I originally published this article on the Dachis Group blog on 18 November 2010.
When an organization launches a social intranet, the changes and benefits reach far wider than freeing up resource in the central intranet team. The intranet undergoes a fundamental shift when focus changes from communication to employees to work.
The social intranet adds value to the organization through five mechanisms that traditional intranets do not embody:
1. Make sharing a by-product of work
The social intranet is a place where work happens. It is where you run projects, it is where you flag up process exceptions, it is where your innovation is reflected, where you develop new products and services, where you bring together intelligence about markets and customers.
You may already have systems in place for executing processes, for managing customer information, for storing documents in a compliant manner. And of course there is email. Despite the existing investment in control and communication the social intranet still has a strong business case.
A social intranet delivers a platform for a number of activities that aren’t fully supported by all those other systems. Notes, thoughts and links to useful information – lots of what knowledge workers juggle in the course of a day – don’t quite qualify as documents and they are not fit for email because they are inputs into a work process, not outputs. The social intranet addresses this gap in many organizations if it satisfies two criteria: It must be easy to use and it must cater for individual rationality.
Ease of use is key because with the social intranet (as with any new system or process) we are asking people to change established habits. In the year 2010 we still find work processes like (1) Write down your thoughts or spot something valuable online (2) print it out and store it in a binder (3) consult the binder when you need the information. It is a sobering reminder that as we implement new tools we are competing with the laser printer and the hole puncher; both are easy to use and require no training.
Catering for individual rationality makes sure that the tools you use, despite being referred to as “social”, deliver value when used by the individual. The information architecture and tagging convention should support individuals organizing their own knowledge collections on the social intranet. Even if the effort is undertaken to meet individual ends, the organization benefits from the information becoming searchable and discoverable; plus, what starts out as an individual collection can become a group effort as the content attracts (and ultimately connects) like-minded individuals.
Sharing can happen when we enjoy the luxury of having capacity for altruistic deeds but on the social intranet, sharing is switched on by default and happens as a by-product of individuals and groups going about their work. It is a very powerful proposition.
2. Enable a flow of signals
Every action in the social intranet – every document created, every blog post published, every comment, every status update – is a signal, and the flow of signals can be channeled to heighten awareness of what is happening in the organization as a whole or, which is more relevant, related to a particular department, interest group, topic or group of people. Integrate the social intranet with other systems (CRM, DMS, your transaction systems) and signals generated in other contexts can be channelled into the main activity stream (including flows from the internet). Each individual defines their own slice of the stream by filtering for relevance and some platforms elegantly lets you subscribe to signals reflecting what your colleagues are finding relevant.
The benefit of signals is in directing attention. Compared to staying up to date with what is happening across the organization by browsing for updates, signals require a modicum of attention to consume. Each signal is typically transmitted with a link to the content that triggered the signal, making it easy to react to a relevant signal.
Signals deliver something that search cannot: Real-time notifications about activities that you might previously not have known about. Search is good at surfacing content related to topics you want to know more about and expect to be represented in the platform. Together, signals and search are the ultimate silo-busters.
3. Move from push to pull
Your email inbox is a space in which other people have control of what you receive. On the social intranet, your home page reflects what is relevant to you. That is achieved by a combination of configuration (you tell the platform what you want to see), affiliation (highlighting what is happening in the groups you have joined) and inference (the platform brings stuff to your attention that you are statistically likely to be interested in, kind of like recommendations on Amazon).
The members of the social intranet enjoy a high degree of control of the information that flows their way. It is akin to a subscription model where the recipient decides what they want to receive. The best implementations provide a spectrum of options for how to consume the flow of information with respect to format (website, email, PDF, feed reader), frequency (daily, weekly, as-it-happens) and devices (small and medium screen mobile devices). Email should be represented as one of the delivery channels; this is key as it relies on established habits of content consumption. Email is typically also the one application that has the largest mobile installed base (read: Blackberry) internally in an organization, so enabling participation via responses to emails reaches beyond consumption and taps into participation via mobile devices.
4. Highlight the people
A knowledge management related requirement of yore was to “get information out of people’s heads and into a database”. Moving work patterns onto a shared platform attains part of that goal but it is not the central driver of value of social intranets. Even for heavily used social intranets the content stored on the platform represents a mere shadow of the valuable information flowing through the organization. To get a glimpse of the full depth of knowledge, you need to reach behind the information to the people. Information, in this context, can be seen as signals that reveal something about what people know.
Many modern platforms are good at highlighting people. Every contribution is typically attributed to the contributor and every action on the platform is analyzed by an algorithm in order to learn more about each participant. The information is used to fuel expertise location and to highlight people with similar interests. The latter aspect can be incorporated in a ‘People you should know’ view so that the platform helps forge connections between people regardless of departmental boundaries or geography.
Content on the platform can also be used directly to describe the people involved with it. We have had people profiles for more than a decade but it is only in recent years that people’s activity throughout the platform is being presented back on their profile page, providing a useful view of what they are involved in. Self-declared profiles are typically updated once, if at all, and tend to go stale. A colleague’s experience is often better represented by a stream of recent activity. Platforms with tags are able to aggregate the tags on content that somebody interacts with and reflect that back to display as a tag cloud on their profile page.
5. Build specific ‘apps’ that cater for defined needs
Today’s social intranet platforms allow for a plethora of interaction modes, enough that many work processes will find a natural fit with features offered by the platform out of the box. Plenty of value can be generated by ‘mopping up’ those processes, moving them out of email and making them visible and searchable in the process. That in itself will contribute to reducing silos in the organization.
Devolved responsibility for content introduces ‘the power of the hyperlink’ to the enterprise. We have seen plenty of emergent outcomes where standard out-of-the-box features of a social intranet platform are cobbled together by the business, often just by convention, in order to support specific processes. A global company in the energy sector used their new social intranet to broaden participation in their innovation pipeline by managing it openly on the intranet. A law firm used their social intranet to create a central resource center for recession related content on the eve of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. A client in marketing saw a group of users, frustrated with how difficult it was to find the right images, build a new interface to the image bank with thumbnails and links through to the centrally stored high resolution images.
Some processes, though, are either tricky to accomplish with standard functionality or require deeper integration to other systems. Or they have a value/risk profile that justifies investment in making them a seamless experience beyond what the platform offers natively. In those situations we see the grassroots initiatives described above supplemented by user-centered, albeit centrally driven, development projects to deliver specific applications (‘apps’) to provide established business processes with the benefits of the social intranet platform.
The Enterprise App Store is a trend very much related to the social intranet.
Together, these five mechanisms bring real value to an organization. The social intranet is about more than the features offered by social enterprise platforms. It is about work.