Can digitized decision-making become a substitute for face-to-face conversations?
Michelle Sklar caught up with Dave Macleod, CEO of Thoughtexchange, and Jim Firstbrook, CTO, to address this idea.
Thoughtexchange was the winner of the Innovation Showcase Award at the #BCTECH Summit last week.
MS: Tell us about Thoughtexchange.
DM: We are a software platform that facilitates large online group conversations from between 5 to 50,000 people in a meaningful way, so people can learn from one another. We use the wisdom of the crowds concept and then do something with the results.
JF: I had a friend who was facilitator of meetings, using yellow sticky notes and red dots and I saw the opportunity to take a very analogue process and digitize meeting facilitation. We developed over time and along the way Dave joined the company and helped by providing clarity around our product and sales strategy. We both wanted to bring the power of software and the internet to solving problems in a room. When we think about how a feature should work, we compare it back to what did we used to do in a room. How did we solve that?
MS: The wisdom of the crowds concept is something we are seeing more of. How is Thoughtexchange different?
DM: We are interested in how people learn from each other and what is underlying in those. There are lots of ideation platforms that try to build or fund the best idea, but we are really interested in change, what people think or how they feel. Our process is, identifying challenges and priorities and how can people relate to others through that process. Our platform is designed to facilitate learning and empathy to help make effective decisions.
JF: There are three steps to our process. I mean people have been building online discussion forums, such as billboards for a long time, so the concept isn’t revolutionary, but we bring a process and structure, a very defined process for how people collaborate. First, we ask a few simple questions, people enter their thoughts in a way that others can’t see. Each participant is assigned a limited number of stars. Once answers have been entered, you are able to prioritize the important points and allocate your stars. After that we are able to take all of that data and do an analysis. Thoughtexchange has some great analytics tools where you can actually visualize data.
Unlike surveys, for example, where the most commonly expressed ideas surface to the top, it is the ideas with the most stars that help decision makers uncover what is important to the group. Because a group has prioritized these, it is easier to create actionable results.
MS: Having an unbiased professional is extremely important to ensure the discussion stays productive. How do your users navigate their way through this online?
DM: We do a lot of work specifically around K-12 school districts across 22 states, almost every province and territory. When a group is activated, they engage with the questions and then receive a notification, or summary, when it’s time to check back in. Our service model includes a moderator. In fact our business model is very service oriented. We have learned over the past five years in fact how important that is, most companies don’t have the capacity to assign a person to lead facilitation. So not only, is our software valuable to our customers, but so are our services. We work closely with our customers to tailor the level of service needed to optimize how they use our platform.
MS: A topic at #BCTECH Summit has been market access for tech companies. Has it been a challenge to build in Canada?
DM: We started out in in the school K-12 vertical in BC and Alberta, but quickly grew in the US because there are more school districts and it was important for us to remain focused on a vertical to really prove ourselves. There was never a lack of work here, just a lack of the vertical we had identified as being the best fit at the time. Now we are starting to do more work in BC, we are piloting some new areas and testing out some new pricing models focused on customer and staff relationships. We are a BC company, based in Rossland and have a workforce of 65 people across the province.
MS: Can you tell us what’s next for Thoughtexchange?
JF: Well we have specialized in super large group conversations and we are now building software and services for smaller organizations. We just completed a major funding round and are already doing 5 Million in annual sales. We can support our own iteration, we are expanding in all areas of our company and are especially keen to grow our core of developers.