Q&A: Edward Saatchi on NationalField, Obama and the democratisation of the workplace

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Edward Saatchi, son of millionaire advertising mogul Maurice Saatchi, is being billed as the UK’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg. His private, enterprise focussed social network NationalField is credited as a key tool in President Obama’s successful election campaign, and, after successfully expanding the network to incorporate major US businesses, the 26-year old is now hoping that a UK and European launch will similarly drive productivity and efficiency for new member organizations like the NHS.

Articulate, and just as likely to reference statistician Edward Tufte as musician Art Garfunkel, the Oxford and Sorbonne educated Saatchi cuts a figure equal parts energetic and eccentric with his wild hair and unfettered beard.

We caught up with the NationalField CEO to see how the hotly-tipped network was getting on.

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Edward, could you give us a brief history of NationalField? How did it get off the ground?

It started in 2007; I went over to the Obama campaign and met Aharon (Wasserman, now NationalField’s chief product officer) and Justin (Lewis, NationalField’s chief technology officer). One of the big ideas was to register a lot of new voters into the electorate.

Everyone on the campaign was using spreadsheets and Google docs to track the work that was going on, mostly quantitative work; doors knocked on, calls being made, that sort of thing. So two nights after the three of us got together, we’d built the first version of NationalField so that all of our teams could communicate and spread the numbers around.

How did you build the network? What informed its design and the way it works?

We decided that it had to be social. As young middle managers, one of the major problems we faced was communicating up and down the chain of command, moving great ideas from one isolated team to another. Building something that facilitated that was very important.

NationalField understands the hierarchical social graph of your organization. The social networks that cater for our personal lives work on the manual inputs of subscribing to feeds, following and adding friends, whereas this instantly understands who you are within your company.

Is this how it differentiates itself from other networks then? What can be done here that can’t already with a combination of, say, Facebook groups and LinkedIn contacts?

A lot of our competitors ported over the ideas of Facebook and the way that that works to the enterprise. Take Yammer, which also does private social networks, all based on who you friend and who you follow. There you have to follow, say, a 200 or a 1,000 co-workers and contacts, so again you’re creating your own little silo. The difference here is that it’s not based on friending and following. NationalField understands what office you’re in, who you report to, who reports to you, and what your role is, what departments need regular contact with you. It builds the feed based on that. You can search for specifics, but the feed is a predictive “push” model.

Hierarchical structures can be a little scary, but it’s actually really helpful to understand that in order to present the correct information to the correct people. Also, you’re only going to get really sensitive and interesting information going into this if people feel it’s secure within the organisation. People are less honest if it’s public to the world , but once you start to make it a bit more structured, people are confident to talk through problems; team morale dropping after a staff member leaving, a meeting not going as planned, things like that. It’s actually really important stuff that can fall through the cracks until problems really explode, and then all a sudden you’ve lost a deal and you don’t know why there was no communication.

So is it fair to say part of the appeal of NationalField is the way it encourages a competitive edge in the workplace?

Yes. With Facebook, there are interesting psychological processes involved. It’s almost a subconscious thing, when you see people sitting there clicking through photos, like some weird primal thing. We focus on metrics, where sites like Yammer have leaderboards of “Likes” and comments, things like that. We have that too, but sometimes that sort of information can be tangential to what’s really important to running a business. Is it that important to know who is the most liked employee? Maybe they’re really helpful, but maybe they’re just liked because they wear cool clothes! Here it’s the actual metrics that are the focus, and we heard campaign trail stories of people refreshing the site just to see how their numbers were shaping up compared to other teams. Social can be great in making that data really transparent.

But despite the competitiveness, I’ve never seen anything mean put up on NationalField. Because it’s social, it constrains the negative side of competitiveness, but it awakens in people the fact that everything they do at work is really transparent. People can show just how well they’re doing, so it’s also much more about recognition in the workplace, what people are proud of. What social can do is make recognition really easy to share, for a manager to give credit where it’s due. And with NationalField best practice can be shared too; because we can get what your role is, recognised strengths can be shared to other team members or managers. Did you see the F8 stuff?

Yes.

Facebook were using a phrase that we love: “Visualise data in ways which tell a story”. It’s what we felt we were doing right from the very launch of NationalField on the Obama campaign, trying to give each individual enough data so they could tell the story of the past few months of their work.

How did NationalField evolve during those early Obama campaign days? It must have been an intense time and environment within which to be working on a fledgling project?

Me and Aharon were really close friends for several months, and it all clicked when Justin came onboard. Justin was terrible at registering voters! He didn’t like doing that. So we were in Savannah, Georgia, and together came up with a way to make the most of Justin’s talents, hacking together something really fast for ourselves. It spread and grew in a similar way to those early Facebook days, with universities asking to come onboard; we did the same with the state and national campaign teams, staying up late to make sure they all got onto NationalField smoothly. Because it was based on Facebook in terms of design, it wasn’t like we had to go around the country teaching people how to use it, it was really easy, intuitive.

Does NationalField cater for anonymity, if say you had a major or controversial complaint that you were worried about attaching your name to?

One of the interesting moments when we first started was around the “Ups and Downs” feature we have, which lets you flag the recent pros and cons of working at your company. We started with it completely bypassing middle management. We thought people would have no fear speaking their minds as, in larger corporations, often you’ve never met the top level executives if you work further down the chain. But then middle managers started saying, “actually, this is really undermining us”. Which was a valid point. So we went back and worked in every single manager up the chain, and we found then that people felt completely protected, as middle management couldn’t block something reaching the top levels. It changes working cultures, creates a place for constructive criticism and makes companies responsive and understanding. Once people start using it, people don’t feel the need for anonymity. It’s honest; social networking has brought down dictators, and it’ll democratise the work place too.
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So Barack Obama is obviously very social media savvy, and NationalField was instrumental in driving efficiency in his campaign. How does social media affect the public’s perception of a potential candidate?

The cliché is that it presents a “connected person”, but it really is a very practical tool, connecting with a lot more people. I don’t know quite how all the party leaders managed to choreograph getting onto Google+ on exactly the same day! But it’s helpful. President Obama is the best at harnessing it. He’s actually comfortable with it and his campaign is organised around it. You still need an offline organising element, and for us technology was in service of the field. An online only campaign is very artificial. But if you do it in a way that emphasises community organisation and encourages volunteering and team building and so forth it’s great.

Gearing up now for the Obama re-election campaign, has NationalField’s role changed much in the interim years?

Yes, in the beginning its role was survival, like how the “hell do we keep this thing alive?” Now it’s embedded in the organisation of the administration, and has been for a few years. It’s becoming more of a platform, where you can build apps etcetera, so instead we’re the portal for people who want to connect with organisations, letting them promote themselves, their work and internal apps. The emphasis now is on changing companies and work practice, and building the platform.

Does Obama make for a good boss?

He makes an incredible boss. At the inauguration ball he came and spoke to us all and said, “look, you’re going to go back out into the world, back to companies or non-profits, and I want you to take with you the methodology that we created on this campaign, being bottom up and paying most attention to the field work”. Because he’d been a community organiser far longer than any of us had, he had a real respect for the people on the ground. I got to meet him a few times through the course of the campaign, and he’s very inspiring.

You’re the first to admit that NationalField visually apes Facebook. Facebook’s Chris Hughes is even on your board. Is visual familiarity important to the success of an online product?

Yeah, I’ve been saying it but I haven’t really thought about it as a rule. I don’t know why people would bother creating something for the workplace that isn’t familiar to us through our consumer lives. At this point it just seems petty and pointless. It’s ridiculous to be expected to learn a new system. The consumer world, through dealing with hundreds of millions of people, has figured out really smart ways to move information, so why should we ignore that? You should use systems that are really super familiar.

So moving onto the UK/ European launch. You’ve got the NHS as a new member, but running a national health organisation is a vastly different beast to running an election campaign. How can NationalField help the NHS?

We actually started in the US with Kaiser Permanente, the largest American health organisation. We got a real insight into how healthcare works with that. I think the thing that is important in health is that your patients remain the most important people, so if you can get people on the ground really connected, working together to cut costs while improving patient care, you can make a big difference. Because the NHS is so big, getting people to share best practices around cutting costs is really helpful; great ideas can be isolated in one place for years, but as we’ve seen with Kaiser Permanente, you can use NationalField to move such information around really really fast.

We met a woman when going up and down the country with the NHS who said “I can go home and tell my daughter I just got Facebook training.” The positive energy that goes towards this, compared to if we were creating clunky intranets (which we’re out to destroy), makes people feel they’re not being forced to learn a new clunky thing. That should be a paradigm for what people are building.
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Have there been many tweaks needed to bring the network to Europe?

It’s interesting, I haven’t been asked that before. Nothing drastic comes to mind. Language; so we added international localisation, having it in the language of your choice. But we haven’t even needed to make any terminology changes. Because Facebook again has given people a feel for how information, should move and what they can expect from a feed, it hasn’t had to be changed that much. It’s kind of like a global thing, something that plays into that paradigm we mentioned earlier, building things that are familiar from our consumer lives. In the English speaking world we’re all going to the same websites. Take the Huffington Post’s UK launch; it has a little flag saying it’s our version, and that’s very nice, but it doesn’t matter, I’m familiar with the way they present something and I’d be perfectly happy to read the content just through the way they present information.

How about international, cultural differences? Have their been any particular nations that have been more or less receptive to NationalField?

I think it’s the same as what you’d imagine with Facebook and Twitter. The speed of uptake really parallels it. Younger generations in each company tend to get it first, say a new leader in a new department of an organisation, they want to make a change. I wouldn’t say it’s nation by nation, it’s more about somebody wanting to build something that a new generation coming into the workforce can understand.

Do you still see a generational gap between youth and older members of society when it comes to the uptake of new social media ideas?

I think so, to a degree. We’ve seen it hit a tipping point now where we’re conducting more communication points through social networking than email. A good leader is one that can see the trend and say “OK, let’s get ahead of it”. Social is a huge wave; there are films made about it, it’s a big deal now. Look at the trend lines, look at things that are doing well in the consumer world, and that always points towards how things are going to change in the enterprise world. Our personal systems are much more sophisticated now than our enterprise ones, and a good leader should, or instance, be able to see the decline of email and adapt to that, using a system that everyone understands. It’s not just young people who use Facebook, but it is young people who drove its growth.

We’ve spoke a lot about very large companies. Is using NationalField beneficial to use in smaller companies of, say, 10 or so people?

We actually find that organisations of around 25 people or larger is where you see the sweet spot kick in. Once you’re at that point, you cant fit everybody in a crowded meeting room. Communication starts to break down at that point, and that’s the ideal point to put the system in place. Beyond 25 people, into the hundreds and thousands of employees, it scales remarkably easily, with your feed out of the box.

How do you feel about being billed as the UK’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg?

It’s very nice! The thing that I think is cool about Mark Zuckerberg is the fact he was a psychology major. He has a moral mission. Every single time they change their privacy permissions, people feel like “Oh my god, they’re trying to push more advertisements my way”. But the aim is that really we should be more open about ourselves, which is obviously the end aim of psychology in a way. And I think that’s really honourable, and really cool. Our moral mission is, considering we spend most of our waking lives at work, that if you feel like every single day you’re working without getting any credit or recognition, that’s a disaster, and a disaster we can prevent. The similarity there is the desire to figure out the underlying psychological need that a technology can answer, how we can use technology to make you feel good, make you feel productive.

So with Zuckerberg’s story told in The Social Network, who would you like to see playing you in “NationalField: The Movie”?

Ahh, very good question. Who are people with big hair? Ah, Art Garfunkel! There you go. Though his poor hairline seemed to go up and up and up! He’s actually a really good actor as well, you should see some of his stuff!

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About the Author

Gerald Lynch





Gerald LynchQ&A: Edward Saatchi on NationalField, Obama and the democratisation of the workplace
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    Edward Saatchi reveals how he moved from the Obama campaign to found a private social network and business consultancy.

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    Lol Garfunkel