Most people don't think corporate bulletin board when they think of their intranets. This article makes the case that intranets are just as removed from day to day work.

The Evolution of the Bulletin Board

Imagine working at one of the offices of a mid-sized company in the 60's. When you walk into the office at 8 am every morning, there's a big bulletin board greeting you after having passed by the friendly ladies in the reception.

The way the bulletin board is placed ensures it's something you pass every day. You can't avoid it unless you sneak in to the office through some back door. Occasionally, you stop for a few minutes at the bulletin board to update yourself about what's new at the company, who's been employed and who's left, and what events are coming up that might be of interest to you. Sometimes you stay a bit longer because someone has posted a funny story on the board that might be amusing.

Then you head on to your desk to get some work done.

One day when you arrive at the office, the bulletin board has been equipped with some new features. There are now sticky notes that allow you to comment on a corporate news story in public. There’s also a new section on the bulletin board where you are free to post your own stuff, perhaps some idea that you have. Furthermore, there’s a section with names, photos, roles and some informal details about everyone who’s working at your office.


There’s even a water-cooler next to the bulletin board. It soon becomes a place to stop and chat about something of interest with others who have stopped to fetch some cold water.

But your office, where you do your work, is still somewhere else. To get your work done, you go to your workplace. That’s where you have relevant information and tools readily accessible, such as your typewriter and telephone.

The colleagues you are usually working with are sitting nearby, and you have personalized your workspace to fit your own work style. You know where to find your stuff, and how to continue where you left off yesterday. You even have your own coffee mug and framed photo of your loved ones.

After a few weeks, most employees have gotten accustomed to the new bulletin board features. The exception is the possibility to post ideas and opinions in public. Most people don’t dare to because they are afraid of what their boss will think. But being able to find out who’s working at the office and whom to contact for certain errands has proven valuable, especially since employee turnover is quite high.

Personally, you appreciate the water-cooler the most. It has become a natural place to meet and discuss things with other people. It’s really the place to go if you want to know what’s happening at the office. Still, it feels disconnected from the work you do. The problem isn’t that it’s a short walk away from your office. The problem is that it’s not tightly connected to the activities you do on a daily basis.

Effortless Collaboration

Now imagine that you are sitting at your desk to write a report. It's going so-so. You’re starting to run out of inspiration. Then, suddenly, you discover an article from a magazine on your desk that you haven't seen there before. Someone who has seen what you're working on must have reached out his or her invisible hand to put it there, without you even noticing.

The reason why you happened to notice the article was that it was located right next to your typewriter. It was a particular sentence that managed to catch your eye and interest. As the business card of the person who left the article on your desk is attaches to the article, you find out that it was Paula Sterling from the sales department at another office. You don’t even know her. How could she possibly know what you needed? Was she visiting the office and happening to have that article ready when she passed by your office and saw what you were typing on your typewriter? Anyway, you’ve now got some new fuel to continue writing your report.

Half an hour later, you get stuck. Totally. There’s something you need an answer to before you can continue writing the report. After thinking a while about who might have the answer to your question without any name popping up in your mind, you write down your question on a paper to make sure you won’t forget about it. You put the note on your desk and decide start writing on another section of your report.

A few minutes later you happen to take a look at the note with your question again. Right next to it there are some new notes. Answers! Not just one, but several answers, each adding some information and perhaps adding a new perspective on your question. There’s a business card attached to each answer. Now you know whom to thank for helping you. You notice that the answers are coming from people from all over the organization, a couple of whom you don’t know or have only met once or twice. Great! You can get on with writing the important part of your report.

A bit later your report is almost finished. There’s just one thing you’d like to add before you send it for copying and distribution. Now where's that old file with the memo that someone sent about this some time ago? You are sure you have it in your file cabinet -- but where?

Unfortunately, you don't know exactly when you wrote it and you have quite a few files in your file cabinet. You know what subject it was about, but that is of little help as you only have labeled your files with date and type of document. You go to the file cabinet to start your search. When you open it, you discover that someone has put subject labels on all of your files. With the help of the new labels, you are able to find the memo you were looking for and finish writing the report.

It’s not even lunchtime, and you’ve managed to finish your report. You’ve done it with the help of others, but without being interrupted or interrupting anyone else. In the process, you’ve got to know a bit about colleagues you didn’t know before, and you feel motivated to return their favors whenever you get the opportunity. It’s been a good day at work so far, and you’re heading off to the water-cooler to talk about the amazing stuff that happened this morning.

The Bulletin Boards of Today

Many intranets are just modern equivalents of a corporate bulletin board. They don’t connect to the work people do. They are designed with the organization in mind, not the people and their tasks. The social features might make more people find and read corporate news stories, or share their opinions about something, but they rarely enhance people’s work.

It’s not really social collaboration. It’s simply social media inside the firewall, social features appended to a platform that isn’t really collaborative by nature. Most importantly, it hasn’t been designed with the work people do as its starting point.

Social collaboration can make a real difference to productivity, innovation and efficiency in organizations. To allow this to happen, social collaboration needs to be embedded in the work we do. It shouldn't require us to go somewhere else, and it shouldn't add extra effort to participate. Answering a question from a colleague should, technically speaking, be easier than writing an email.

The tools we use and our workplace must be designed to be social and collaborative in ways that make work easier. If an organization wants to reap the business benefits of social collaboration, it should stop taking a technical platform, such as an intranet, as its starting point and instead start by understanding the people who need to get work done, what kind of tasks they need to do, and in what situations.

Image courtesy of J. Helgason (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Oscar frequently weighs in on the demands of the modern workplace. Read more in Social Business: We Have the Tools. Now What?