you must make them natural and opt in.

I began looking at networks and data sources in the building that people have in common, seeking ideas on how I might organically connect people in a bottom-up way that would help foster the seeds of collaboration.

We have RFID based card entry into the building and also on each floor and the canteen. With 1600 people moving through the building every day, this data was a rich source to investigate. I began to look for patterns that indicate overall propensities towards collaboration in the different Dentsu Aegis Network companies:


Carat and Vizeum visit more floors, an indicator of Collaboration Behaviour

I was also looking for moments when people intersect in physical space, indicating that they may be true Familiar Strangers, and I discovered so many instances where people repeatedly were in the same space at the same time. In the below example the data shows that people share a time based habit – visiting the canteen for a tea break:

Intersecting visits made to the canteen between 11:20 and 11:25 over a one month period

Intersecting visits made to the canteen between 11:20 and 11:25 over a one month period

Considering the regularity of this pattern we can be fairly certain that some of these people have seen one another at some point, they are at least familiar strangers, and perhaps they even greet each other with a nod… But that’s not enough to have in common to trigger some kind of event that would link them to one another to unlock a collaboration potential, in other words – we need another data stream.

Intersecting physical proximity with the company intranet

Our company intranet is called Neon, a SharePoint software. As we’ve said upfront, companies can design better or worse intranet tools, but the point is that if you need to find something, or someone, you can.

However, having to seek information cannot be as effective as that information coming to you at just the right moment, attached to the right person.

Neon asks you to enter tags that describe your interests and your skills, here’s a screen-grab of mine:


And here is a screen-grab of someone at Carat who is also interested in collaboration:


Matthew looks like someone I should really talk to; he’s not only interested in collaboration, but technology and magic! It’s unlikely though that I would have met Matthew had I not actively gone to Neon and performed a search for collaboration.

How can Technology help create smart, networked spaces that prompt Serendipity?

We are working on a product that lives where people do: on their mobile devices. In its simplest form it looks at tags on our intranet and connects people to one another when common tags are found.

But when you intersect this data with physical proximity it can do much more

In the below screens, you are looking at a simple interaction between one individual, Stephanie, who has added a new tag via the app around learning ‘Mobile Marketing’. The app then alerts anyone who has ‘Mobile Marketing’ as something they have said they are able to teach. If one of the people who can teach responds, both Stephanie and that person get a free working lunch in the canteen. Interestingly, the tags input in the app are populating our Intranet, making it more dynamic and up to date.


Circles represent individuals, and your relationship to them based on physical proximity, common tags and number of recent interactions in the app

As those in your dynamic network add tags or answer questions, the system alerts you if it thinks you may benefit from being connected

The system can then close the circle with an offer of a coffee or a meal in the canteen. The system will then change a property of the circle representing your connection to that person.

As the always insightful technology writer Bill Thompson once said:

…Work with the grain of the internet, build something around the things the network makes possible instead of coming up with an idea and then trying to make it work.”

*Collaboration statistics via Econsultancy

6 comments on “Wired for Serendipity: How Smart Spaces foster Collaboration

  • Tim Dunn says:

    Awesome work Alfie. There’s so much knowledge in that building, this could form a great way to seed it between floors. How great would it be if we knew everything Carat know about paid aspects of social? Likewise if they could share our creative process for content development etc? But without wanting to damage the serendipitous aspects to this – is there mileage in programmatizing it as a learning program? only much more fun?

  • Simon Coxon says:

    That’s a brilliant piece of work. Love the insights that have identified a real need and love the outcome.

  • Alfie Dennen says:

    Thanks Tim, it’s been an interesting journey and we’re not finished yet. To your point, this product has the potential to connect people with knowledge, relying on those small moments of intersection to Spark something. But to do that it has to be entirely single minded – it is dramatically feature poor, with a backlog designed to be flexible against user habits as they emerge. It’s the kind of thing which has the potential to be many things, but to my mind it probably should be only one thing :)

  • Alfie Dennen says:

    Simon that’s super complimentary, thank you! Personally I love the simplicity of the outcome most – CIRCLES FTW!

  • roxanne says:

    This is such an energetic and inspiring article. Thank you Alfie.

    I often think training is one of the times when people from different parts of the business come together, who wouldn’t usually. So I’m going to have a think about how that can lead in to a longer term collaboration between those people too…

  • Alfie Dennen says:

    Thanks so much Roxanne. That’s a great insight, I think it’s especially true also of when people start at a business – setting up what they can expect in terms of connecting with others, and generally feeling included.

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