Doing It The Wiki Way

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Interview with Frank Roebers by Gudrun Porath

Can you imagine a company whose employees are free to change the rules and drop in uninvited on strategic meetings? A company committed to profit making yet fully based on the principles of trust and transparency that underpin open source projects like Linux and Wikipedia? If you can, you’re doing better than most of today’s senior management in Germany who find such a vision a complete non-starter. Yet Frank Roebers, CEO of the IT trading group Synaxon AG in Bielefeld took the plunge and came out on top. In 2006, in the middle of the biggest business crisis to hit the company since its founding in 1991, he initiated a spectacular makeover of corporate culture by successfully introducing an enterprise wiki as the intranet and by transforming the old company structure into a three dimensional matrix organization. This move by executive management was willingly followed by the rest of the company staff and management who realized that it elevated transparency into the central principle of leadership.

Frank Roebers
… is a lawyer, Frank Roebers has been CEO of Synaxon AG, Europe’s biggest IT franchise, since 1999. His three driving passions are B2C business with the PC-SPEZIALIST brand; strategic and organizational development of his company; and Six Sigma. Drawing his inspiration from the Open Source movement, Frank Roebers played a leading role in transforming Synaxon into an enterprise 2.0 company.


Gudrun Porath:
How did you get the idea of completely refocusing your company on a wiki as your intranet platform with the switchover to a transparent corporate culture that sucha move involves?

Frank Roebers: Synaxon’s old organizational structure was straining at its limits. It was something we could simply no longer afford to keep because we’d noticed that the old ways we had of doing things in terms of management and organization were no longer fit for purpose. Then in 2006 I heard a talk by Jimmy Wales on Wikipedia which gave me an understanding of how free projects can work. And I tried it out for myself by contributing to Wikipedia and Ubuntu. These free projects can release so much sheer creativity because they leave people free to do their own thing in an atmosphere of complete transparency. And this principled philosophical approach used by free projects was exactly what we wanted to bring to our company along with the instrumental side of Web 2.0.

Gudrun Porath:
How does all of this pan out in practical terms on the daily working lives of your employees?

Frank Roebers: The wiki is the intranet platform through which all our work goes. All our completed and on-going projects are mapped in it. All our employees work with it and can see exactly – to give an example – whether their colleague is sticking to her resource agreements, where they stand in the project and when something is supposed to happen. They can also change the rules like guidelines for travel expenses without having to consult with their bosses beforehand. All our meetings, even meetings dealing with company strategy, are prepared and documented on the the wiki. This means that everybody can participate which generates an unbelievably high level of transparency. What our employees appreciate about  it is that at long last their input has become visible; they think it good that everyone can now see they’re working day and night for the company. They used to do this beforehand as well – only then it went completely unnoticed. And by the way, it can also be shown mathematically that our model based on a corporate culture of trust and transparency really does work. I’m thinking of the prisoner’s dilemma and tit for tat. In the advanced version of the prisoner’s dilemma a large number of players are pitted against one an-other over several rounds. The tit for tat strategy means that I always begin by cooperating and my stance is reflected in my opponent’s behavior. If my opponent stays cooperative, I stay cooperative. If he doesn’t cooperate, I won’t cooperate until such times as he starts to cooperate once more. So the situation is comparable to that existing between management and workforce in a company.

Gudrun Porath:
And is this strategy always successful?

Frank Roebers: Tit for tat is considered as the most robust and successful strategy. Tit for tat only looses out when over 90 percent of the other participants start out on a non-cooperative footing. Or to put it another way: when I’m dealing with an self-contained organizational unit of the type exemplified by a company, all I really have to do is make certain that ten percent start out on a cooperative basis and then a stable mathematical state will very soon set in which means cooperation, but which also means above all else that things won’t fall apart if some individual misuses the system. In other words, if someone abuses its confidence, the system still remains stable. That’s the experience we have made.

Gudrun Porath:
How did you go about introducing this principle of a management and corporate culture based on transparency and trust into your company?

Frank Roebers: We turned the model on its head and said that we’re starting out with a culture of mistrust in which everything has to be approved and we’ll swap it for a culture of trust and cooperative strategies. Well, we were lucky enough to have at least 20 fans in the company who worked with us from the very beginning – way above that 10 percent threshold. We weren’t so sure about all the others. Yet within only two weeks the cooperative system achieved such a level of stability that there was no need to make any further interventions. This means that no one in our company needs to pay any further attention to maintaining the wiki principles. It all works perfectly, it works by itself and it’s stable.

Gudrun Porath:
Well, with so much transparency around, you might also expect flat hierarchies. Yet that isn’t the case with Synaxon. What role if now left for management and for you yourself?

Frank Roebers: Our management structure is relatively complex. We have structure, project and process, the traditional three organizational levels. And parallel to this a meritocracy emerged through the wiki. This is only controllable because the management workload became significantly lighter once we abandoned the principle of a “general approval requirement”. Management now just have the right of veto and this creates management-side resources.

My understanding of leadership is that first and foremost it’s me who am responsible for the intractable questions. I am the representative of the owners. At the end of the day somebody’s got to take responsibility. All the rest can be done by software or somebody else. And there’s no one in our company who doesn’t share this point of view. Some people would go crazy working for us, because when you see our management in action you also see the authority they yield. They’re not exactly cuddly teddy bears! But on the other side we certainly offer much greater scope for creative freedom than most other companies do. I think we simply tend more to let the power of reason take its course.

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Jan 20, 2012 22:49

Awesome! You can sense the passion Frank is transmitting in between the lines. Check out his video interviews that can be found on YouTube.

My passions – #LeanStartup #SemperoperBallett #OpenEducation

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