Grant Thorton goes jamming

It is rare that a business seeks the input of every single employee into its future corporate strategy, but that is exactly what accountancy firm Grant Thornton did when it launched a global crowdsourcing event.

Over three days in September, Grant Thornton held a live online discussion forum, powered by IBM’s InnovationJam platform, in which almost two in five of the accountancy firm’s global workforce contributed their thoughts and views.

And the accountancy firm has now committed to taking ‘the best ideas forward’ as part of its strategic planning.

Francesca Lagerberg, global head of tax at Grant Thornton, describes the event as ‘like Facebook on Speed’. The idea for a crowdsourcing forum originally came from a conversation between Grant Thornton’s head of marketing with his counterpart at IBM. ‘They said We’ve used this tool, why can’t you see what you can do with it?,' says Lagerberg. ‘We talked to people who had used the software, which was incredibly helpful. We were in the middle of a strategic review, but we now had this opportunity to feel connected. It enables a global organisation to feel global, which is tremendous.’

Lagerberg was the global sponsor behind the initiative, for which there were several underlying reasons. ‘We have 38,500 people around the world, and we were trying to find a way to connect with them that was a bit more interesting than email or the intranet,’ she says. ‘Also, we offer regular strategic updates and thought Why don’t we use people who don’t always have a voice? Their ideas are likely to be just as good if not better. And finally, we wanted it to be energising.’ What better way than a global conversation lasting 72 hours?'

The initiative comes as Grant Thornton has established itself as the fastest growing global accountancy organisation, celebrating its fifth successive year of rising annual profits. It now operates in 127 countries.

Its findings are also available as Grant Thornton’s five year strategy Ambition 2015, which set goals in growth, people development and thought leadership, is coming to its conclusion, and the firm is starting to think again about the future.

While planning for the event began even earlier, Grant Thornton started to promote the crowdsourcing forum internally six months before launch. ‘We held a series of events globally where we explained why we were doing it and what it was all about,’ explains Lagerberg. ‘And in every single country, we appointed Jam Champions who were incredibly creative in taking centralised messaging and making it feel quite local. In India, for example, they created a newspaper. There were fun, sparky comments, computer mouse mats and posters. It was quite incredible to see everything that they did. In Asia Pacific, they created a video that was played before they went jamming.

‘We also offered lots of prizes to reward creativity, which created energy and buzz around the event. There were prizes for regional and local ideas.’

As a result of the local events, about 14,000 people – representing 37 per cent of the global workforce – registered to participate, ranging in seniority from interns to the chief executive. ‘We believe we are the first professional organisation to do this,’ says Lagerberg. ‘Absolutely everybody was invited to participate and everybody had the same rights, but it was really useful to see well-respected senior colleagues actually engaging on these issues. It gave other people permission to say what they actually felt.’ Of those who registered, 60 per cent played an active role over the three days.

The event was structured into nine simultaneous forums concentrating on three strategic themes: people, clients and external. Each forum opened with a conversation, and colleagues were able to follow the thread, add their own thread or start their own discussion. ‘We set up a rota of facilitators of 200 people, who manned the forums constantly. They had a set of criteria and we gave them a guide to facilitating so they knew their remit,’ says Lagerberg. ‘The facilitators would highlight the best ideas. We even set up a competition for the facilitators, offering the best team the chance to come to our global annual conference in Montreal [at which the results of the forum were presented].’

Grant Thornton’s global chief executive Ed Nusbaum, his leadership team and chief executives of member firms from the UK, US, China, Canada, Sweden and France were part of the facilitating team.

More than 24,000 visits were logged over the three days, generating in excess of 13,000 comments. Despite discussions over whether translation services should be made available, in the end the forum was conducted in English. ‘It didn’t seem to stop participation,’ says Lagerberg. ‘We found that people tended to group together to talk about an issue, and then at least some of them would translate for others. I was worried about this aspect because we wanted to ensure that we didn’t exclude anyone, but it didn’t seem to put people off.’

Several strong themes emerged from the forum, but Lagerberg says that predominantly the discussions related to issues around people. ‘They were asking How can we be a better organisation? and were raising issues like flexible working and global training,’ adds Lagerberg. ‘It seemed to be the theme everywhere.’

But the debate also highlighted how different issues were important in different regions. ‘The issues that concerned China were different from those that concerned colleagues in Latin America,’ concedes Lagerberg.

‘And in India, there was a really strong discussion about values and principles around our brand and how we could deliver the brand even more. They wanted us to be more high profile about what we do. But I was really surprised at how little regional variation there was. Certain ideas resonated across the [organisation].’

Demographics also played a role. ‘Colleagues aged under 35 were incredibly similar in the issues that concerned them,’ she adds.

But the crowdsourcing event had to produce results. ‘We promised to take forward the best ideas and ensure that they are part of our forward strategic thinking,’ says Lagerberg. ‘We had a great conversation and now it is up to us to show that we are committed to taking it forward. We would need to explain why if we didn’t follow through.’

In the immediate aftermath, Lagerberg and her team ‘extrapolated 18 best ideas, but we have since found four more as well’.

One idea is already being implemented. ‘We are now making sure that every country has a good flexible working policy. Not all of them do, but we are committed to setting a deadline to ensure we have these in place in every country,’ she says.

Working parties have also been established to look into how the other ideas can be taken forward and  implemented into strategy.

‘We held a webcast [from our annual conference in Montreal], which 56 countries watched live, where we presented our results and committed to taking those 18 ideas forward,’ says Lagerberg.

The event has been deemed a success both internally and externally. ‘We were told by IBM that if we got over 5,000 participants, then that was a good result, and we aimed for 10,000,’ she says. Grant Thornton’s participation level of 37 per cent is almost double the average recorded for online crowdsourcing events at other global corporations. ‘But we were delighted by the quality of people taking part, and the chats and discussions,’ says Lagerberg. ‘I think what we got out of this was just so much more than if we had done a traditional strategic review. We had the ability to tap into this huge reservoir of engaged colleagues.’

‘Unscientific polls’ within the organisation have also revealed that colleagues feel more engaged as a result of the crowdsourcing event. ‘I think, with hindsight, we would probably have had fewer forums,’ says Lagerberg. ‘I think we might have had a deeper debate if we had had slightly fewer, but we thought we needed to cover everything with this first one.’