Dion Hinchcliffe's Next-Generation Enterprises

Dion Hinchcliffe

Making An Intranet More Social

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In enterprises large and small around the world there's now a growing imperative to replace the outdated, inflexible, and limited legacy intranets of yesterday with something newer, richer, and more effective. These days this almost invariably means incorporating a significant social media element into an intranet redesign.

While some organizations are still considering a basic social media facelift for their intranet, perhaps incorporating some blogs for corporate communication or a wiki area for some shared content authoring, it's almost certain that this is too little and too late for many companies. Over the last three years, the world has undergone a social media revolution that has changed the behaviors of most of the developed world that have gone on to be validated as beneficial for the workplace.

Offering a handful of limited social tools in a corner of the intranet is missing not only the more significant opportunity to unleash the untapped potential of enterprise intranets, but it will likely be soundly rejected on the ground by a growing percentage of today's workers. Instead, organizations should be planning for a fundamentally social intranet.

Adding Social Media Best Practices to Intranets

Intranets have always been intended as a sort of miniature private Internet that contains the sum of an organization's tacit knowledge, ongoing work, and useful reference information. Yes, systems of record still keep the most important structured information in a safe place. But the messy work that actually comprises the bulk of what most workers do, namely communication and collaboration, would be done in elsewhere, in e-mail or specialized tools and network spaces. At least, that's what's happened so far.

But the Internet continued to evolve and showed that the process of communication and collaboration, when put into a social context and made more open and participative, creates the best results. The formal processes of publishing and content management actually didn't work very well in comparison. One of the most famous stories of the different between the old and news ways of working together on the Internet lies in the early history of Wikipedia.

Evolution To A Social Intranet

Wikipedia started off as the Nupedia process, with a very Intranet-team style process, where content was peer-reviewed and moderated using an approval process. When after a year only 12 articles were produced, some of the founders looked for a better way. Wikis were just getting initial popularity at the time, and they opened up Wikipedia to the world and literally let anyone contribute content. The key that made it work was that relentless scrutiny and editing would keep it largely correct and the world's largest encyclopedia of human knowledge was born. But you can see the lesson to be learned. The same process can be applied to today's static and all-too-slow-moving intranets.

Unfortunately, a good many enterprise leaders, HR departments, corp comm groups, and content management teams still live in the fear that intranet information might be wrong if were allowed to be posted by any employee. Despite this, today's intranets are frequently laden with outdated information and worse, egregious errors of omission. By this I'm referring to all the knowledge that could reside on the Intranet and provide a more complete and accurate view of what the organization actually knows, if only there was a way to put it on the intranet more quickly and easily, yet still in a trustworthy manner.

Related: Who should be in charge of internal social media?

The good news is that I see those in charge of intranets beginning to understand much of this. While they're not necessarily experts in social software, they understand the value it can deliver. They realize it can enable self-service and unleash an organization to share knowledge and work together in powerful new ways. It also makes it very easy to connect the organization's knowledgeable experts to those that need to know, while using what I've started calling stored collaboration to ensure that this process scales and is highly time and resource efficient..

Even better, the concerns about trust and control over social media, particularly internal use, continue to fall by the wayside. There is less worry every year about employees using social tools in inappropriate ways or harming internal culture or discourse with divergent points of view. Just like e-mail was closely scrutinized in the early years and given only to a chosen few at first, social media is beginning to become another accepted yet powerful technology for businesses to apply to their work.

Now the question that I'm seeing asking more often is how to go beyond social media lip service and integrate it more deeply into the fabric of a modern intranet. There's no question that this requires some serious thinking, though fortunately much of that can be offloaded to the very people the intranet serves. Making an intranet social also doesn't have to be disruptive or require enormous investment, and though the latter depends on your exact needs, these typically aren't $20 million ERP investments either.

In fact, I see several dominating factors that will largely determine an intranet's evolution to a more social model. These factors generally break down to the primary purposes of an organization's intranet. Does your work require sophisticated content management capabilities? Then you might need a hybrid approach where social networking is done in one place and social CMS is done elsewhere. Do you need information to be highly integrated and up-to-date wherever it is? Then you might use another model that emphasizes tight integration.

Models for a Social Intranet

In general, I believe the following three models will be leading high-level approaches to social intranets:

1. The core intranet based on a social suite. Legacy Web-apps located elsewhere on the network with lightweight integration. In this model content and document management will move to the social intranet while older apps will stay where they are. When integrated is needed, lightweight widgets or apps can be deployed to connect the two worlds so that social features can be embedded in legacy apps and legacy functionality can appear in a limited fashion. Integration will be primarily side-by-side and not data integration. Bottom line: Limited CMS/DMS integration, easy but limited integration, least cost.

2. The social intranet is divided up into two social platforms that each have unique functions and strengths. This is for organizations that need industrial strength content/document management features with social editing but also want a capable social networking platform, which most Social CMS/DMS platforms are not. Bottom line: Strongest mix of capabilities, less integration, mid-cost due to two platforms.

3. The social intranet is delivered via a social business suite with all or most intranet apps running within it. For organizations that see the long term direction of their intranet as based on social technologies, this option is increasingly supported by available enterprise social software platforms. Legacy applications can be wrapped in OpenSocial or other suitable technology and put into the flow of work. One consistent and highly integrated social intranet experience can be delivered this way. Bottom line: Most integrated, most consistent, and highest cost.

Of course there are other ways to slice the social intranet equation, but most of them will end up boiling down to looking one of the ones above. For organizations that are looking to increase the longevity of their intranet upgrades, want to align with the direction intranet best practices are taking, and embrace the social workforce engagement revolution taking place today will look for an transformation of their intranet that takes them at least as far as one of these models.

Dion Hinchcliffe

Dion Hinchcliffe is an internationally recognized business strategist and enterprise architect View more

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