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.
In the purist implementation a social intranet would not have "locations" nor would "locations" be needed (this is why Facebook has no mental model that is easily identifiable for people conditioned to see websites as hierarchies). When content comes to the user, the user themselves is the location. Rather than "searching," users apply lenses not to filter results but to create resonant ones.
When the user and their affinity groups are at the core of the experience, the need for governance transforms from "making sure the content is accurate and current" to "making sure that content is surfaced to those who will be interested."
This model is already commonplace on the Internet in the form of community managers and it is time to apply this set of skills and practices to the intranet. In this model, the primary functional mission of the intranet is not to bring an individual to exactly the right single piece of content at a single point in time, but instead to bring the most relevant set of ever-changing content to groups of people over long periods of time; i.e., curation.
Examples are Everywhere
Is social a feature of Facebook? Social is no more a feature of Facebook than locomotion is a feature of an automobile. Facebook is a social experience where photo sharing is a feature. Flickr is a photo sharing experience where social is a feature (this is why Flickr appeals more to enthusiast and professional photographers). To make social something that users desire and value, you should not try to sprinkle it on top. Social needs to be baked in from the very beginning with the assumption that the desire is already there, it is just obscured because it has not been delivered in a concentrated form within the enterprise.
When you fully understand the distinction between something as a core-paradigm and something as a feature, the vision of the modern intranet becomes clear. The modern intranet must become a social experience adorned with a series of features like document management. Said another way, Social is not the frosting; Social is the cake.
Editor's Note: Stephen does not lack for opinions. Interested in reading more?