On Intranets 2.0 : one person but several roles and attitudes

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Summary : There’s, in the 2.0 mythology, a belief according to which tomorrow’s intranets will be nothing more than social networks and where individuals will be more important than the traditional organic components of the organization. It raises an important question : are social networks the right place for corporate communication. That’s a nice and attractive concept but that’s not much realistic. It’s important to distinguish discussions from official communication (even if this latter can be the subject of a discussion) and, most of all, the person from the position. As a matter of fact, people change and pass while the position and the corporate identities need a continuity of digital identity.

We know that one things that’s peculiar to intranets 2.0 is to make exchanges possible everywhere, on any subjet. We hear, and for good reasons, that intranets are getting networked. But does it means that they’ll become social networks. I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, networks put people on the same level, regardless to hierarchy while this situation may not be desirable in all conditions.

The difference between a social network and a traditional intranet is that, in the first, people represent themselves while in the second they embody a function. Let’s take the example of John Smith, head of communition, and Jenny Jones, a new hired junior who just joined John’s department.

On the traditional intranet, when John speaks, it’s as the head of communiction. His words are the words of the organization, he’s delivering a kind of truth (at least a corporate one). In fact he does not always sign with his name because it’s the department that’s speaking and, even if John may leave tomorrow, the words have to stay. That’s a situation where a person temporalily embodies an impersonal reality. Tomorrow, John may either leave of get a new position within the organization while the department, that has been existing before him, will still extist after him. In some ways that’s a role that’s lent to hum by the organization and he has to return it in good state when he leaves..

If John speaks on the social network, people will, of course, have in mind who he is when they’ll discuss with him. But, on the network, he’s John Smith before all and embodies his own ideas. He can join discussions, share his opinions but, unless he comes to make the corporate message clearer, he represents nothing but himself. Such a person that “goes down” to the network is respected because of his position but will need to go further and contributes “as himself” to gain recognition form all users. Moreover, on the network, he can join discussions about anything that interests him and is not locked into communication issues.

Confusion may be risky and misunderstandings worry organizations. So, thinking that the organization will officially communicate on the network does not look relevant. When John speaks on the intranet, his voice his the voice of the organizations, when he’s on the network is rather looking for conversations, insights, ideas. He can ever use the network to discuss and listen before making a decision.

The case of Jenny is even more interesting. She publishes on the “‘official” part of the intranet but never in her name because she only edits and shares texts that are validated by the hierarchy. The “authority” of her texts does not rely on her position but on her role. Once on the network, what she says only have as much legitimacy as the recognition she’s given on a given topic, based on her previous contributions. What has nothing to do with her position.

Two kinds of authority, two roles but one person. Being able to distinguish the one from the other is essential.

One may make me remark I recently said that even the official part of the intranet should be open to comments and discussions. I still belive it should. My point here is not about “socialization”, but about making people’s voices clearer. Depending on the context and the nature of the message, people will not react the same way, with the same voice, as diplomatically.

We can also try to find subterfuges, like saying that “Communication Department” or “Innovation” department, are members of the network as if they were real people, what would help them to exist regardless to the person in charge. We can also notice that on Facebook, some people have one account for their friends and one for their business contacts. But I don’t think this would respect the spirit of what we’d like to achieve.

Of course, everything should be done ta favor interactions and have less and less “unembodied” messages, but some compromises have to be found depending on the nature of the message, the person who carry it, its “legal” force etc.. Everything is social, everything can be discussed but it seems obvious that intranet needs a special section in order to clearly identify official contents and those that, even if issued by the same person,

Bien sur il faut favoriser les échanges et l’incarnation des messages mais il y a toute une gamme de compromis à trouver en fonction de la nature du message, de son émetteur (entité officielle ou personne), de son porteur, de sa force dans la “légalité interne” etc…. Tout est social, tout est discutable…mais penser que l’intranet ne peut se passer d’une zone “officielle” afin de baliser de manière indiscutable certains contenus me semble indispensable.