One of the more interesting corners of the C2MTL conference this past week was occupied by “The Future of Collaboration Design Challenge” sponsored by Tata Communications, who asked five teams, with three designers on each team, to re-imagine how people will work together. There’s probably no single area of work life that more needs a shake-up than the sleep-induced autopilot of office culture.
Work began for the teams during Day 2 of the conference at precisely noon until 11:00 that night and resumed the next morning until 1:00 p.m., at which point each team had to present their idea to a jury. The jury narrowed their selection down to two winning ideas, which would be presented on the main stage in the Microsoft Forum, immediately before the afternoon event with James Cameron.
Approximately a month ago, Tata Communications approached Francis Gosselin of marketing firm f. & co. to assemble 15 of Montreal’s best UX and UI designers who could participate in the challenge. He in turn reached out to Jean-François Poulin and Anastasia Simitsis of Tout Le Monde UX, a kind of support group for UX professionals that meets on a monthly basis. Participants also arrived via the talent agencies TP1 and w.illi.am.
Tata Communications is not primarily known as a company that involves itself in the design world. They’re a massive global telecommunications company based in India that bought Montreal’s Teleglobe in 2006. If you think of your ISP and phone company as your “providers”, then Tata is their provider. They built the infrastructure, the undersea cables and wires that make it possible for the regional telecom companies, like Rogers, Bell and Telus, to charge you for phones and bandwidth. Tata regards those companies as their customers, of which they have 1,600 around the world, making Tata Group a $100 billion company. Of that globally, Tata Communications is a $3.3 billion company, the Canadian portion of which represents about 40% of its worldwide footprint.
I asked Isabelle Turcotte, VP of Marketing, Communications & Strategy, what Tata’s interest was in staging a design hackathon here in Montreal at C2MTL. “Basically, we’re doing hackathons and challenges all around the world.” They’ve staged similar events in Silicon Valley, London and India.
“For us, it’s really a message about, we’ll be innovating and we’ll be developing products in the future differently,” Turcotte continued. “We do believe in the creativity of the external world. That’s why we do hackathons. That’s why we do this design challenge. We do a similar thing internally, too, with our own employees that’s called ‘Shape the Future’, where we have been challenging all employees to submit ideas for new business models and for future growth. We truly believe that the future growth of the organization will be coming from new ideas and new business models.”
She told me that because she is based in Montreal, and since part of her role as a strategist involves conceiving events, that working with this conference seemed a natural fit. “C2MTL is a great platform for that, for creativity and commerce merging together. We’ve been very lucky, also, with the 15 designers that were entrusted into participating. They’re great. They’re really the best designers that we have here, so we’re very privileged, having them joining us for the challenge.”
Gosselin said in selecting participants, he didn’t want designers from the same company working together on the same team, to facilitate “maximum chaos”.
Things were already pretty chaotic in the run-up to the teams’ 1:00 p.m. deadline. One designer gently but firmly refused an interview, stating that he had too much work to do. But I managed to chat with Beckii Adel and asked her to describe the process. “We started at around noon yesterday. We were briefed, starting at 9:00 a.m. and then we came here from Tata Communications, and basically we had to come up with our idea. We worked on our idea mainly all day yesterday, and today we’re actually putting it into real life, developing it, not on the coding side but designing it.”
I asked her to walk me through what she was working on. “It’s kind of like an integrated app within iOS, and it’s called Bubble. And it combines all the different applications, like Skype, project manager tools and software like Basecamp, Trello, all that kind of stuff, all into one place, and it makes it extremely easy to use. It’s a lot of fun, too, because we wanted to add some more personality to it and not be too businesslike. So we have these little bubbles that are popping up all over the place, like your to-do’s or someone’s trying to message you. It kind of brings everything into one environment.”
For Francis Gosselin, the challenge set by Tata Communications is a way that companies can begin to think about the changing nature of the workplace. “A lot of companies today are based on meetings, so you take six out of your eight-hour workday to sit in meetings. Maybe in the cloud, maybe in virtual platforms, there’s a different notion of time, there’s a different notion of communication, that involves some video, some voice, some documents, some text, that can be all enmeshed into one significant something, and I think this is the question that they’re trying to answer right now.”
In the end, the first place was taken by the team of Cynthia Savard Saucier, Pascale Morneau and Sébastien Camden, whose idea was called “Knock Knock”. Their prize is three passes to the 2015 edition of C2MTL, valued at $10,500, and a trip to Infocomm in Las Vegas this June.