Breaking down functional silos is key to everything from encouraging communication to building valuable connections to sparking innovation. But, as we all know, bridging interdepartmental chasms is far easier said than done. Fortunately, some companies are starting to come up with creative solutions. Take, for example, Lunch Roulette, a new concept being used at the U.S. arm of pharmaceuticals manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim (BIPI).
Like many good ideas, this one was born of frustration — in this case, when David Thompson, scientist turned social media strategist, went looking for someone to have lunch with only to realize that his usual group of colleagues wasn't available and he didn't know anyone in the company cafeteria. "The sense of exclusion was palpable and galling," he recalls. Driving home that evening, he came up with the idea of a web application that would randomly pair people throughout the organization for lunch. He emailed Christopher Tan, a marketer with an interest in mobile technologies and experience building applications, and within 36 hours, they had come up with a prototype. They then sent it out to a select group of colleagues and invited them to participate.
Lunch Roulette works in four simple steps. Participants select a date — or dates — when they are free for lunch and choose one of the company cafeterias they're willing to travel to. They then click a "Match Me" button, and a lunch date and calendar reminder are emailed to their mailbox. After that, all they need to do is show up with an open mind and a willingness to network.
The application saw great traction within the company within 12 hours of going live; within seven weeks, more than 350 people were matched. Among the first 100 participants: BIPI's CEO, who was matched with a young member of one of the brand marketing teams. "A lot of times, a CEO only talks with someone who has been prescribed for them. With Lunch Roulette, he doesn't know who he'll be paired with and neither does the other person," says Thompson. "Both can learn something from the other. After all, if we don't have people who can learn both up and down, then we have the wrong people in both levels."
Lunch Roulette not only produces unexpected pairings but often sparks unexpected conversations, as Tan discovered when he was matched with someone in research and development. The topic turned to a specific piece of upcoming health care legislation. "I never thought that law would affect people in R&D," notes Tan. "It was interesting to see how close our worlds are, even though we think we're doing separate stuff."
Although barely four months old, the app has already morphed into a variety of different uses, some conventional and some not. "Some people are actively using it to network," reports Tan. In its next iteration, if someone is interested in growing her career in a specific functional direction, he or she can be ask to be matched with people signing up from that function.
Thompson envisions that Lunch Roulette could also have potential value during the interview process. Too often, candidates meet only peers and stakeholders. Meeting a randomly selected employee would not only demonstrate the company's confidence in its general culture, but also underline the ease and opportunities for brainstorming across the organization.
While it's too soon to tell if Lunch Roulette has spawned specific innovations or measurable operational improvements, these are almost certain to occur as the network expands and its nodes become richer and stronger. A recent New York Times article described the benefits when researchers, designers, and assembly line workers commingle in person. Extrapolating further, experts propose that "clusters of manufacturers, where workers and ideas can naturally flow between companies, might prove more productive and innovative than the same businesses if they were spread across the country."
We all know that at heart, business is personal. Lunch Roulette is a practical way of creating links where none had existed and exposing colleagues to different ideas and perspectives. Its potential is as exciting as its users' imaginations.