The world is changing fast; even the nature of change itself has changed, says futurist Thornton May. Many corporate systems are holdovers from a time when things changed less frequently, everything was more predictable, and content was created by a few and consumed by many. Corporate intranet gets a bad rap; but it’s just a perfectly good tool designed yesterday and being used by today’s jobs. You wouldn’t check out a book at a library to respond to a tweet from a customer, would you?

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The library is a magical place, it’s just not right for today’s jobs. I remember my time in the library as a kid in Moscow. As the snow rustled under my feet, my mittens clutching my library card, I looked forward to being transported to faraway worlds. But first, I had to wander the halls of the dimly lit library, choose a book that wasn’t already checked out, wait for the homely librarian to scribble something on my library card, and do it all over for the next book. I had all the time in the world to repeat this process every time I wanted a new book, and books didn’t change that much.

Fast forward a few years: my entire job depends on my ability to quickly access information and people -- internally and externally -- to help create and recombine content, helping people find each other and solve problems. I don’t have time to check out a book, I can’t depend on obsolete information, and I can’t sit by the phone and wait for someone to call me with an answer.

The Current State of Intranet Affairs

Corporate intranet portals started out as static repositories of information, and over time, became more collaborative. In the past decade, however, business has moved from a content-centric to people-centric model, and intranets have largely not adapted to this transition.

Forrester’s Q2 2011 US Workforce Technology And Engagement Online Survey says that although 59 percent of workers access their intranet portal at least once a day, “use is still fairly limited to early-stage activities around information retrieval and employee self-service.” In short, people use it for compliance tools like HR paperwork, time and expense, which employees have to use in order to get paid.

While intranet portals remain critical to push information resources, the missed opportunity remains around engaging employees in a participatory environment, where they can proactively pull and contribute information and resources. As we know, engaged employees are worth their weight in gold -- so why wouldn’t you want that? The Forrester report "Intranet Portals: Workforce Technology Adoption 2011" corroborates this story by saying that users of collaboration tools are more likely to innovate and advocate (8.4 vs. 7.2 advocacy score).

What engages us? It’s the ability to connect to others in meaningful ways, to create something together, to get done the things that add up to our legacy. Social media in its purest form is the engine that helps us access the people, resources and information, to turn knowledge into insights and actions, make better decisions faster and move at the speed of business today.

The Changing Nature of our Work

Conventional intranet portals significantly slow down information exchange, because their restrictive approaches to content authoring and content management don’t map to today’s world, where news travels fast, everything changes, knowledge is democratized and everything is transparent. Thornton May says that the biggest risk in dealing with change is falling out of sync because we adapt to change at different speeds. Being out of sync also contributes to content sprawl and duplicated work -- in fact, 38 percent of time is often lost duplicating work and searching for information across a business’s systems.

Furthermore, according to Aragon Research, a limitation of intranet is “the amount of technical involvement needed to make them function, and to add new capabilities; this has tended to keep them out of sync with dynamically changing needs.”

The Work Hub

The real opportunity lies in merging the reach and authoritativeness of the intranet with dynamic and collaborative qualities of an enterprise social network – thus creating a social work hub. This requires that we update our thinking about both enterprise social networks and intranet portals.

Aragon research also says, "People often call social networks “the new digital water coolers,” but they can also be thought of as knowledge hubs. A full ESN is more than just updates from people. With the right design, it exposes the full range of intranet functions to users. More importantly, it shifts control to the people who own the content and the processes. Engaged people also share more content than a corporate intranet can provide.”

An enterprise work hub is a community-driven intranet for a human-centric business of the future. Restrictive content authoring is replaced with distributed co-creation of content by bringing together of diverse expertise, a faster and stronger feedback loop, and constant remixing and adaptation.

The practice of working out loud helps increase the line of vision into what else is going on; soliciting feedback helps avoid costly mistakes and move faster. “Workers in a thriving social network will interact more with a wider circle of collaborators, participate in more activities with more enthusiasm, share more knowledge and stay more current,” says Aragon Research. A participatory environment also engages employees at deeper levels, which is never bad.

Businesses are taking notice of this -- according to the Forrester blog, 49 percent of companies will have investments in social networking solutions in 2012.

Keys to Success

Here are some things to consider as you embark upon your journey to make intranet more social.

  • Be people-centric: Social is different -- you can make people fill out timesheets, but you can’t make them share what they know. For that to happen, the environment has to be right: participants have to trust each other, they need to feel heard and be engaged in their business. True success comes from bringing together people who would’ve never found each other otherwise.
  • Consumerize it! Jonathan Anthony, who heads up Corporate Communications at Teekay Corporation said in our customer community: ”It’s about choice. All we do is talk about what it [ESN] can do; offer support for people and teams, and leave people in peace with their thought process … People need simple solutions, and they need ownership. This is what we have in our private lives; companies need to replicate that.”
  • Make it available anywhere: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are an increasingly mobile society. Your knowledge workers are less likely to tether themselves to desktop computers; let them contribute and access content on the go, wherever they are -- whether or not they are using their own or company issued devices.
  • Deploy with ease: Because things change so fast, being able to deploy your social intranet quickly is paramount. Because the social intranet must remain easily adaptable, the platform has to be flexible and combined with other apps.
  • Integrate: To be a true work hub, your enterprise social network must surface and deliver information from vertical apps to the right people at the right time. Lawrence De Voe, the Chief Technology Catalyst at Initiative said this in our customer community: “Specialist tools should always be satellites to the engagement tools that drive user activity and conversation.”
  • Mix official and unofficial content: You must be able to manage official and community-driven content, as well as to quickly curate and categorize content. "We make it easy to add tags -- and add them ourselves -- to increase the likelihood that people will find what they are looking for," said another member of our customer community. "We also have "official" general links page to the most important policy a form pages held in these groups."
  • Make content social: Your social work hub not only connects people to each other, it also must connect people to content. By alerting people to existence and changes in relevant content, the social work hub finally delivers on the original promise of the intranet.
  • Focus on community: While your goal is to foster business conversations, it’s the non-business ones that build trust, which makes close collaboration possible. Jonathan Anthony says: “We trust people to mix it up -- social and business are harmonious.” Lawrence De Voe cautions that shutting off personal contact is “one of greatest fallacies of enterprise social. We don't worry about people making personal phone calls (too much) and we don't worry about personal use of email.”
  • Redefine roles: To support a shift towards consumerization, IT is now in a strategic role of an enabler versus barrier to innovation. While IT satisfaction currently lags among 2/3 of information workers, IT now has an opportunity to improve its battered image. De Voe shares: “we allow the business to self provision the right tools for the job” -- even his title is Chief Technology Catalyst.
  • Plan with right resources: While enterprise social is easier to maintain, is more flexible and affordable, success does take investment in community management, strategic planning, process and tool integration, and coaching. “This is a coaching effort. I think you want to initiatively encourage any form of engagement while providing good examples and training,” says Lawrence De Voe. Jonathan Anthony notes that to be successful, “the tools need to require very little formal training, so that interested people can go for it.”

What do you think, reader? How are you helping your knowledge workers work together and actively engage in content creation? Do you have any examples of using old tools for a new job?

Image courtesy of Andre Viegas (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Always thought provoking, Maria knows the Social Enterprise. For more, why not read It Takes Collaboration to Be a Social Business