Managing beyond the organizational hierarchy with communities and social networks at Electronic Arts

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A confusing business organization chart

How do you manage a very large, very complex organization that is geographically disbursed in many different countries around the world? You already know that the outdated hierarchal organizational structure won’t work and if you are like many companies you are probably beginning to realize that the matrix type structure (where each employee reports to both a task manager and a resource manager) has its own limitations.  Electronic Arts (EA) established cross-company virtual communities that provide the benefits of coordinated decision making while preserving the independence required for creativity and innovation.  These communities are supported by a unique governance structure and a fun and engaging technology platform.


Electronic Arts Inc. is a leading global interactive entertainment software company. EA develops, publishes, and distributes interactive software worldwide for video game systems, personal computers, wireless devices and the Internet.  The company’s 2011 revenues were more than $3.5 billion, and it has 8,000 employees in more than 23 countries.

Recently EA underwent a transformation like it had never experienced before. EA had to reinvent itself by embracing the digital disruption affecting the media and entertainment industry and transform itself from a packaged goods business to a fully integrated digital entertainment company.  EA’s digital business now supports nearly $1B of its revenue.


Navigating through EA’s recent transformation required EA leaders, managers, and employees to find new way of working together. EA has long proven that the concept of fostering communities of gamers provides a great source of ideas and requirements that produces a higher quality product. Until recently, EA had never really embraced this same concept internally – to engage your workforce to connect, share information and ideas, and ultimately to collaborate to deliver innovative solutions to complex problems.  EA set forth to establish a set of services and capabilities that supports a set of social networks and communities to:

  • Leverage (re-use) existing services, processes, technology solutions
  • Reduce complexity and duplication  (of services, processes, technologies, capabilities)
  • Promote principles of simplicity, standardization, efficiency, integration and continuous improvement
  • Mentor & develop careers for our team members so that they feel empowered to their job better or are able to pursue new and exciting opportunities

Key Innovations & Timeline

Electronic Arts launched internal collaborative communities in 2009 across its globally distributed workforce. Its goal was to gain the efficiencies of a large enterprise without compromising local teams’ autonomy or creativity.

The concept was based on an analogy described by EA’s CEO, John Riccitiello, that was used to communicate EA’s transformation to a new social organization as the difference between a swim meet and water polo match. At a swim meet, each group competes by having its swimmers compete individually in different events and by swimming in their own lanes with little interaction between teammates. A water polo match, on the other hand, features two teams, each comprised of individuals working together by collaboratively passing the ball to score goals. 

The communities formed at EA were more than just like-minded people discussing topics of interest. They were empowered to make decisions and to deliver. EA’s communities could recommend the next technology roadmap or they could change a business process to become more effective or efficient. There were no limits placed on the types of communities within EA. A community could be a service-based community (business intelligence, enterprise application support, facilities); it could be a role based community (project managers, system engineers, security specialists); or it could even be formed around a technology (servers, storage devices, ERP) or business process  based (game development lifecycle, order fulfillment, etc.) . Whatever the type, the goal was that this community would improve the organization or the products it produced.

 What makes EA’s approach to communities distinctive is the “light” governance model to manage and operate their communities.  Socially, people naturally gravitate towards each other to share experiences or to explore a common interest. Many of these interactions are conversational in nature. Within the enterprise, the real power of communities is to embrace these same concepts but also to  work collaboratively to achieve a common goal – to create a new product or service, improve the effectiveness of a business process, or even to eliminate operational inefficiencies. To achieve its goals and to empower its communities to make decisions, EA explicitly focused on a “light” governance structure that promotes the organic interaction of social networks but also empowers them to produce a desired business outcome.

The defining characteristics of EA’s community governance model include:

  1. An overall community steering committee.  The steering committee oversees the investment in and achievements of the communities across the company or business unit. Steering committee members are from the upper levels of management and its mandate is to make sure—through better tools and resources, for example—that communities can operate as effectively as possible. One team at EA formed its steering committee with the senior-most staff of the business unit and also included the team leads from each community. This steering committee reviewed the charter and responsibilities of each new community to ensure that it was distinct enough from other communities already in operation.  The steering committee met for about 90 minutes once a quarter and was chaired by the community champion. Other responsibilities of the steering committee were to monitor the progress of the community program itself and ensure that it was growing and serving its intended purpose to promote collaboration within the organization.
  2. A community champion who facilitates the firm’s overall collaborative efforts and evangelizes the benefits and goals of a communal structure within the enterprise. The community champion was also a senior staff member of the organization and was known for his/her passion around communities and the benefits that it could achieve within the enterprise. The community champion also ran the competency center. The competency center developed and maintained a set of services, processes, and technologies to establish and support the community and social networking program. The community champion had a very important role in incubating each community and ensuring that each community had enough engaging content and direction to eventually become self-sustaining.


3. Roles within the actual communities themselves. Each of EA’s  communities have the following roles:  

  • Community sponsor: a community sponsor represents each community in EA’s leadership ranks. Sponsors are members of the leadership team and give the community access to the rest of EA’s leadership team in order to ratify or to solicit executive support for a decision made within that community. Many times when you have new community members come together there are many different ideas and thoughts of how a decision or solution should be developed.  Sometimes the community would be in a stalemate and not be able to move forward. In this situation, the community sponsor would act as a mediator and help the community move past its sticking points.
  • Community team lead: a community team lead is initially nominated by the EA community steering committee, and once the community is thriving, the next team lead will eventually be elected by the community members themselves. Often a manager in the organization, the team lead facilitates the discussions and drives the efforts of the community to achieve the goals set forth by the community’s charter.
  • Community council: if the community membership is very large, each community has the option of forming a community council. This council can form within a community to achieve specific results. Councils provide focused resources concentrating on achieving a specific goal or deliverable within a set time period. The use of councils reflects the fact that communities can grow large enough to lose their effectiveness.

EA’s approach is only one of many possible, but it does illustrate the kind of light governance structure needed to support the ongoing work of effective communities. 

Challenges & Solutions

There were many lessons learned when communities and social networks were first introduced to Electronic Arts. 

The first hurdle was explaining the role that the communities played within the enterprise.  Employees were used to the traditional organizational team structure and they were used to working in project teams. Initially there was some confusion about how this new communal model would not conflict with the efforts already underway within teams and projects. The solution was to educate, communicate, and use real life examples of how and where a community could act as a catalyst to find information quicker, make the work easier and/or allow decisions to be made quicker. Through many seminars and meetings the Community Champion educated the staff that communities really transcended traditional organization structures and in fact fulfilled much of the “white space” or interactions between different teams. Communities were really there to harness the creative power of individuals no matter their role, their team, or if there was an officially funded project in place.

Another challenge was convincing the employees that participating in a community was not another “job” they had to do on top of their existing workload. Initially the employees were convinced that they were going to be forced to participate in a community, contribute to a discussion, or write a knowledge article. Again through education and examples, people eventually understood that the communities were a source of help and a way to make decisions even faster. When people collaborate, they have to connect with each other, collaborate in white boarding sessions, and follow up with emails or meeting notes. Communities still embraced these concepts but made the interactions virtual, quicker, and in some cases fun. 

The platform used to enable the communal and social interactions was also key to adopting communities. The platform had to be intuitive, engaging, and offer the content people need in a way they can easily digest. Some capabilities offered in the EA solution capitalized on many Web 2.0 technologies readily available like personalization, single sign-on, advanced search, member ranking, ask-and-answer forums, activity streams, just-in updates, rich media content, and some kind of rating of the most popular content and contributions.

Getting people to interact in a community was also a challenge. How does one ignite the community so it can soon become organic and self sustaining? EA explored many different options.  Healthy completions and incentives were offered to promote interactions and contributions. Even something as simple as peer recognition was also a powerful tool. The more a community member contributed or spent time within the community, the more that person’s “ranking” would increase. For example a new member would have a ranking of novice, while an experienced member would have a ranking of subject matter expert.  EA even turned to launching some of their communities with an old fashioned meeting, but a meeting where people would want to attend. For example when initiating the Project Management Community many years ago, Agile software development was still a new concept. Working with the community team lead, the community champion invited an outside instructor to come talk to the community in a brown bag seminar. After the seminar, the questions and discussions were held on the community platform which in turn spurred other related discussions. It wasn’t long until the Project Manager Community was off on its own.

The initial interest in EA’s launch of internal communities was strong, as many employees wanted to see how this new organizational concept would help them better connect, share, and collaborate.  The launch of the pilot internal communities was not smooth: EA initially launched too many communities, too quickly. Multiple communities diluted participation, which caused people to conclude the approach was ineffective, and the participation in some communities waned. “We launched with fifteen communities, but we soon found that in order to have a viable community you need at minimum thirty to fifty active participants. We should have targeted between four and six communities instead,” said Michael Cuthrell, Director of Global IT. “That way we could have worked with the initial pilot communities to see which techniques and incentives spurred the most participation and carried over those successes to future communities.”

Benefits & Metrics

The communities transformed into a focused set of groups that now engages 75 percent of the IT organization—20 percent being highly active—in making connections across the enterprise, sharing ideas, and collaborating to make decisions. The communities were achieving what EA wanted—the benefits of scale without compromising the independence and creativity that makes EA unique.  

When creating the charter each community was asked to create its own objectives, goals, benefits and success criteria. Something that was relevant and meaningful to that community.

Some common goals were:

  • Understanding of issues locally, regionally, and globally.
  • Understanding what changes were made, and the rationale behind the changes.
  • Introduce and assimilate new hires
  • Learn from your peers
  • Key decisions are made faster, with more facts in hand.
  • Resolve and prevent frequently occurring issues
  • Identify SMEs and improve organizational visibility for collaboration
  • Introduce new process or technology initiatives
  • Discuss and agree on global standards that works for everyone


Some common benefits were:

  • Improved tracking of changes
  • Quicker resolution of issues
  • Reduced learning curve for new hires
  • Improved decision making process
  • Reduced issues and issue resolution time due to better handling of frequently occurring issues
  • Improved vendor/partner management
  • Reduce time-to-market for new processes and initiatives
  • Improved socialization of standards



Some common measures that most communities adopted to monitor the health and vitality of the community:

  • Number of discussion threads in community
  • User participation vs strength
  • Average user stickiness
  • Number of SMEs / top contributors identified
  • Number of issues resolved using the community knowledge base
  • Number of process / standards documents
  • Number of reviews on documents

One of the most active communities at Electronic Arts is our Animation community. We have taken a multi-year approach with multiple prongs to build, foster and enable community members to share knowledge across geographical and organizational boundaries.

The approach started more than five years ago with the hosting of a workshop where over 50 programmers, artists and designers met in person and participated in a 3-day interactive event. The workshop provided an opportunity to meet and connect with like-minded individuals, share best practices and lessons learned, and establish the first online community. The online community now hosts content such as articles and videos from across EA, including internal and external workshops/conferences where we record presentations so everyone can benefit from them.
In the five year period, we have hosted four worldwide workshops inside EA each with 50 or 60 participants. From the workshops, we have generated over 75 presentations (video of session and accompanying PowerPoint deck) that have been viewed thousands of times inside EA. In addition, other key events inside EA generate content including:

  • Major consumer products (i.e., FIFA Soccer, BF3, SIMS, Madden Football, SIMS, Mass Effect) are released and we harvest the best of animation articles from the subject matter experts from our internal development teams to post in the community
  • Our central technology that creates a state of the art animation authoring and run-time system post how-to articles/videos, case studies from teams, and product release information
  • Organically generated content by subject matter experts who on their own initiative generate content and post to the online community

Some additional artifacts of the community include:

  • Expert Finder. The online communities are integrated into our internal social network so that every piece of content posted in the community is associated with a real person's profile.
  • Monthly Digest Emails. We encourage everyone to join the community so that they can gain benefits such as a monthly digest of new content and participation in associated forums and mailing lists.
  • Sharing of tools, techniques, code, processes, etc. across teams; and ultimately teams using and improving on these items then giving them back to the community so there is a cycle of innovation and continual improvement.

To gain some understanding of return-on-investment one simple story shows the benefit of supporting the online community. Multiple teams at EA have used a plug-in to our animation system that controls locomotion of humans.  This plug-in of code is very advanced technology that took a team of a few programmers and artists to initially create and advance to a shareable state. The cost of this initial work is conservatively in the $250,000 range based on staff months invested in design, coding, testing, etc. This plug-in has now been used by over 10 teams at EA with little to minor modifications to the original work. This means that a $2.5 million dollar savings has occurred through sharing fostered by community activities.

As you can see from this case study, establishing a community takes significant investment, but when undertaken in a thoughtful and engaging manner can reap large benefits in quality, innovation, efficiency and cost savings.


EA’s experience also makes clear the need for management to support mass collaboration—management not in the sense of controlling but in the spirit of working within the community to help members refine their purpose as well as to motivate participation, generate a flow of ideas, and facilitate decisions should the community become deadlocked.

Among the key lessons:

  • Support and enable individuals, but don't add to their workload.
  • Empower teams to make recommendations and decisions.
  • Provide an interactive, content-filled platform that will draw people in and keep them interested and engaged
  • Think big: what about communities of customers, partners, IT staff, and the entire business ecosystem?
  • But start small: kick off 4-5 pilots to get started
  • Establish governance and a competency center, but allow communities sufficient autonomy to spawn, scale and thrive
  • The platform and toolset are critical success factors Get help and find leverage to jumpstart the platform.
  • At a very minimum, communities should get people talking and sharing!


Special thanks to Dennis Self, former SVP and CIO of Electronic Arts, who was the innovator and major driving force behind Communities and Social Networks within Global IT at Electronic Arts.

Special thanks to Bert Sandie, "Director of Technical Excellence" at Electronic Arts, who continues to evangelize the concepts of knowledge excellence within the enterprise and to the EAK team who developed the suprurb technology platform to enable EA to to connect, share information, and make work more social.

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I'm CIO of Services at Electronic Arts. Me in three: 1) I enjoy working on initiatives that allow me to interact with people and build relationships.

1 Comment

Great article and much to digest, I would be very interested in a detailed case study if one exists and if EA is willing to share. The key take away is the importance of management support and a "light hand on the tiller". Command and control behavior tends to anathematize voluntary contributions, but someone needs to be steering the boat towards an appropriate harbor. The review boards and seeding of champions and sponsors is good architectural practice and this is a great example of how it can prosper.

Collaboration projects succeed with the right focus, the right resources and the right governance - all of which are well illustrated in the article, especially the learning that a few focused groups, with good active attendance, are better than many groups without those two characteristics.

My final observation - at least on this pass, is that much of the measurement applied is volume related. In other words it is activity and volatility that appears to more important than for example quality, though I am sure within the groups peer review will contribute to the group and public recognition of Subject Matter Experts.

Thanks for posting

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