Case Study: LeapFrog

A Conversation with David Goldstein, Senior Software Engineer
LeapFrog R&D Advanced Concepts
Emeryville, California, USA

Why did you choose a wiki?

In LeapFrog R&D’s Advanced Concepts group — a small, multi-disciplinary team of researchers, product designers and engineers — we started looking for an information management system in which to log new product ideas, track concepts over the course of their development, and spark better collaboration between team members.

We initially thought we’d just implement a rudimentary database and get whatever we could up & running in a couple months. But luckily, we had a small window of opportunity to take a step back from our department’s immediate need and look at the common information management needs across all company departments to see if we might better leverage our chosen solution. And as is common in many organizations, the more we dug into current corporate practices and requirements, the more we realized how truly entangled and dysfunctional our information system architecture was and what a tremendous drag on corporate productivity and employee sanity that entailed.

At LeapFrog, company knowledge was being stored in a multitude of information “haystacks” — on at least a dozen shared network drives with their G:, H:, L:, and U: mappings, employee’s local computer hard drives, at least two informal wikis already set up — one a grassroots product of the software engineering team and the other a commercial hosted solution, employees’ email folders, hard drive mirrors and “frozen” email folders of departed employees, a handful of proprietary content management tools, networked Subversion source code repositories, the corporate Intranet, and finally (and critically) in each employee’s gray matter.

In a manner of weeks, our search for a rudimentary information management system had evolved into much more for us — really a matured philosophy on organizational process and efficiency.

The key project goals that led us to select a wiki as our information management platform at LeapFrog were the desires to:

  • Create one central website through which most corporate digital information is accessed
  • Make all that information easily searchable
  • Remove all bottlenecks to information contribution and flow within the company — decentralize information input into the system and enable everyone to be a contributor
  • Have only one, authoritative location for all pieces of information, but allow for many different views of the same information

The net result promised to provide company employees and management with greatly improved access, version control, transparency, and visibility into corporate knowledge, projects and status.

Thus “Emma” was born — a wiki-based Enterprise Management and Media Archiving platform for LeapFrog.

What type of wiki are you using?

Emma is based on a commercial, enterprise wiki built on Java components running on a TomCat installation. The wiki application provides a rich framework for user- or community-developed plugins to extend its baseline functionality, which we’ve taken advantage of to customize the look, feel and data architecture of our site.

Our wiki is currently deployed inside the corporate firewall for exclusive use by company employees and internal contractors. However we are getting increasingly frequent requests from business and functional units to provide wiki access outside the firewall to external 2nd and 3rd party developers, vendors and education advisory board members. Our need to support those constituents is inevitable, so we’ll be working with our IT department over the next year to securely extend wiki access outside the company.

How are you using the wiki?

We purposely branded the internal LeapFrog site with a human name — Emma — instead of using the term “wiki” to give our new web-based application for the company a non-intimidating, friendly face. It was a nice way to focus on what our real _goals_ were in introducing a wiki into LeapFrog work life instead of the specific _technology solution_.

Emma is very much a grassroots project at LeapFrog. It was started by and evangelized by a team of two in the LeapFrog R&D Advanced Concepts group — our WikiChampions, but is now fueled by a host of ad-hoc resources within the company including an enthusiastic Developer Support & Training team who have taken on “Emma Support”, an Emma Users Group, and finally the buy-in of LeapFrog senior staff.

Launching, recruiting and continuing to nurture a cross-department Emma Users Group has been absolutely key to our wiki’s success. Proposing a fundamental overhaul of enterprise information management and, frankly, LeapFrog work culture across a 1000-some person global corporate structure was daunting. The members of the Emma Users Group — originally one “donated” person from each pilot project we ran in the early days — have been key to our leaping the inevitable corporate adoption hurdles. They’ve served as early adopters, evangelists, decentralized help resources, co-developers, beta-testers and the source for some of our best feature ideas.

Our chosen wiki application allows organizing information into a collection of individual, peer sub-wikis, or “spaces”. Each space is like its own wiki website within a larger application framework that allows for seemless page linking and global search across all spaces.

We analyzed the fundamental groups of information we work with at LeapFrog and identified some natural “bins” in which to organize things in the wiki:

  • Personal space for each user of the site in which they can do whatever they wish
  • Space for each company project
  • Space for each organizational group — be it a formal department like HR or Finance, cross-functional team or recreational or interest group like the LeapFrog Running Club or Toastmasters
  • Mechanism for building individual project, personal or group FAQs into a collective, site-wide FAQ system
  • One space that serves as our collective knowledge base of technical, market and competitive information — LeapFrog’s internal Wikipedia if you will
  • And finally, one space that provides the site framework, includint top-level site navigation, directories and search, along with serving up the main Emma home page. Emma’s home page includes up-to-date LeapFrog internal & public news, lists of recent site changes, most popular pages and blog posts, and a running blog of site status, known issues & tips. Using some of our wiki’s free developer-community-created plugins, we enabled Emma users to personalize their Emma home page by labeling any page on the site to be a tabbed add-in panel on the home page much like Google’s customized “iGoogle” tabs.

Within these bins and UI constructs, our wiki has enabled a wide range of streamlined information-sharing tools & policies including:

  • Tearing down the walls between functional groups working on the same project. For instance, rather than project specifications being spread across five different department network drives, each with their own unique folder structures and IT-imposed access rights, all Emma projects have a specifications page to which technical, marketing and project management documents are uploaded with simple tabbed panels that automatically separate the list of specs by functional area.
  • What we call “About Boxes” on the home page of every project, person & group space on the site — templated, graphic panels that users fill out with names, employee positions & functional responsibilities, contact information, representative icons & photos, project milestones & status and related information displayed in a uniform manner. Our About Boxes provide users with the key identity of each area of the site.
  • A portal to all Subversion source code repositories cross-company and providing their administrative UI
  • Project, team & corporate information dashboards — a much more public and accessible view of key metrics
  • Building a true corporate-wide knowledge base with the ease of simple search-box access — on LeapFrog products, the results of product compatibility evaluations, competitors and their offerings, technologies, vendors, industry resources, educational learning best practices, local restaurants with exceptionally good enchiladas, and much more.
  • Enabling employee blogs — giving each employee a voice, visibility and a chance for the best ideas to rise to the top freed from the typical organizational friction
  • Stoking what we variously call “grassroots”, “homebrew” or “adhoc” projects within the company — allowing innovation to flourish in all corners of the company, and employees to search for and recruit colleagues across the organization with the skills to bring their ideas to fruition

Emma is designed to be the central portal through which most company digital information is accessed. But we realized how important it was in its adoption to make clear to our colleagues that we didn’t expect a wiki to be the appropriate information management tool for everything at LeapFrog. We want to avoid the pattern of All Wiki All the Time. So in pitching Emma at LeapFrog we always emphasize the following:

  • We recognize the importance of our continuing to select the best suited information management tools for any particular enterprise application — such as project tasks, tracking & scheduling, a corporate knowledge base, source code management, or legal & manufacturing document workflow.
  • We define LeapFrog’s Emma site as a “portal” through which we expect most enterprise digital information to be accessed but not necessarily the appropriate end-application for everything. Emma as a Grand Central hub for information rather than a Mecca.

As a result, LeapFrog still makes use of many other best-of-breed enterprise apps including Jira & Test Track Pro for issues & bug tracking, Subversion for source code management, MS Project Server for project management, and Oracle and Agile to manage financials and design and product changes across a set of globally dispersed contract manufacturers, design centers, and packaging centers. And we’re in the process of giving many of these a front porch on our wiki.

Which wikipatterns are in use on your wiki?

What became clear very early in our project was wiki adoption and use is most definitely a social sciences project as much as one of information management. We’ve found many of the patterns and anti-patterns described in Wikipatterns were part of our early proposals on the role and rollout of LeapFrog’s wiki — Emma — or have shown up on their own in the wild as Emma’s been more widely deployed.

From the list of People Patterns, the ones that are most relevant to our usage are BarnRaising, Champion, Invitation, Maintainer, MySpace, StartingPoint, Viral and WikiZenmaster. Thankfully we’ve managed to avoid the known People Anti-Patterns.

Among Adoption Patterns, we’ve made use of a laundry list including Agenda, Automatic Index, Communication, Community Write, ContentAlert, Email to Wiki, FAQ, FutureLinks, How to Use this Wiki, Lunch Menu, Magnet, Naming Conventions, Networked Info, New Starter, One Wiki Space per Group, OverviewPages, Permission Granted, Poker, Scaffold, Selective Rollback, Single Problem, ThreadMode, WYSIWYG, and Wiki not Email.

Adoption Anti-Patterns we’ve actively had to contend with include All Wiki All the Time, Empty Pages, OneHammer, Training, and WikiPaintBrush.

What changes have you seen as a result of using a wiki?

We’re about 3 months from full corporate rollout of our wiki, so the largest cultural changes are still down the road for us. But our window into the effect Emma’s having at LeapFrog includes:

  • There’s a growing emphasis on the efficiency of information creation & distribution, and on its quality and utility rather than getting tied up in presentation-ready aesthetics (e.g. Microsoft Word & Adobe PDF). A boon for corporate productivity.
  • Cross-functional project teams are beginning to work more as unified teams than task silos on the project schedule
  • The “Emma” branding is working — its becoming part of our standard lexicon, and a viral term for introducing Emma to new users as managers now announce at meetings that support docs will be put on Emma as a followup
  • The wiki has placed information front and center at a time when executive staff was searching for ways to make our decision making processes more transparent and accessible
  • Our Emma Users Group, with its bi-weekly meetings, now seems to be single-handedly propping up the local donut shop.

Finally, a senior exec recently challenged us to come up with utilities and other features that would speed adoption of our wiki. Tossing this to our Emma Users Group one week, their response is very telling of the benefits a well-thought out wiki implementation can have in the corporate environment and what you might harness to capture the imagination and investment of employees:

  • LFN (LeapFrog Food Network) — mount wireless web cameras in our kitchens with live feeds to the Emma home page so employees know when free food is available. Bonus points for adding signs saying “place food on this table to be rapidly disposed of” and integrating an image recognition package to notify employees of the specific presence of donuts or similar circular-shaped consumables.
  • Employee Finder — is your network stack guru not at her desk? use the Adobe Flash wiki plugin to man the controls of the 4 foot long, camera-toting, remote-control blimp and determine her location in the suite. Bonus points for building a wiki forms interface to the on-board LED sign
  • Ping Pong Table Leader Board and Live Action Cam
  • Incorporate Employee-Generated Buy/Sell Banner Ads
  • Have HR develop a comprehensive set of wiki resources for new-employee settlement in the San Francisco Bay Area
  • Auto-generate an interactive, hyper-linked company org chart — since employees fill out their About Boxes in Emma with their manager’s name, one homebrew project we’ve already started with some free wiki-developer-community plugins is auto-generating and auto-updating a full organizational chart of LeapFrog. This promises to save our HR department countless hours of quarterly work.

So these are clearly high on our priority list.