Paul English

Global jamming

Paul English describes how Grant Thornton used an online crowdsourcing event to engage their people globally in order to help shape the firm’s future.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, the White Queen offers Alice “Jam tomorrow”. This phrase continues to be used today, to describe a rather pleasant event in the future, which is probably never going to happen. When I first tabled the idea of the Grant Thornton Global Jam, this was more or less the reaction it received. Lovely idea, never going to happen. Not in a month of Sundays.

On stage at Grant Thornton’s global conference, sharing the Jam results in front of 1,000 senior leaders and an online audience of many thousands, the Global CEO admitted that when I first presented this idea, he didn’t think it could work. It was a big risk, but we’re a little entrepreneurial here at Grant Thornton and it got the green light.

Less than six months after offering Alice Jam tomorrow, we had 40% of the 38,000 people in our global organisation registered and actively involved in an online crowdsourcing event – sharing their views on how we live our brand and where they would like the global organisation to go in the future. This was the Grant Thornton Global Jam, which happened over three days and nights in September 2014.

Brand activation and global strategy development are interesting challenges at the best of times, but particularly complex when faced with 700 offices in over 130 countries. The emergence of new social platforms, meant that for the first time, all of our people could connect simultaneously. We could shorten the distance between the leadership and the front line, between regions and cultures. We could give everyone a voice in their future and we could listen. For this reason the Global Jam was billed as ‘Shaping our future together’ and we meant it.

There were three objectives for the Global Jam. Firstly, as we moved into a new five year strategy planning cycle, we wanted to gather ideas and insights for the future strategy of the global business from the bottom-up as well as top down. Secondly, we wanted to engage and energise our people around our global brand and collect powerful stories and examples. Finally, as an organisation made up of member firms across over 130 countries, we wanted to create a truly global experience that demonstrated the power of being part of something bigger and that served as a catalyst for further global collaboration.

How did the Global Jam work?
Key facts and figures:
  • 127 countries participated – 96% of all Grant Thornton member firms
  • 10 member firms succeeded in having all 100% of their employees register
  • Over 14,000 registrations, nearly 40% of total global workforce
  • 13,000 comments were posted
  • CEOs and Partners were proportionately the biggest contributors
  • The 18-30 age group was the most active in terms of total contributions
  • 86% of participants said that it helped them to feel part of a global organisation
  • Over 500 tweets to the hashtag #gtjam14

The Grant Thornton Global Jam was an online event delivered using IBM collaborative technologies. The system enabled users with a validated email address to register through a public URL. The web-based user environment had a strong social media feel, with many similarities to Facebook and LinkedIn. Each individual participant had a personal profile and presence, with the ability to join and participate in various forums and chat sessions built around some core themes such as macro forces and geo-political trends, digital innovation, the competition, our brand, our clients, our people and our role in society.

Each of the forums had a Grant Thornton senior leader (eg. Global board members and CEOs from different countries) as a host and people really embraced the opportunity to engage directly with them. The Global CEO, Ed Nusbaum, was prolific in his contributions and became a focal point for questions and debate in whichever forum he visited. Ed later confessed to being addicted to the Jam and to sitting up through the night to keep going across different time zones.

In addition, to inspire thought-provoking debate and to provide an external point of view, we were able to involve senior executives from our clients and prospective clients, industry bodies and corporate social responsibility partners as VIP guests, often as hosts of chat sessions.

It was fascinating to see common themes emerging and similar comments being made whether respondents were in Botswana or Belgium, Moscow or Mexico City. This crosscultural component was hugely powerful and created great energy, particularly at more junior levels where exposure to international colleagues may have been less common.

As discussions and comments intensified around certain issues, hot topics would bubble up and the system would flag these as ‘emerging ideas’ for review by a panel of senior leaders after the Jam concluded.

IBM were a great partner throughout, in terms of the robustness of the technology, but also for their own expertise in running global collaboration events online. Interestingly, the discussion around the Jam cropped up in unrelated coffee chats with Marketing and Brand leaders at IBM, Mike Bernard and Scott Stockwell, to compare challenges and different ways of doing things.

Making it happen

The Global Marketing & Communications team were both excited and a little intimidated by the scale and profile of the task at hand but the project team came together admirably and work streams were allocated and a dedicated project manager brought in on contract. Timing was challenging as we needed to have the event completed and the results analysed by the time of Grant Thornton’s global conference event in October in Montreal. We had 14 weeks to turn the whole thing around.

Communications started from the Global CEO to the Managing Partners/CEOs of the 130+ member firms around the world, emphasising the strategic importance of the project and the opportunities to engage their people. Tough task because a ‘Jam’ is not a familiar concept to senior accountants.

Given the global/local challenge, we made a decision early on that it would require a nominated champion in market to really make this work. In the end, the project team managed to recruit 146 Jam champions to drive local participation and registration through the provided URL. Promotional toolkits were developed with Global Jam branded materials and teaser videos and the champions took these and adapted them locally. Regular Global Jam news alerts were also sent to registrants, keeping interest high and the Global Leadership Team along with the Regional Heads tracked registrations in different countries to provide encouragement and support where necessary.

Prior to and during the event, #gtJam14 generated 500+ tweets and attracted the attention of journalists, resulting in post-event press coverage. Twitter provided a wonderful visual storyboard for the Global Jam as it evolved, with images of indiindividuals and teams jamming being posted at intervals across all of the different time zones.

Results of the Global Jam
Global jammers
Global jammers

The results were stunning, especially given the short-lead time, the diversity of the audience and the fact that Grant Thornton had never done anything of this type before. Participation was beyond all of our expectations across age groups, levels of seniority, gender and geographic regions.

For those of us working in professional services, what is perhaps the most remarkable fact is that we had disproportionately high participation from the most senior levels, with member firm CEOs and Partners posting a quarter of all comments and ideas.

We wanted to elicit ideas from across all age groups, but we were particularly keen to ensure that ideas were captured from Millennials and Generation Y and in the end, the 18-30 age group was the most active overall.

What the numbers do not capture is the goodwill and positivity that the event created. As one simple example, this is an email sent from a junior PA to the CEO of Grant Thornton India, an action which in itself indicates the empowering effect of the Jam: “Thank you Sir for the opportunity to Jam albeit for three days (only!!!)… it felt so good to be connected with the Grant Thornton family globally for the very first time. Every moment of the jamming was so precious and I wish that I could live it all again.”

We talk a lot about collaboration at Grant Thornton, it is one of our core values and genuinely reflects how we work with each other and how we work with our clients. In fact, many leaders regard our collaborative mindset as Grant Thornton’s secret sauce, so seeing the global organisation come together in this way was not a surprise too many. Behind the curtain though, the great results were driven by relentless work from the project team and from the champions in market.

What happened next?

The best ideas were collectively agreed by Jam participants and by a group of senior global leaders. The results were announced at the Global Conference in Montreal, just six weeks after the Jam finished and the plans to take the ideas forward were streamed live to the global organisation. Several of the most popular ideas came from the Clients and Markets sphere, ranging from innovative models of client engagement to social media innovation.

The Jammers with the top rated ideas were flown to Canada to receive awards live on stage from the Global CEO. It was hugely powerful to see junior people on the stage alongside CEOs, holding their own and confidently talking about their ideas.

We’re often challenged as marketers to be bold and to be innovative but there are often a thousand reasons not to do something and a queue of people to pour cold water on ideas.

Which brings me back to Lewis Caroll:

Alice: “This is impossible.”

The Mad Hatter: “Only if you believe it is.”

Paul English is Global head of Marketing for Grant Thornton.