What is a social intranet or an intranet 2.0 ?

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Summary : Everybody’s talking about social intranets or intranet 2.0 but none have a clear idea of what it can look like. Between the myth of intranets being replaced by social networks and traditional owners of the intranet fearing the end of the top-down model, ideological and functional debates may last for long. A social intranet does not mean that social networks will assume the whole power but that the elements of a traditional intranet, information, people and business applications, will be socialized. It’s not about adding new tools but generalizing new services and functionalities across all the components of the intranet. And, at last and even before all, it’s a work tool that’s here to serve a corporate vision. Changing the intranet is useless unless work, internal and external relationships as well as the related behaviors and positions are revisited.

Many organizations are rethinking (or thinking or rethinking) their good old intranet that is obviously affected by the weight of years and wonder how to integrate the famous “2.0 layer” in what is supposed to be a social intranet (or intranet 2.0). But, even if the word are in every mouth it does not mean that the idea of what it exactly mean is clear. There are many options depending on the maturity of the owner of the project, the realistic nature of the roadmap he’s assigned, and the change tolerance of the organization. Depending on the context, some of these options will be more or less relevant.

In the previous paragraph I mentioned the “social layer”, what states that the 2.0 side is a new dimension of the intranet and not an isolated bubble. So, it’s not about building an intranet on the one side and a social network on the other side. Why ? For 90% of employees, using a social network at work is not a reflex and it the network is not close to the center of gravity of their work environment, there are lots of chances no one will use it. Moreover, social activities need stimulation and stimulation often comes from a corporate information, a business related data…in fact from sources that are usually on the traditional intranet.

I suggest that such an intranet relies on some pillars that are. :

Socializing information

What I mean by socializing information can  take one many forms :

– allowing users to choose the sections of the intranet he wants to read in particular and display them on his home page or a dedicated page.

– allowing users to share any content of the intranet with colleagues (via their internal “twitter”, in a community etc…) with respect of rights and authorizations. (But let’s be honnest = today, even without such tools, secret information circulates by email).

– allowing users to share external content and bring them in the internal flow, and let rating and curation mechanisms make it climb to the head of the organization or spread horizontally.

– allwing users to react to any content either where it’s published or by pushing it to a blog or a community to start a conversation.

– allowing users to promote any content by rating it, approving it (“like”) to make it more visible on the homepage or share it through one’s activity stream.

– allowing any corporate department to deploy on-demand microsites (with predefined templates) what makes corporate communication more granular and close to employees.

It’s the least any enterprise can do, most of all because it’s in the scope of the traditional top-down communication that will not disappear but needs serious improvements to become more user-centric and interactive.

Socializing people

Sharing, reacting, discussing and collaborating are good things…but knowing with whom is even more important. Of course, there are people we know and who’ll quickly join our “network”, but there are also all those we don’t know today but we will need one day. So, before telling users to connect and do things together we should make it easier for them to find and identify one another.

Everything starts with a rich profile like those we can find on any social network. It will made of official information from the traditional IT systems (position, hierarchical belonging, competencies…), employees being free not to display all of it, but also of information provided by its owner (past experiences, topics of interest) and even bu his colleagues (endorsements, tags…). Of course, the owner validates anything others want to put on his profile. Last, the profile also includes employee’s social activities : communities, blogs, wikis updates, shared bookmarks…

This information constitute a stream other users can subscribe to to follow the activities of one person in the same way they can follow a specific section of the intranet or the corporate communication. Anyone can choose what appears in his one’s own stream.

This rich profile should not compete with the official directory : it’s the directory. To be more precise, it’s were the directory is accessible to users. (Note to IT people : don’t forget to choose solutions that can sync with several directories at the same time : it’s very useful when there’s not a single directory and it shows a unified view of all your directories even if your standardization project is late…)

Empowering users in a E2E approach

The earlier points were about socializing what was already existing : official contents, documents, directories…The other part of the job is to deal with all the new ways of producing contents that are at the heart of the 2.0 phenomenon and are precisely what organizations want to make happen in terms of cooperation and collaboration. They already have all the tools they need for structured B2E communication (Business to employees) what is usually nothing more than a system that allows file sharing and task allocation. Now they have to address E2E collaboration (employee to employee) that starts and lives by employee and with employees. This is where blogs, wikis, communities etc…matter. They can be used to support structured work but, most of all , excel in emergent collaboration. So there must be space on the intranet where any person, team could start a community, create a blog etc… Please note that there’s a difference between a community which’s a space that can be tooled with blogs, wikis etc.. and using the same tools outside of a community. These are complementary approaches and thinking that everything has to happen within a community may prevent from making the most of some individual initiatives.

Of course, each blog, community, wiki should have its own privacy options.

Socializing business tools

Emergent collaboration is really very exciting but we have to keep in mind that it’s only a part of people’s work. They have to follow procedures, workflows, processes and, in this context, have to use specific business tools. Overlooking this point means overlooking the very reason of their presence in the workspace. Most of all, in nearly all cases, emergent collaboration starts with the need to solve a problem that happened in a structured activity. An important part of these tools can be improved in an intranet 2.0.

There are many ways to achieve this evolution :

– linking these tools to social spaces and tools as defined in the previous point. People following a process, dealing with a customer, can have a dedicated community, project blog or wiki…

– suggesting social information in business tools. For example, a sales person will get, in the CRM, suggestions to visit an expert community related to the product he’s selling, will be suggested product  experts or people who know very well their prospect or the industry of the prospect. These people will never had the idea of going in the “social galaxy” to find solutions to their problems but if the answer is only one click away from the problem it may be different.

– we can see the emergence of new tools allowing people to collaboratively create and refine processes and workflows so that employee will really own and improve by themselves what structures their day to day work. Really senseful.

– it should be possible to start an interaction from and around any business data or information. Once again I’m taking the example of a sales person in front of the screen of his CRM. On the page related to an opportunity, the sales person should not only be able to identify colleagues who can help but also to invite them to interact without leaving the tool. We can also imagine that the discussions will remained linked to the  record and will be searchable and reusable in the future in a similar case.

Since we’re talking about work tools, putting office tools (word processor, spreadsheets…) online to make sharing and co edition easier would also be a good idea.

Suggestion tools

I already mentioned this point in the previous paragraphs. It’s about being able to suggest to each user, depending on the tools he use, the people he follows, the spaces he contributes in, other relevant spaces, people, information.

It also needs a unified and standardized search solution. Users looking for something should be proposed “official” content but also people, bookmarks, communities, blogs. Of course, the search engine should be able to index and “understand” different kind of medias, not only text.

Some tools known as “analytics” or “social analytics” will also be essential in the future. Analyzing behaviors, interactions, history, they link all dimensions of information and work and will improve the relevance of the suggested information, will help people to save time. Analytics will help to turn the incredible raise of information production an opportunity and not a burden.

Activity stream

I said many times that it should be possible to subscribe or follow sections of the intranet, people, blogs, communities…. All these elements should be aggregated in a stream that can be filtered and refined. This stream should also include other sources : calendar entries, information from business tools (mr so and so closed $xxxx deal with such customer, has modified such things, your BI/sales report is ready…), emails, allowing people to act, react, share, answer from the stream. This stream is closer to be the future of email than social networks.

“Un-tools”

We all know that tools are only the visible part of the iceberg. But they can be either inhibitors or catalysts.What I mean by inhibitor is quite clear I think, but I would like to elaborate more of what I mean by catalyst.

Making people use such or such tool because the enterprise bought millions of dollars of licences and had to justify the spending should not be a goal. The purpose should be to  give people tools that help them to do their work as efficiently as possible and in a way that’s obvious and natural to them. They should have to think about switching from a structured way of working to an “emergent” one, wondering where to find a given information, how to handle, share and use the information they found, to break off to switch tools, to copy/past information in order to send/share it.

So, things and information that are relevant one to the other should be one-click away the one from the other, should it be information, people, tools, functionalities. The more all will be integrated the less effort will be needed to convince people to adopt new tools or behaviors because they will discover them intuitively, by themselves, without even noticing.

On the other hand, it’s all about a new vision of work, of human relationships, of the way to organize and share to get things done and create value. It’s a corporate project and the intranet is both a consequence and a lever but nothing more. The best, the most nice-looking, the most integrated intranet will fail if not aligned with an aligned vision. In other words : if all these matters do no sound relevant to you, if you don’t have the courage to adress them, stick with you old intranet. No one will use it but, at least, its cost as been recouped.

Around your intranet you need a corporate vision and project (in fact…build the vision first and the intranet second), there are lines and boundaries to be moved, behaviors and roles to be redefined, management and communications roles de be revisited. Information has to be seen as a living matter that has a life-cycle within the tool rather than an inert matter that has to be stocked and that will possibly fossilize. Your intranet must be the answer to an operational need and be seen as a solution to a problem rather than a problem that will need a solution. Change management should be a little about the intranet and mostly about the project and vision it supports.

One more thing…

It’s a global project so it has to be organized at such. It means that it has to be carried by a cross-functional team involving all the stakeholders. Once that said..

• Your favorite communication consulting agency can help you with your content strategy, the design (be careful : nice-looking is good but it should not be to the detriment of usability), but for the social/collaborative side of the project you need other expertise. Likewise those who can help help you to change the way work is done are not the best to help you with contents or user interface.

• On technology : choose open and robust technologies with open and powerful APIs in order to build a social layer that will be present all over all intranet. Avoid nice-looking and even powerful tools that connect only with themselves and make you (and users) prisoners of their interface and lock user into application silos.

• Don’t think in terms of solutions but services : does this tool provides the services I need to integrate into my intranet without making the tool appear.

• Don’t wonder where to stock information but how it will circulate, flow, spread and live.

• Don’t try to “expose” contents (in a display case, like in a museum where you can look but can’t touch) but make it available for users to use and reuse it as thy need.

• Don’t fall into the “everything UGC” trap. If anything should be socializable, there must be a clear difference between spaces where the organization speaks and those where employees speak in their own name. If not, the risks of confusion between words said “in one’s name” and words said because someone embodies the corporate voice may be a real risk.

• Forget the word social intranet or intranet 2.0. It’s an intranet. Period. The place where the whole organization can meet, exchange, work.

annuaire, API, blogs, collaboration, intégration, intranet, intranet 2.0, intranet social, portail, process, réseau social, socialisation, wikis, workflows