On the surface, a social intranet might seem to be just an intranet dressed up in rounded corners and pastel colors and with features such as blogs, wikis, activity feeds, ratings, profiles and tagging. Yet, the difference between a social intranet and a traditional intranet is far more profound than that.

To really understand the true nature of a social intranet, one need to look beyond the features and user interface design and understand what role it has to play for both individuals and the enterprise in today’s increasingly knowledge-intense and collaborative work environments.

Let’s look at three ways in which a social intranet is profoundly different from a traditional intranet.

Everybody Can Make His or Her Voice Heard

An information system is to an enterprise what a financial system is to a national (and global) economy: it allows information to be transferred from those who have some information to those who need it.

An enterprise needs a functioning information system. It must allow the information created or captured to be distributed and used wherever it is needed. The information must circulate throughout the system and do so at a certain velocity if the information is to remain fresh and useful. It is the same thing with money in the financial system. Excessive hoarding of information can be as fatal to an enterprise as excessive saving can be to an economy.

Money, like information, has only a value when it is used. Until a dollar bill gets used it’s just a piece of paper. If it is kept in a safe by someone who already has more money than he can use, it hurts the economy as other people who need the money might miss out on opportunities to create value (or worse, not be able to pay for food and shelter). Information, like money, needs to be allocated quickly where it is needed.

A defining difference between a traditional intranet and a social intranet is that a traditional intranet primarily supports business-to-employee broadcasting of information that is intended to serve predictable information needs, while a social intranet also supports employee-to-employee communications which, directly or indirectly, help to serve unpredictable information needs. Both are needed for a well functioning information system, and the latter is becoming more and more important as the business environment most organizations are operating in is becoming ever more competitive and rapidly changing.

The social intranet enables anyone to share his or her information with any number of people who might need it. It makes the threshold for sharing as low as possible and harnesses network effects for disseminating the information quickly to the people who need it. Conversations and sharing go in all directions, across all structures such as hierarchies, processes, locations and organizations.

Every individual, wherever they are and whatever position they might have, are just a click away. The informality, immediacy, interactivity and reach of the communication shrink the distance between individuals in the workforce and make even a large global enterprise resemble small startup businesses where everybody knows each other and can make use of each other’s talent, knowledge and information when needed.

[Editor's note: You may be interested in Toby Ward's Building a Social Intranet.]

Tiny Work is Surfaced, Valued and Recognized

We only see the tip of the iceberg of the work being done within an enterprise and we rarely see, reward or recognize the huge amounts of small efforts directly or indirectly contributing to the results we see above the surface. I call these small efforts “tiny work.” One example of tiny work is when you help a colleague to find a piece of information, maybe just by sharing a link or pointing to a source. Other examples of tiny work are answering a question, making a phone call, checking progress on a project, adding metadata to content so that it can be found and updating a piece of information.