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What makes an intranet ‘social’?

You’ve got an intranet. But is it really social?

What does social mean to you? Is it about turning your intranet into a Facebook for your business? Is it about getting more people to login to the intranet?

To begin with, let’s look at some definitions of the word social. ‘Social’ derives from the Latin socius (meaning “friend”) and socialis (meaning “allied”). It’s interesting that thousands of years ago the word ‘social’ drew a connection between friendship and being allied together, a term which has as much resonance in corporate environments as it is does in warfare.

According to one dictionary¹, social can be defined as:

: relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other

: liking to be with and talk to people: happy to be with people

: of or relating to people or society in general

Today, with the mass adoption of social media over the last ten years, the word ‘social’ has developed connotations of its own. We now think about ‘social’ (and specifically ‘social media’) as including technologies which enable us to achieve the older definitions. Social technologies are those which in fact allow people to talk to each other or that allow us to relate to other people. Social allows us to engage with one another.

Corporate environments, and particularly those in knowledge-based, information and service sectors, have always been social. We’ve always needed to organise ourselves in those environments to get stuff done. We’ve needed to connect and relate to others in our teams and our companies. In order to produce, we’ve needed to collaborate and work together. We’ve always needed to be, well, social.

When we look at the most important tool in our enterprises to help communicate and connect, our first port of call is the intranet itself. It’s the place where we find our definitive information about ourselves (usually according to the HR department). It’s where we go for information about the company’s goals. It’s where we go for the latest departmental or corporate memos from the head office. It’s where we might get information about our holiday policy or even where we might find out what’s on the menu for lunch in the canteen.

But is this social? What does it mean for an intranet to be social? And does it matter?

When intranets are not social

Well, we all know what doesn’t make an intranet social. It’s when the intranet lacks engagement. It’s not updated regularly, nor is it targeted. There are little or no connections to others in your business. It’s probably difficult to explore what other teams are doing. Announcements and updates are issued, and no one reads them. Like trees falling when no one is around to hear them.

It’s been 10 years since Facebook started, and 11 years since LinkedIn got going. Internet applications and technologies have socialised so many parts of our own lives by now: personal (Facebook), professional (LinkedIn), photographic (Instagram), brief communications (Twitter), messaging (WhatsApp) and ephemeral messaging (Snapchat), and of course gaming where a whole litany of companies like Minecraft are thriving as social platforms. The list is growing by the day.

But what about most enterprise intranets? They’re still not very social.

Asking what makes an intranet social invites us to ask the all-important question: In 2014, what is an intranet?

If you were to design an intranet – a corporate tool designed to improve workplace communication and productivity – from the ground up today, where would you start? Surely the answer is: start with social.

Start with social, not with the intranet

Start with the typical end user of the intranet. It’s crazy, but it just might work. Design and build for your ‘customers’ – those tireless employees who give their corporate lives to enterprise’s ambitions.

Is it easy for them to use? Is the intranet built with them in mind? Will it cater for the good and the bad that employees may give back to the enterprise?

Here are some golden rules to live by in a social world:

  • Enable employees to express themselves. Allow them to create a version of themselves within the virtual corporate structure.
  • Enable the user to easily find anything inside the intranet, including things they know and need to find, as well as things about which they are not yet aware. Give them a tool to discover new things about your enterprise.
  • Allow users to communicate, to develop, to learn and to grow.
  • Allow users to be productive and have fun at the same time.
  • Allow the user to add value to their corporate lives.
  • Give them a utility without which they can’t live.

It’s all about the network

An enterprise which gets the significance of social for its workforce, understands that the intranet is the employee network, and vice versa.

If you want an intranet of networked employees, you must:

  • Enable your users to connect to others. Let them connect to their teammates, their colleagues close to them and those in disparate locations.
  • Enable conversations to take place, on any topic from their team’s deliverables for that week to the results of the sports from the weekend.

Allow the water cooler conversations of old to live online within the intranet environment. Then encourage debate and dialogue to happen, even when those conversations are brutally honest. They recognise that good ideas within the workplace often come from anywhere within the organisation. Remember the “suggestion box”? Create an online version of that.

Healthy social intranets foster great communications through the integration of a wide variety of methods: email, messaging and texting, commenting, posting and editing wiki’s.

If your company – and by extension its intranet – wants to take advantage of the network effect of it’s connected employees, it won’t do it through a network of one – even if that one individual is the CEO. Allow your corporate connections to grow, and listen to the conversations that emanate from those connections.

Devolved power versus structured content from on high

Another key indicator that you have a social intranet is if your employees have a lot of say in how they organise themselves and get stuff done amongst themselves. From taxonomies they control themselves (“tagging”) to the ability to edit and rewrite content (“wiki’s”), the modern workforce is doing it for themselves. These days, a traditional intranet with rigid structures is probably a sign that your organisation has got an old-school communications systems where is content is pushed down from on high.

Successful management and leadership teams understand that their companies need good visions, clearly articulated objectives and suggested frameworks to enable work to get done. Then they should let employees and teams organise themselves with easy communication, rapidly available information and the ability to connect to others. A social intranet will let employees get great feedback, and get it quick with notifications, instant messaging, notes and commenting. It will do that with unstructured content, driven by its users.

Take a look at your intranet

Does your intranet bring your employees together? Does it engage them, not just once but regularly? Does it allow them to connect in order to produce and be productive? Does it bring them closer together as teams? Does it allow them to rally together against competitive challengers. Does it allow them to seize your enterprise’s opportunities?

Let’s say you own your enterprise’s intranet. You would do well to gauge the health of your intranet, and perhaps your enterprise’s productivity itself, by measuring the performance of some key indicators and usage data outlined earlier:

  • How many users are now on your intranet, compared over time?
  • What’s the frequency with which they are coming back?
  • Look at your heavy users, and assess what they are doing differently from infrequent users.
  • How many connections are established between users?
  • How many connections are established outside of someone’s existing team?
  • How often do employees publish content themselves?
  • Measure your employees’ satisfaction with their intranet tools. How likely would they recommend them to new employees?

If your data look anemic, then the odds are you don’t have an intranet which is social.

If you don’t have a social intranet, you may be missing out on one of the easiest ways to deliver real productivity gains in your enterprise today.

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