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Case study: Spokeo sets the stage for innovation

By streamlining business practices and centralizing data, Spokeo boosted collaboration and results

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Business transformation gives companies a competitive edge, so leaders strive for it. This change could take the form of cost savings, time savings, or coming up with an offering no one has seen before - but everyone wants. To achieve that kind of success, company leaders must create an environment of innovation: One that allows teams to work “open" and communicate, not fight their way through silos and bottlenecks. To carve out the optimal space for innovation, it helps to get your day-to-day operations humming along smoothly, with minimal distractions and drags on productivity. That's when people can stop stressing about the latest frustration or fire drill and channel their energy into problem solving and developing great ideas.

To carve out the optimal space for innovation, it helps to get your day-to-day operations humming along smoothly.

In 2015, Spokeo set out to reach this state. The company, which runs a “people search engine” that aggregates digital records into profiles, was seeking business process improvements that would supercharge cross-functional collaboration and productivity. They discovered the solution in a combination of knowledge sharing software and change management techniques. In fact, this pairing was so effective at improving work management that the Spokeo leadership began considering a flexible work policy well before Covid sent everyone home from its Pasadena, CA headquarters.

Too many platforms

To date, Spokeo has organized 15 billion digital records into 600 million profiles searched by 15 million monthly customers. Ironically, back in the early 2010s, they realized that their own patchwork of platforms had created internal tech silos making it difficult to discover and share data. The tech teams used Jira, the business teams preferred Google Docs, and the HR/Culture team had a custom intranet. “People would say, ‘The information is right here,’” recalls CEO Harrison Tang, who founded Spokeo in 2006. “But others wouldn’t know how to find it, because it existed in different places.”

A decentralized structure was thwarting cross-team collaboration and wasting time, both for those who were seeking information and those who had to repeat or resend it. Meetings multiplied, as did interruptions. It was clear that there had to be a better method of knowledge sharing.

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Creating information transparency

Perfecting business practices is an ebb and flow. “Maybe you start with decentralization, and then you realize it is hard to have a holistic view of what is happening,” Tang says. At Spokeo, there was no single “a-ha” moment or tipping point. The various teams began talking about data visibility – core to the company’s mission – and agreed it was time to create a central repository shared by all.

Spokeo has a documentation-heavy culture, with software engineers, data engineers, and data scientists constantly creating algorithms to improve data accuracy. The choice of a centralized platform had to integrate tightly with Jira and be “a user-friendly way to write and edit,” says Spokeo’s data science manager, Leo Qin. For the business teams, the platform also needed to blend the benefits of documents with some functionality from web sites. To meet all these requirements, Spokeo’s leaders chose Confluence.

Making the change

Though the switch applied to every department, Tang didn’t demand an immediate shift to Confluence for everyone. That’s just not their company culture. Instead, he promoted adoption in a subtle way. “I would ‘like’ the pages, and I would comment on them,” he says. “So the authors knew I’d read them. When people realized, oh, there’s actually an audience on Confluence, it encouraged them to start sharing their knowledge on the platform.”

Adoption occurred organically. The tech teams, already fluent with Jira, were first. Next, the Culture/HR team proposed migrating all of their pages, much to Tang’s delight. Other business teams began using the software, and within six months everyone was using Confluence, with no external training needed.

In parallel, the company began streamlining processes. They standardized file-naming conventions and tied Jira tickets to Confluence pages via Smart Links, making it easier to track progress. They discovered ways to integrate the software seamlessly with their company culture. For example, they often share documentation before it’s finalized, so they agreed to use the status macro to let others know when info was not complete, says Qin.

Async collaboration fuels creativity and results

Combining Confluence and business process improvements led to the kind of business transformation the c-suite dreams about. Teams went from wasting time searching for missing documents to developing great ideas together. In fact, Tang felt so comfortable about the level of work being achieved that the company now asks employees who now live outside California to visit the office only once a quarter. “Confluence is the connective tissue for the asynchronous and remote work that we are doing today,” Tang says.

Teams went from wasting time searching for missing documents to developing great ideas together

The centralized system helped them increase their data transparency, create a single source of truth, and encourage more cross-team collaboration. “Most of our Confluence pages are public,” says Tang. “So, if there is a page on a design and people on the marketing team see it, they can put in their comments to add their perspectives.” The platform also helps users cut through confusion. “Instead of wondering what a term means,” says Qin, “people can leave questions in the margin and someone will answer them.” Because the answer remains in context on the page, nobody has to ask the same question again.

This async collaboration saves employees’ time and energy. It reduces meetings and helps Spokeo attract and retain talent from anywhere, not just one geographic location. But equally important, it keeps communication flowing whatever the time or time zone. Tang often reads documents on the weekend and asks highly technical questions about the mechanisms, Qin says. Team members will reply when they can. “Tang will follow up with another question or resolve the comment,” says Qin. It’s an efficient way to collaborate to improve the product.

The teams also love how async collaboration minimizes task-switching and lost productivity by giving them the power to choose when they want to interact or check for feedback. This approach is particularly important to people who juggle a lot of data in their heads, like software engineers and developers. They can stay focused and get good work done. Before migrating to Confluence, frequent interruptions for quick questions ran the risk of making them lose their train of thought. (A GitHub survey found that the more often developers were interrupted, the less they felt productive and satisfied with their work.) By putting millions of bits of information in Confluence, “You can find it there without interrupting anyone,” says Qin. “As a developer manager, I want that.”

The team loves how async collaboration minimizes task-switching and lost productivity.

The work management improvements have been a boon for Spokeo. But the centralization also has helped the company better align with its six core values: listen with empathy, ask the why, clarify with data, innovate to learn, collaborate to achieve, and insist on quality. “Knowledge sharing is a direct reflection of those values,” says Tang, citing the importance of data and information transparency to their culture.

By supporting information discovery and engagement, Confluence continues to promote cooperation and communication, creating more flexibility and innovation. “The pandemic only has increased our use of Confluence,” says Tang. “I’ve been seeing a lot of collaboration happening and a lot of comments. Conversations that we used to have when we were all sitting in the same room: They now are happening on Confluence.”

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