can britain's best kept secret teach us about open collaboration?

Knowledge Hub is the leading public sector forum to discuss and share ideas.
But what can they learn from the Second World War codebreaking operation at
Bletchley Park? Quite a bit it seems.


by Liz Copeland

During the Second World War Bletchley Park was Britain’s best kept secret and home to an incredible list of codebreaking and game-changing
achievements that, it is said, shortened the length of the war by two years.


Recently I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the women of Bletchley Park and their stories. As well as opening my eyes to the work of Bletchley Park, it’s made me draw some interesting parallels between working conditions and cultures in war time Britain and today.

There are five key things that immediately occur to me about working life
at Bletchley:

1. It was a really close-knit community

People and relationships were essential to make the place work. Everyone who worked at Bletchley had to sign the official secrets act and weren’t even allowed to tell family members about what they were doing. This meant that building relationships with colleagues was really important, as they were the only people you could really share anything with.

2. Everyone had a common purpose

Even if they weren’t completely sure at times how their tiny bit of the puzzle fitted in, everyone was united in working towards a common goal – defeating the Nazis.

3. It was a trusted network

You had to rely on many other people to bring their bit of expertise in order to get an end result. For security reasons, no one was allowed to know everything, so you had to trust that everyone was
going to pull their weight and get on with what they were supposed to be doing properly. This meant that everyone’s contribution was truly valued.

4. Learning from others was essential

Many of the employees at Bletchley Park were completely thrown in at the deep end. Such was the secrecy amidst which they were recruited; they were unlikely to know what they would be doing
until they arrived. This meant they had to learn on the job from their colleagues – many of whom were experts in their field. More experienced staff sharing expertise and knowledge was crucial to the smooth running of the operation.

5. They worked hard and they played hard

Life at Bletchley Park was a social one as well as hard work. Everyone worked all hours, but when they did get time off, they tended to socialise together too and had a lot of fun despite being surrounded by the seriousness of war.

All of this resulted in highly engaged, skilled and productive employees. And they managed this without most of the things we would consider essential in today’s organisations. So, what can we learn from this today when we consider how we communicate in our organisations?

Here are five key lessons I draw from the above:

1. Put people first – developing relationships with the people around you in the workplace is an essential part of being a productive environment.

2. Understand where you’re going – everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction and understand what you're working towards.

3. Trust your people to get on with things – given autonomy and responsibility most people will thrive and will go the extra mile to deliver for the organisation.

4. Develop a culture of learning – everyone can learn from everyone else, enquiring and asking questions should be celebrated. People should be encouraged to share what they know, which in turn supports the broader productivity of the organisation.

5. Conversation is king – never underestimate the social aspects of relationships and how important they are. Who are you prepared to go the extra mile for? Someone you barely know, or someone you’ve actually had conversations with.

Given where I work and the fact that I promote and support collaboration in and across organisations for a living using the Knowledge Hub you might expect me to say that all of this is important. But where does the Knowledge Hub actually fit into all this?

We’ve been thinking about these concepts of relationship building, common purpose, trust, knowledge sharing and learning, and good old fashioned conversation, while we’ve been thinking about our new Knowledge Hub product the Social Hub. It’s built on the idea that a social, conversational
approach to internal communications can end up being far more productive than a top-down command and control type approach.

How do we know this? Well, apart from what history tells us, the Engage for Success nailing the evidence report provides a basis to show that where employee engagement and communications are good, so will productivity also be.

Now I realise that another digital tool is not necessarily the answer – of course organisational culture is either the key barrier or the key driver here. However, we are so fortunate that nowadays that we have access to so many digital tools that can make our lives easier. And the Social Hub is just one of those enablers. A digital tool hosted within Knowledge Hub that can support culture change and innovation and spark those good old fashioned conversations across the organisation in a new way.

The best thing about Knowledge Hub is that individuals from all sorts of organisations and areas of work collaborate together, share practice and learn from each other. If it works across organisations like that, then why shouldn’t it work within organisations too? The Social Hub allows a private
space within the Knowledge Hub, self-managed and branded by an organisation, where individuals can get involved in cross-departmental projects, develop organisational policy thinking and liaise easily with external partners. You also have access to an experienced team of community managers who understand how to help people get the best out of a collaborative space.

If you’re fed up with the same old static intranet and are interested in finding out more about going social, have a look at our Social Hub information or contact us direct to set up a demonstration.

Liz Copeland is Customer Insight and Engagement Manager at Knowledge Hub

pic via Flickr creative commons