A couple years back Nesta, the innovation charity, did a little experiment that caught my eye. They were randomly matching up people in their organisation for coffee meetings, which they called randomised coffee trials (RCT), in a quest to engineer serendipity. A really simple, but very cool, idea.

So when I found out about Spark Collaboration, a platform that helps companies to do this themselves, I wanted to know more. It turns out that co-founder Michael Soto, was one of the originators of the idea at Nesta, while he was an intern there for 6 months.

In a group gathering of all the interns one day, Jon Kingsbury, who at the time was Director of Nesta’s Creative Economy Programmes, asked if anyone had any questions. Michael, having observed that Nesta had 100+ staff across many areas such as health, policy and research, workforce development and international development, asked “how do you stay on top of everything that’s going on?”. They realised that other than the usual tactics – cross-functional teams, book clubs, corporate retreats – there wasn’t a clear strategy for staying informed. After some conversations between Soto and Kingsbury, they thought of the idea of randomly pairing people to have coffee.

It started off with a simple format – people could register, and Michael administered the matching himself. It turned out to be really successful and a blog post on the experiment attracted a lot of attention from other organizations interested in starting their own RCTs. However, people found that in practice it was time-consuming and difficult to implement. Enter Spark – a platform to engineer serendipity, which was born from a serendipitous moment itself!

Companies that use Spark can set up campaigns to arrange RCTs across departments. People opt-in, and each month they are sent a coffee date to attend. It’s being used by Nesta, RSA, UKTI, Harvard, LexisNexis and pharmaceutical companies. The Red Cross has also launched campaigns in English and Spanish and are about to launch a version in French.

Spark_logoThe obvious benefit is that people get to meet colleagues they wouldn’t have before, creating more opportunities for connections out of connections. Through Spark, you might meet twelve new people a year, plus be exposed to the people they’ve also met (and possibly the ones they’ve met!), all while improving your conversational skills for meeting new people.

It’s important that it’s a random selection, as opposed to ‘smart-matching’ (similar to what is seen on dating sites) – it means that people are meeting without expectation. Instrumental networking can literally make us feel dirty so we tend to avoid it, but with Spark this instrumentality is removed. People aren’t meeting to achieve something specific like a promotion or an introduction – they want to build relationships for the future.

The ‘diagonal’ connections between C-level executives and less senior staff in other teams also uncover lots of value. It’s a low time commitment for busy directors – just 15 minutes per month – and the meetings reveal knowledge and perspectives that are usually hidden. One such connection showed that two teams were working on similar projects and should collaborate – something that had never been uncovered in previous meetings between the two team directors.

For Michael, Spark is a practical application of the theories he’s deeply interested in, particularly around how networks work within organisations, and social network mapping and analysis (read the articles over at Spark for more of his great insights on ‘connection’). He’s learned a few things that contribute to the success of Spark campaigns:

  • It has to be opt-in: coffee dates are more likely to happen if people volunteer themselves to be part of the campaign. Spark tracks the coffee dates that are regularly not happening, so that organisations can explore why they’re not taking place.
  • Only two people should meet at a time: aside from the challenging logistics of finding mutual dates between more than two people, the conversation is much richer between a pair. They are more likely to find commonalities, and adding a third person changes the dynamic.
  • Maintain the randomness: the most value comes from people connecting outside of their immediate sphere. Although companies can start to have a little more control over who meets through the campaigns, it’s ideal to avoid making matches based on roles or knowledge.

The interest in and success of Spark within companies shows that people are keen to make unusual connections, share their knowledge across departments and disciplines, and see what might happen as a result. Its a great example of using technology to facilitate those encounters.

Further reading recommended by Michael:

Serendipity as a style of life, Pedro Medina – Nesta

Here’s how Michael and I got RCT going at Nesta, Jon Kingsbury – Nesta

The networks secrets of great change agents, Julie Battilana & Tiziana Casciaro – Harvard Business Review

Engineering serendipity, Greg Lindsay – New York Times

“Institutions vs. collaboration”, Clay Shirky – TED