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I’ve decided I live and work in a parallel universe. Through a time warp site collection I am able to read columns, books, reports and prognostications on the impact of social business on organizations and on the way in which intranets and digital workplaces are going to change to support evolving social business initiatives in the Social Business Universe.

I can certainly see the logic of a social business. If I were somewhat younger I’m certain I’d be asking the HR manager about the stage of development of social business in the organization hoping to hire me and my iTools. However this column is coming from the Intranet Reality Universe.

Life Way Behind the Leading Edge

I’ve just come off the telephone from a conversation with one of my clients. The organization has around 8000 employees and over the last two years the new intranet manager has been working with an intranet that has not changed its appearance or its CMS for at least a decade.

Their challenge has been to persuade senior managers that the intranet has an important role and that it is about time that some investment was made in understanding the way in which the needs of the employees have changed over the last decade.

The organization has a very high reputation in the UK and many of the managers have worked there for extended periods of time because it is the place to be if you are in this particular line of business. I’m fairly sure that none of the members of the project team have ever seen an intranet in another organization, and so have no perception of the potential value of the intranet in meeting some increasingly challenging business objectives.

I wish this was a one-off experience. Sitting on my desk is an ITT from an international organization with a global reputation which states, “There is little executive sponsorship. The intranet is not recognised as a key business tool by senior management.”

The only output of this organization is information. At the Intranets2012 conference in Sydney last month an intranet manager in a major utilities company described how they were relying for support and sponsorship from a manager in another division that they did not report to.

The Heterogeneity of Organizational Culture

One of the fascinating elements of being an intranet consultant is that I get to see inside a lot of organizations, ranging from the United Nations to a small convent in London. In the last decade I’ve worked inside over a hundred organizations and talked to a wide range of intranet managers around the world.

Although I’ll usually run some surveys of user requirements and expectations, most of my research time is spent talking to perhaps a hundred or more people at every level in the organization. Even within the most focused of organizations I find enormous diversity of management and personal cultures, especially in organizations that have developed through acquisition.

I remember one large European-owned company where the US operation took pride in doing things totally differently than HQ because it had been acquired in a hostile takeover five years earlier and the wounds lay deep. The very successful Japanese operation enjoyed playing HQ off against the USA and getting the best of both worlds! Although we did not specifically address social business opportunities in this company, I feel very confident in saying that the USA, Europe and Japan would have had three very different views of the relevance of social business, and three very different views of an adoption strategy.

The Two C-Words

Much attention has been paid over the last few years to collaborative working, and Michael Sampson and others have worked hard to help us understand the benefits of working in harmony. Many experts, often working for companies selling software products and services, see the future of intranets as social network applications. They are ignoring the other C-word, compliance.

Most IT investment is allocated to supporting the completion of the myriad of tasks that ensure that the business stays legal and solvent. It’s easy to say that all those boring policies and standards and the customer and supplier records should be put out of site in some file store somewhere.

However in my experience many social discussions inside organizations are about how to balance innovation and business development with the constraints of doing business according to the thousands of legal, regulatory and business constraints, and doing so in economies where 0.1 percent economic growth is greeted with the same elation as 10 percent growth was a decade ago.

It’s All About User Adoption

The problem that no-one seems to be addressing at present is how to get there (social business heaven) from here (intranet benign neglect).

I’d love to see case studies of how businesses of all sizes have managed to walk even the initial steps towards a social business future that I can share with clients to whom this is still like science fiction. I’d also like the case studies to show the achievements and the failures; one of the take-aways from the Intranets2012 conference was how much more can be learned from a sincere analysis of the failures than the unthinking replication of the successes.

I’m sure that there are many success stories out there, but how come they seem so reluctant to be sociable and share their experiences with others?

Title image courtesy of Filip Novotny (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Martin White: