Social intranets: Enterprises grapple with internal change

Two thirds of organizations today have sprinkled some kind of social media pixie dust on their intranets, yet for most businesses today they are still well behind the state-of-the-art compared to what most users have in their personal lives. Yet there is mounting evidence that despite the concerns that organizations have, social can be a real benefit. I explore these issues and more as companies start moving to Intranet 2.0 in a serious way post-recession.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor on
The real question seems to be whether organizations will look at social updates to their intranets strategically or just tacticallyThese days social media is such a pervasive presence in most people's lives that it's sometimes easy to forget how far our internal business networks have fallen behind the times. Fortunately, recent evidence is mounting that businesses are starting to catch up. The latest data for 2010 that I can find shows that at least basic social media features now exist in approximately two-thirds of organizations surveyed. The good news is that as organizations begin to respond to the challenge that Facebook and Twitter have posed in terms of new expectations and user behavior, there's does seem to be a growing understanding that social media must be incorporated in updated portal designs. But for many organizations the question remains how best to go about it. Transforming the infrequently updated and relatively static enterprise intranets of today into vibrant hives of user generated activity is itself often at the crux of the debate. Many organizations just aren't structured today to allow the free-form give and take and anyone-can-post-anything model of the consumer Web. Yet putting portal teams, content managers, and approval processes in front of every intranet update virtually ensures that today's internal networks will have outdated content and remain a low-value resource to the organization. It can even be argued that one of the signature lessons of the modern Web is that peer production is an enormous force for creative production, if you can put the tools in everyone's hands. So what does putting the tools in every worker's hands mean exactly? And how can it be reconciled with the hierarchical control processes inside of organizations? To answer requires taking a look at how intranets have progressed over the years (depicted below). We are leaving the 1.0 era of intranets, which in their most modern form have been focusing on some self-service, integrated applications, and some content management and heading into the 2.0 era, which will be more socially networked, peer produced, autonomous, and loosely organization.

Enterprise Intranet Evolution to Social and Enterprise 2.0

Enterprise Intranet Evolution to Social and Enterprise 2.0

The picture above gives an idealized progression for enterprise intranets including what seems to be coming next for many organizations. One of the things I'm seeing pretty consistently this year are large companies in the midst of portal redesigns with almost all attempting to incorporate social media elements into their efforts. Interestingly, many of these efforts are separate from their Enterprise 2.0 projects. This primarily appears to be because most intranet/portal teams aren't responsible for workforce collaboration, which is often the domain of other parts of the organization. This separation of vital concerns has had some interesting effects, including the introduction of social tools in many organizations in recent years without enlisting the people responsible for the traditional intranet. This is an important issue, as SocialText's Michael Idinopulos recently pointed out, since making social software the intranet by default is the single greatest thing you can do to drive adoption. But now, those responsible for corporate intranets are now beginning to look at social seriously and there is an opportunity to align and combine forces. So going forward, many organizations will no doubt continue to decorate their traditional corporate intranet with blogs around the edges, perhaps a wiki and maybe even add in a social network. But if we've learned anything about how social computing has become so central to people's lives and how that the majority of the information on the Web today is created that way, we might save considerable time and expense and design our intranets a little farther ahead of the evolutionary curve. Related: Ten top issues in adopting enterprise social computing While there are possibly some downsides in making modern enterprise intranets fundamentally social, I've not heard a single significant issue coming out of the 2.0 Adoption Council (I checked again with Susan Scrupski,who heads up the council, to reconfirm just before I wrote this) or any of the other related communities of practice around enterprise social software. That said, clearly enterprises have some real concerns about going social according to the just-released report from McAfee and Purdue University and to which I contributed, which notes that security remains the top issue this year, with information overexposure the second most common concern. Yet many industry watchers (myself included) remain bullish on social -- in my opinion it's highly unlikely at this point enterprises won't ultimately adopt it extensively -- and Gartner has gone on record this year saying that millions of workers will use it as their primary form of communication by 2014 (just like e-mail has already fallen to social networking on the consumer side.) So, beyond the macro trends that will make social intranets nearly inevitable in the medium-term, there are other compelling reasons for intranets to go social. The real question is whether organizations will look at social elements strategically or tactically. Either way, from the case studies I'm seeing lately and the results organizations are reporting, here are some of the key benefits to social intranets:
  • Best-in-class self-service. Social software is highly effective as a platform for worker communication and self-expression. Employees can update pages, comment, link, tag, and start collaborative conversations with other workers without the need for assistance of any kind. Those organizations worried their employees will misbehave or accidentally misuse these tools can put into place increasingly powerful and inexpensive automated moderation systems.
  • Healthy information ecosystem. Part of the magic of social software is that it brings with it the Web technology that made social media so powerful on the Web, including link structure. Formally called Web-Oriented Architecture, a social intranet can effectively break down data silos and connect enterprise information together into a deeply interlinked ecosystem.
  • Improved search and expertise location. A healthy Web of internal data means that enterprise search engines work much more effectively when an intranet is social. Organizations have to be careful not to have search silos in their social tools and this is where it's good to have the IT and/or intranet teams involved to ensure that social intranets have a good search strategy that takes advantage of the open Web of enterprise data that forms.
  • Better knowledge retention and reuse. Naturally, when daily work is far more social and observable, it leaves behind artifacts to reuse along with the identity of those that created it. I've discussed the ROI of Enterprise 2.0 before and it also a compelling discussion for social intranets.
  • Social apps/business solutions. Along with many related social technologies, We are beginning to see the latest social software suites become platforms for apps that take advantage of the social environments in which they run. Google's OpenSocial is a leading player here but other good examples include the deep social connections that many mobile apps now have with their social environments. This is the next big step for organizations (Intranet 2.2 on the visual above) as they begin to make their intranets social. You can see my discussion of social operating systems for more details.
Organizations are just starting to retool their IT landscapes as the downturn begins to recede and outdated technologies are replaced with newer versions. In the process, enterprises are discovering that the latest versions of their major intranet products (see Microsoft SharePoint 2010) have gone fundamentally social. Now is the time to determine how to make these new social capabilities as effective as possible. I'll be exploring this subject in more detail my opening keynote at the Social Intranet Summit in Vancouver next month. I hope you join me there to continue this discussion.


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