We tend to get carried away in the mood of the moment. As enterprise social networks started to pick up, weren’t we a little too quick to grab our shovels, prepare tearful eulogies post the “death of intranets” in the manner of “intranets were great BUT…..”, and start to drag the intranet away?
Not so quick.
Admittedly, intranets have had a rocky past, suffering from adoption problems, never quite delivering their promise. However, the objectives where sound, and lots of companies which thought through their intranet implementation, did have great success. Social software on the other hand, is beyond its bright eyed boy stage, and has to bring more than a business version of “let’s exchange likes”. The right way then, is the best of both worlds. This coming together is already underway with the assimilation of modern social concepts in traditional intranets – the “social intranet”.
Although I was going to discuss all the ways in which a social intranet improves upon a traditional intranet in a single blog entry, I realized that each area deserves its own attention. This is therefore a series.
Social intranets and knowledge management
Shortcomings of knowledge management in traditional intranets
A classical objective of the intranet was knowledge management – capturing all possible knowledge created in the organization and making it readily available to everyone else. The idea was to capture learning as problems were faced, solved, best practices developed, and share such learning across offices, teams and hierarchies – a growth and maturation for the entire organization in the process.
Although the intranet was able to capture knowledge to an extent, it was never able to solve the problem of sharing. Knowledge created and captured in the intranet in the forms of documents, presentations, or best practice sheets, never left the team, office or division “workspace”. The inherent flaw lay in the structure of traditional intranets – everything was blocked off into “intranet workspaces”, each an island of information in itself.
Another major flaw with the design of the intranet was that although it captured the information created through formal processes – documents, presentations, spreadsheets, code-bases – it was in-adept at capturing the key resource of any organization – the knowledge in the minds of workers. The workers had no incentive to, or means of, voluntarily and proactively contributing what they had in their minds in terms of ideas, suggestions, and solutions to others’ problems. One could even think of it as outdated human resource philosophy as reflected in traditional intranets – why would an employee go beyond their job role to help their colleagues and company?
That is what changes in a profound way in social intranets.
Employee generated content. Social intranets bring to intranets one of the main sources of the web 2.0 revolution – user generated content. Content is not created at the higher echelons of the company and handed down to everyone else. Social intranets equip employees with the tools to contribute their own content. Employees engage in open conversations by finding colleagues, posting messages on their walls, contributing articles, following and participating in existing conversations, or setting up ad hoc groups around common areas of interest. In the process they are contributing their knowledge, and gaining from the knowledge of others. And this knowledge is accessible to everyone else in the company for all times.
Sharing across silos. Another thing social tools encourage employees to do is to freely share information across formal organizational groups. For example, if you are on a cross functional group, you can simply post a message on the wall of a teammate in another division at another office, and attach a document from your groups document repository that might help them. In doing this, you actually created an information bridge across groups. As this is one more and more, group boundaries become porous and information travels freely across them. Company knowledge is now not siloed, but available across the grid.
Access people. As mentioned before, key company knowledge resides not in company documents, but inside the minds of employees. Employees have a face in social intranets in the form of profiles which detail their skills, projects and experience. You can easily locate the right people across the organization by searching for skills or experience, and approach them directly for help. More often than not, you will find they are willing to help, which saves you the time and effort of reinventing the wheel.
At an abstract level, what social intranets really represent is a shift in philosophy. They recognize people as the most important repository of organizational knowledge, and believe that employees will go out of their way, beyond their formal roles, to help their colleagues and the organization – and derive satisfaction from that (HR practitioners call this theory Y).