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Dave Wilkin, left, founder of Ten Thousand Coffees, and John Stockwell, chief people officer of Dentsu Aegis Network Canada.

Della Rollins

The series: We look at decision-makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

Global digital marketer Dentsu Aegis Network Canada was enjoying steady growth in 2017, when it realized the push for creative solutions came at a price.

The company, whose Canadian office is headquartered in Toronto, noticed that its employees were not collaborating with each other or liaising with different parts of the company as they helped major blue-chip companies like KFC, Budweiser and Cadillac build their brands and stay abreast of technological advancements.

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Working in silos, they were also not learning about career or mentorship opportunities, which would allow them to move within the organization. Many were leaving rather than moving up through the ranks.

“We are in the communications business, but we haven’t done the best job communicating internally,” says John Stockwell, chief people officer of Dentsu Aegis Network.

“We all get very much into a headspace; you’ve got to get into your job very quickly. And then that internal networking stops.”

Mr. Stockwell decided that the best way to solve his tech-created problem was with a tech solution. He enlisted the help of Ten Thousand Coffees, an enterprise talent-development platform that could help scale Dentsu Aegis’s services across Canada and move in-demand workers where they could be of most use.

Ten Thousand Coffees uses an algorithm that matches employees by factoring in their role, their individual interests and goals – and facilitates dialogue via the use of apps. The goal is to encourage staffers to share ideas, improve collaboration and reduce attrition.

“It’s kind of like dating,” laughs Dave Wilkin, founder of 10,000 Coffees. “It has democratized access to leaders, peers and different groups.”

Given Dentsu Aegis’s workforce has an average age of 32, with a lot of technological savvy, the main appeal of Ten Thousand Coffees was its accessibility.

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Wilkin’s company tailored its AI-powered software to factor in how the company conducted its business and where its offices were located, while examining its employees’ needs.

“We look at employee-engagement data, we look at the needs of the business, and we identify any gaps or opportunities,” he says.

The focus during a six-month pilot rolled out in 2018 was on keeping the process informal and appealing, ensuring that even the most introverted of employees could join and make connections with other staffers.

The platform also housed several employee groups such as a women’s group that fosters networking among female employees and provides networking opportunities for junior staffers. Employees in other part of the country can also connect, having “virtual coffees” and sharing the details of their roles.

Mr. Stockwell says the benefits of the experiment included more streamlined operations, employees who are more in sync with each other’s assignments – and ultimately better results for customers.

“If you’ve got a more engaged workforce, you’re going to provide better solutions for clients,” he says.

Mr. Wilkin says the platform can also make the world seem a lot smaller.

“It’s a centralized solution to apply across any geography and business unit,” he says.

That’s why the University of Toronto implemented the platform last year as its online student hub. William Mitchell, a professor of strategic management at U of T, says the university decided to introduce the platform to facilitate dialogue between students and faculty in an easy-to use manner.

“It’s a very straightforward platform,” says Mr. Mitchell. “It doesn’t waste [the students’] time.” Instead, he says, it identifies people who are relevant to their studies and provides instant access. “They can reach out around the world,” he says.

Mr. Mitchell says that U of T weighed creating its own IT system to connect students but realized the process would be costly and laborious. Plus, the software came virtually ready to implement.

“It doesn’t really need all that much tailoring,” he says, adding he sees the Ten Thousand Coffees platform being adopted by the health-care industry, where patients could discuss their specific needs and interests, offering administrators key feedback as to how to adapt and tailor their offerings and services.

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As for Dentsu Aegis, it’s currently crunching the data from its first year of usage.

“We’re actively drilling that down,” says Mr. Stockwell. “Year-over-year, there has been a five-point improvement in attrition, and this is an industry with a high rate of turnover.”

For that reason, Dentsu Aegis provides sign-up information about Ten Thousand Coffees in their new-employee welcome package, ensuring that newly hired staffers can immediately tap into networking opportunities while finding out more about the different segments of the organization.

The company has realized there is no time to waste if it wants to keep its workforce motivated and engaged.

“People are feeling more connected around their capabilities,” says Mr. Stockwell. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Editor’s note: An earlier photo caption on this article included an incorrect spelling of John Stockwell's name.

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