Here's a theme that's been causing a lot of debate amongst my peers of late -- is a social intranet the same thing as a social workplace and the same as social collaboration? Can one product or set of features meet the needs of all of these requirements?

The issue here requires an understanding of the differences between communities and teams, affinities and goals.

Defining the Terms

One of the key challenges in this rapidly emerging space is that the vocabulary we have for discussing it is rather poor.

So,the first thing I want to do is define and clarify a few terms. Iinvite you to debate, discuss and add dimension to these terms. This iswhat I've laid out as a framework so far.

  • Community: a group of people, usually a larger one, 25+ members with some affinity for each other.
  • Organization:a company, government agency, enterprise or other formally recognizedinstitution that has a defined purpose for its existence.
  • Team: a group of people with a specific objective or purpose for their association.

Many Flavors of Collaboration

Collaborationis not a single concept, but a collection of at least three, which canbe subdivided even further once we get into the details. (Hey, if theInuit can have 37 words for snow...)

Iwill summarize my ideas on these three types of collaboration (you canalso check out the in-depth postI wrote a while back).

  1. Creative collaboration is apurpose-driven effort toward a specific outcome. There is a specificgroup of people with a shared objective - in other words, a team.Process, Communication, Organization and Decision making are thecritical activities here.
  2. Connective collaboration is the fine areof connecting the dots, where we (through a weaker set of ties) areable to discover related ideas, key information, spot trends andgenerally ensure that information and insight is discovered andconnected in the right context, at the right time, by the right people.People also use terms like "expertise identification" and "serendipity"to describe this type of collaboration. I think that these are justexamples of this type of collaboration, and I don't think thatserendipity is a good business plan (we have ways of making serendipityhappen - just wait).
  3. Compounding collaboration is where present meetsand leverages past. Where the work of the past is added to, layeredupon and compounded so that each of us may stand on the shoulders ofthose who've come before to accomplish more that we ever could if eachhad to start from scratch. Some people call this knowledge management. Ithink it goes well beyond that.

Editor's Note: Also read Hutch Carpenter's Three Types of Collaboration that Drive Innovation.

Connectiveness of Social Intranets

Anintranet is (or should be) the digital embodiment of an organization’spurpose and resources. It should inform, empower and enable employees tounderstand the organization, its mission, and the resources andprocesses available to help them get their work done.

A goodintranet is current, authoritative, relevant and inclusive. It keeps theorganization as a whole informed, and gives employees both the map andthe keys to the corporate assets. Social capabilities add thedimension of people to this, giving the organization the opportunity toknow one another individually and as a team. It gives the leadership anopportunity to communicate more directly at scale with the organization.It becomes an arena to support and develop a corporate identity andculture - a sense of community.

The social intranet - sensitivelybuilt and wisely used - can be a crucial instrument of leadership aswell as the center of gravity for the sense of belonging and communitythat is the organization. It can also be the foundation for "connective"collaboration within the organization.

The focus here is oncommunication of all kinds -- structured and unstructured, formal,informal, ambient (e.g., microblogging), coupled with excellent searchand discovery.

Ultimately, an intranet is about awareness and engagement of the community that is your organization.

Editor's Note: Also read Martin White's Collaboration – an Intranet Perspective.

What About Teams and Collaboration?

Butwhat about the other elements of collaboration that are crucial toorganizational effectiveness? Effectiveness is about a lot of differentthings, but productivity is certainly one of the main ones.

Learning Opportunities

Creativeand compounding collaboration are essentially about enabling teams tobe more effective. An organization will generally have dozens of teamsformed for different purposes and durations, and tasked with a diverseset of goals and deliverables.

The teams may vary in size and ofteninclude people outside the organization - vendors, contractors,suppliers, partners and customers. So how do we support these teams? Wemake it easy for them to:

  • Form - establish who is who, roles, contact info, etc.
  • Organize - establish goals, issues, tasks, deliverables
  • Aggregate work, start to collect individuals findings, writings, clippings and deliverables
  • Iterate on work - review, identify issues, omissions, further refinements, etc.
  • Deliberate - review and make decisions of all types
  • Deliver - the product of the work in an appropriate way.

Inorder to ensure the highest quality and fastest outcomes, they shouldalso be leveraging the power of their connected and compoundedorganizational assets. In other words, teams should also have theability to be a part of a larger, weaker-tied community within theorganization, and constantly have rich, highly contextualized access toprior relevant work.

Social Intranet and Collaboration – Not the Same

Ina perfect world, the two flow and leverage one another, but socialintranets and collaboration can't replace each other. They havedifferent goals and different requirements.

The social intranetsupports the existence of the organization and the community that is itsworkforce. Collaboration needs to be thought of differently - one partis supporting the connective collaboration of the organization as awhole, and the second part is enabling specific teams toward specificaction.

So let’s change the question. It’s no longer about socialintranet vs. collaboration, but organizational enablement vs. teamenablement. Always go back to the goals ;-).

The social intranetoffers structured information and resources and supports a broadcommunity held together by organizational affiliation and weak ties.Team enablement is different. It requires a structured, purpose-driven,creative collaboration.

Some features will overlap – profiles, forinstance, and wikis. But the context and depth to which they're usedwill differ dramatically depending on the goal.

With thosedifferences in mind, the conclusion is it will continue to be difficultto meet both sets of objectives with a single set of tools.

Additional Articles on Collaboration andIntranets: