Around a year ago, several reports came out that highlighted the lack of employee desire for social features in workplace intranets. What a difference a year makes. 

While there are no studies or surveys championing the opposite view, the reason might be that nobody is bothering to ask such a naive question anymore. Even as the rise of the social intranet gains more and more momentum, I think people have glossed over the big distinction that has allowed for its success: social is not a feature. Social is a paradigm.

Is Good Design a Feature?

Try telling Jonathan Ive that good design is a feature and see if he becomes visibly apoplectic. At Apple and other like-minded design centric companies, design is a way of being that starts at the core of something and bleeds out to the surface. Microsoft envisions a product with a functional core and then covers that core with design elements. Features are things that adorn a product or experience on the outside. When you understand this distinction, the meh-feelings of users about social features become not only obvious, but predictable.

Historically, Sharepoint-based intranets are cast as document management and sharing experiences that have a series of social features. Amongst the biggest selling points of SharePoint has always been its tight integration with MS Office; a tool for creating and modifying document artifacts. 

Given that large accomplishments in large enterprises are achieved by groups rather than individuals, the critical success factor for intranets in large enterprises is ambient findability more so than creating and modifying artifacts. Ambient findability as a goal in the intranet context is much the same as Peter Moorville originally used it for the Internet, the big difference is in the methods you have to use in order to achieve it.

The most direct case for ambient findability is in the universal complaint and request from the users of enterprise intranets everywhere, "Search doesn't work" and "make search work like Google." These requests for a Google-like simplicity and accuracy doesn't recognize the factor that separates intranet search from internet search -- Google's algorithm is dominated not by how the creator of an artifact describes it (i.e., how it might be found) but by what others say about it.

Given that the "be like Google" objective requires others to link to, comment on and write about other people's work, we can safely say that technology-centric approaches will always fall short, because they don't factor in the elements necessary to alter human behavior.

From Governance to Curation

Classic intranets are encumbered by the concept of location. All artifacts live in locations. Locations are where users find what they are looking for. Search and browse are way-finding devices that bring users to locations and artifacts. Each of these locations and artifacts requires governance to ensure that the paths and artifacts are current and reflect the state of conceptual ownership within the enterprise. Social intranets are conceived from the exact opposite point of view.