It's the culture, stupid! How Atlassian maintains an open information culture

It's the culture, stupid
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All modern businesses run on information, so business management is also about Information Management. However, software alone cannot transform an organization. Information Management mastery doesn't come from technology, it comes from the people! More specifically, it comes down to the CEO instilling an Information Culture for staff to follow. It's leadership not by force, but by example.

In his Management 2.0 challenge, Gary Hamel claims that blogs and wikis haven't changed the way in which organizations are managed and led. This may be the general case, but fortunately there are some companies in which such information tools have successfully changed the way companies are run.

One such company is Atlassian, an Australian software company and previous winner of the HCI Human Capital M-Prize. Atlassian's CEOs have instilled an information culture throughout the company with the core value of "Open Company, No Bullshit". The result is a bottom-up democracy of information where information sharing is the norm and information hoarding is a foreign concept.

 (See the video in full HD.)

Context

The goals of Information Management cannot be achieved by software alone. More important is a company's Work Culture that encourages workers to share information so that they are happy to "put information out there" for others to consume rather than hoarding it in their private stores.

That aspect is so important that, rather than referring to 'Information Management', it is better to consider a company's Information Culture that includes people as well as systems.

Information Culture

Numerous academic studies have examined the relationship between Information Culture and corporate success:

"Culture and quality in information services are positively related to performance."

— Lars Höglund, A Case Study of Information Culture and Organizational Climates (1998)
University of Borås. Swedish School of Library and Information Science

“Information culture is a strategic goal and should be planned for as much as the transformation of physical resources.”

— Ginman, Information Culture and Business Performance (1988)
International Association of Technological University Libraries (IATUL) Quarterly

“Effective information management is how people use information, not machines.”

— Thomas H. Davenport, Saving IT’s Soul: Human-Centered Information Management (1994)
Harvard Business Review, March-April 1994

A study in Finland (Owens, Wilson and Abell 1995) found a direct relationship between a company's Information Ethos (as they called it), the effectiveness of the company's Information Systems and company performance. More specifically, they recognised that the CEO was the one person who could bring change to "foster an information culture" within the organization:

Owens

 Thus, any company seeking to improve its management of information should first examine its own corporate culture.

Triggers

In 2003, when Atlassian was growing its software development business, the founders wanted an online system to store their company knowledge and documentation. Whilst they realized that a wiki was an ideal platform, wikis at the time were still experimental and not ready for corporate use. So, they developed their own "corporate wiki" for internal use and also offered it for sale. The product was given the name "Confluence" to represent the coming-together of ideas.

Introducing wiki technology when the company was still young had a profound impact on Atlassian's information culture. Whereas most companies have embedded, legacy information systems that hinder the introduction of newer technology, Atlassian had the benefit of adopting a wiki early in its corporate lifecycle.

New staff members joining the company are instructed to use the wiki and, without the infrastructure for traditional 'document management', these staff members have little alternative but 'buy into' the system.

The very act of using a wiki, with its easy access to information and default 'open' nature of information, led to an information culture in Atlassian of openness and sharing.

Key innovations & timeline

1. Core Value: "Open Company, No Bullshit"

From the very beginning, Atlassian founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar had a firm belief in having an 'Open Company'. Unlike other companies that kept information in silos, their vision has always been of a company that has open information by default. This includes both internal and external information:

Internal Shared Information External Public Information

Business plans
Product plans
Technical documentation
Online discussions
Comments and critiques
Customer feedback
Reporting

Pricing
Documentation
Free product evaluations
Source code
Product bugs
Product feature requests
Company blog

Where ever possible, information is made accessible to all staff:

  • Instead of sending person-to-person emails, relevant information is placed on the wiki for all staff to read
  • Instead of storing information in documents (eg Word files), information is entered directly onto the wiki so that it is searchable and accessible to all staff — even from home!
  • New staff members, upon joining the company, have immediate access to all historical information kept on the wiki

This practice has been codified into the company value of  "Open Company, No Bullshit". This is not a corporate edict — the value was documented by staff as describing the actual company culture at Atlassian.

Example: "Blog It!"

Several weeks after joning Atlassian, I wanted to let my manager know what I had been doing. So, I documented my work in an email and sent it to him. I received a 2-word response: "Blog It!"

From that day on, I publish my activity, and that of my team, to the entire company. Moreso, I recently had a new staff member join the company. When he sent me an email documenting his work, I echoed my earlier experience and told him to "Blog It!"

2. Online Collaboration

Wiki technology is largely about creating, editing and viewing information quickly within a web browser. However, an often-overlooked aspect of wikis is the ability to comment, which provides a means of collaborating around information.

Atlassian staff routinely add comments on wiki pages. Examples are:

  • Contributing ideas to project plans
  • Critiquing information on the wiki (which often leads to lively online debate!)
  • Linking to other related information, either elsewhere on the wiki or out to the Internet
  • Arguing the merits of HR sick leave policies that require medical certificates
  • Generally interacting with other staff, even if they are in a remote office or working from home

This ability to comment has led to staff actively participating within the wiki. The wiki is no longer just a repository of information — it is a destination for lively discussion and debate. Plus, since this takes place on a central system rather than in private emails, the discussions and debates are available for all staff to read and extend.

The wiki automatically notifies staff if somebody has commented on a page they created, or if somebody replied to a comment they made. This encourages staff to revisit the wiki many times each day, hastening the pace of discussion. It's much like receiving a Facebook notification when somebody has commented on your 'personal wall', except that the wall is for the whole company.

Example: Remote Collaboration

Atlassian has offices in Sydney, San Francisco and Amsterdam. This makes it very hard for everybody to participate in face-to-face meetings. However, the ability to 'comment' on the wiki means that all staff can join a conversation, regardless of location and timezone.

A recent example was when Chris Darroch, an Atlassian staff member, suggested that the IT department implement a new IT system for quickly answering questions within the company. However, this would have overlapped the goal of several existing systems, so we suggested that he put his idea on the wiki and see what other people think.

Staff from throughout the company had the chance to comment on his idea and offer alternative proposals. These alternatives were so good that Chris, himself, ended up voting against his own decision!

3. Reading the corporate news

Consider the old philosophical riddle that asks: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" A modern equivalent might be "If information is on a computer system and no one uses it, is it of value?"

To ensure that information is publicised and read, all Atlassian staff are expected to read a "News Feed" that continuously lists all information updated on the wiki. Each staff member can personalise this Feed to obtain information relevant to their needs.

The news feed has several advantages:

  • Replacing 'all-hands' emails: Important information is placed on the wiki rather than in emails, which means there is a permanent, accessible historical record rather than having information stored in personal email in-boxes
  • Giving an 'overview' of pages and comments: Staff aren't expected to read every page and every comment on the wiki. The news feed provides a quick list of these topics, enabling staff to pick and choose what they wish to read. They can even see 'hot topics' that generate lots of comments and then join the discussion.
  • Allowing staff to monitor the company as a whole: Emails and distribution lists usually target a small set of people. In contrast, the news feed allows staff to 'monitor' the whole company, remaining aware of news, discussions and hot topics in other departments and other office locations.

Example: Founder Updates

Atlassian's founders publish a bi-weekly 'Update' to the company covering news, corporate stragegy and giving examples of great customer customer. Rather than sending this via email, it is published on the wiki and a "share notice" is sent to all staff, linking back to the wiki. This way, the information is centrally available even to staff who join the company in later years. Plus, staff can add their own comments to the Update and add their own local examples of great customer service. It gives a 'voice' to the entire company.

4. Internal Blogging

Blogs are now common on the Internet. Atlassian maintains numerous 'public' blogs to inform customers and business partners about company activities. However, it is the use of internal blogs that truly contributes to information sharing.

An internal blog post is just like any other wiki page — it can contain information, graphics, comments and it appears automatically in the news feed. The difference, however, is that every staff member has their own 'personal' blog that is only available internally, rather than publicly. They can write a blog post about any topic. This can relate to their work within the company, but just as often it is not directly work-related. It could be:

  • A programming conundrum or a tidbit of information
  • A report on a recent customer visit
  • A request for advice on holiday destinations
  • A proposal to shake-up the way the company sells its products
  • A pointer to an interesting article on the Internet

Many companies provide "bulletin board"-type systems to their employees for non-work topics, but such systems are infrequently used. However, by combining this 'personal' information exchange with the general flow of corporate knowledge, Atlassian has produced an open information exchange that is highly visible and frequently referenced by all staff. Sitting at one's desk can be the easiest way to share information.

Example: Thanks for Coming In!

One day, Atlassian staffer Michael Knighten posted a blog that he had noticed that a lot of people are happy to complain about things but seldom take the time to say Thank You. So, he posted "This is just my friendly reminder to tell the people around you they're doing an awesome job every chance you get. Doesn't cost you anything - makes them feel better, guaranteed!"

This produced a great deal of online discussion and resulted in one of Atlassian's famous T-shirts that simply reads "Thanks for coming in today!". The sentiments expressed were made doubly genuine by the fact that it was staff themselves saying Thank You rather than management. Blogging encourages multi-directional communication, rather than just top-down.

5. External Openness

The above examples are all internally-focussed, but openness at Atlassian extends externally, too (see "External Public Information" in the table earlier in this section). This openness sets Atlassian apart from its competitors in the Enterprise Software marketplace.

Under the belief that customers would also benefit from Open Information, Atlassian has implemented very specific ways of sharing information with customers, prospective customers and even prospective employees:

  • Product pricing is totally public, including discount policies
  • Prospective customers can download our software and try it free for 30 days
  • All documentation is public and available for anyone to access
  • Bug reports and feature requests are public, allowing people to 'vote' on their preferred features

This contrasts remarkably with company that merely publish Marketing information on their website, requiring all sales to be performed via a "Contact Us" button. It requires a strong conviction that our products are high quality, since customers will judge their worth before paying any money.

Example: Security Breach

In April 2010, Atlassian experienced a security breach which led to systems being shutdown while information was verified and while we made sure that no confidential customer information was stolen. Rather than keeping secret about the incident, Atlassian made regular public announcements about what had happened and how cusotmers could avoid similar security breaches.

Rather than being panned by the community for allowing such a breach to occur, the IT community gave Atlassian a resounding vote of confidence for its openness: "Clearly a case of transparency turning a disaster into an opportunity, and how to take advantage of that opportunity by being open and honest with your users."

Challenges & Solutions

Challenge 1: Instilling the practices

Writing wiki pages, comments and blogs is contrary to the traditional work practice of writing documents and communicating via email. This poses a challenge of how to indoctrinate new staff in information openness.

Atlassian's solution lies in one simple rule — on an employee's first day at work, they must create an internal blog post to introduce themselves to the company. This can range from a simple "hello" to a full editorial on their background and experience.

The most popular introductory blog posts are ones that reveal the 'personal side' of the new employee, such as their favorite hobbies or travels abroad. This then results in other staff adding comments to the blog post, welcoming the new staff member to Atlassian and often asking questions about their hobbies and trips. This creates a safe forum for the new staff member to participate in the online discussion, much like friendly dinner-party conversation. It also draws the new staff member into the wider conversation, making online participation part of their daily routine.

Challenge 2: Learning the new medium

Many people are familiar with wikis through Wikipedia. However, reading a wiki page is not the same as writing a wiki page. Facing a blank wiki page is quite disconcerting for new wiki users and they are often unsure of how to write a useful page.

Atlassian's solution is two-fold: Providing training and having rich examples.

Training is provided in how to create wiki pages. Experience has shown that, if somebody accumulates two hours of practice, they will be willing to use the wiki and expand their use of it. Without such exposure, however, people may shy away and return to their previous practices. It has been especially noted that staff in less-technical departments (eg Finance or HR) typically need more 'hand-holding' to help them through the initial learning curve.

Fortunately, the corporate wiki has been established for many years, so there are also many rich examples of how to use the wiki. Rather than starting a page from scratch, they can locate a similar page (eg meeting minutes or a project plan), copy it and then edit it for their needs. Such 'templating' means they rarely have to create a page from scratch.

Challenge 3: Too much information

One downside of having a frequently-updated wiki is that it can generate "too much information", making it hard for staff to keep current with all topics. This runs the risk of staff missing important information that is hidden amongst 'less important' information.

Atlassian overcomes this by using a 'Share' button on the wiki, which sends an email notification about a page on the wiki. This notification can be sent to one person, a few people or even the whole company. However, the email does not contain the information itself — it simply redirects staff back to the wiki where they can read the information and participate in a discussion online.

Benefits & metrics

Benefits derived from use of the wiki include:

  • Online collaboration to share ideas around a topic
  • Historical information accessible to all staff, including new-starters
  • A central repository of information without the need to send documents, compare versions and distribute updates
  • Easy information searching as all information is kept in one system
  • An open information culture that encourages staff to share information 

In addition, Atlassian's culture has become a significant marketing asset when promoting the company to recruitment candidates. The current generation of technically-savvy workers appreciate an open culture where use of tools such as Twitter and Facebook are an asset, rather than something they need to hide from supervisors.

Lessons

It's the Culture, Stupid!

Changing the way people work requires a change in the work culture itself. The work practices then become automatic. New staff joining the company often have trouble adopting this concept but they soon learn 'correct' behavior from by the pervading culture. Encouraging them to share information on their very first day establishes the culture very strongly.

Instilling the culture early in the compan's history makes this much easier as the company grows. As new staff join the company, they naturally learn the behavior. If a company wants to change the culture, however, then all existing staff need to 're-learn' their behavor.

Lead by example

Choosing to have information 'open' by default requires continual effort by the CEO and management to set the example for all staff. When a staff member submits information to management via email or disk file, they need to encourage the staff member to instead publish it on the wiki so others can obtain access. Of course, there are times when information does need to be kept confidential (eg acquisitions or HR-related issues), so these topics not be published.

Staff, too, become the champions of leading by example. They learn from their peers, so staff need to set the example for their peers, too.

Change underlying systems to match the culture

Moving from Document Management to an Information Management can be difficult with legacy systems and processes, but such a change brings many benefits.

For example, Atlassian hardly uses the traditional Office suite of software. The wiki replaces the need for a Word Processor (at least for internally-targeted information) and spreadsheets are only used by number-focussed staff such as Finance and Marketing. By eliminating the concept of disk files, the wiki becomes the default means of information exchange. As a side benefit, the wiki ensures that people are always looking at the latest version of information, rather than having conflictng versions amongst multiple disk files.

Helpful materials

Want more information? See the video of John Rotenstein's presentation at the Atlassian Summit in June 2011: Living in a Microsoft-Free World: Information Management at Atlassian. (Video, Slides)

View more presentations from Atlassian Presentations 

Videos

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3 Comments

craigharffey's picture
Open Source Evangelist

This a great post, I am totally committed to growing my company along these lines. Having spent years in investment banks seeing the type of culture I want to avoid.

Having been inspired by books like Wikinomics and Freedom, Inc I'm comfortable with the theory but struggle to come up with a balanced plan to implement. At present my firm is only a few perm staff strong and we struggle to break away from email.

My business partner supports the idea, but doesn't really understand the mechanics or all the benefits. My biggest challenge is this - as a fledgling business we have a real fear that our "intellectual capital" is at risk through increased sharing to transient contractors, customers and the public. It ties me up in knots !!

It's definitely time to sit down and have a good think about how I can implement something now so it may become part of the firm's DNA as we take on new staff

tymathews's picture
Newbie

Hey Craig, did you ever figure out what to do about the (very real) intellectual capital risks and introducing open culture?

I'd love to hear how you did it.

craigharffey's picture
Open Source Evangelist

Not been on here for a while, sorry for the tardy reply.

Yep - it's still a major concern, I had an ex-contractor bragging to me in a pub recently how he has taken all our "stuff" and rolled it out in his new contract. This and some other examples have led us to rethink how we present ourselves and we have decided to make our people the differentiator, not the "stuff" they come armed with; that's just a benefit.

As a services company our "stuff" is not code or products so would be very difficult to protect and it's taken a real rethink to stop obsessing over it. We have used a couple of things already to limit the ease of replication such as only supplying PDF front page reports and keeping the data analysis spreadsheet backend in HQ. This wont stop the copying of ideas and execution but make it more onerous to recreate.

In summary our plan to open up whilst limiting risk is this:
- Reduce the use of contractors over time for the delivery of core services
- Build a Chinese Wall to ringfence contractor engagements and limit what they have access to
- Move to a wiki for all internal documentation and collaboration using access controlled areas for client servicing areas
- Remove use of email internally within 18m; encourage use IM and wiki
- Culture of empowerment and sharing to help minimise staff churn
- When hear about our "stuff" being used elsewhere, talk about it with message "that stuff is old now, come look at how we do it now!"
- Keep innovating to stay ahead of the competition and limit exposure of IP theft.

Basically my dream is to have a motivated and loyal team committed to moving the company and themselves forward by having a real say in the strategy and execution and a customer base that knows we are a little different to everyone else.