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. I invite you to debate, discuss and add dimension to these terms. This is what 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 recognized institution 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

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

I will summarize my ideas on these three types of collaboration (you can also check out the in-depth post I wrote a while back).

  1. Creative collaboration is a purpose-driven effort toward a specific outcome. There is a specific group of people with a shared objective - in other words, a team. Process, Communication, Organization and Decision making are the critical activities here.
  2. Connective collaboration is the fine are of connecting the dots, where we (through a weaker set of ties) are able to discover related ideas, key information, spot trends and generally ensure that information and insight is discovered and connected 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 just examples of this type of collaboration, and I don't think that serendipity is a good business plan (we have ways of making serendipity happen - just wait).
  3. Compounding collaboration is where present meets and leverages past. Where the work of the past is added to, layered upon and compounded so that each of us may stand on the shoulders of those who've come before to accomplish more that we ever could if each had to start from scratch. Some people call this knowledge management. I think it goes well beyond that.

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

Connectiveness of Social Intranets

An intranet is (or should be) the digital embodiment of an organization’s purpose and resources. It should inform, empower and enable employees to understand the organization, its mission, and the resources and processes available to help them get their work done.

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

The social intranet - sensitively built and wisely used - can be a crucial instrument of leadership as well as the center of gravity for the sense of belonging and community that is the organization. It can also be the foundation for "connective" collaboration within the organization.

The focus here is on communication of all kinds -- structured and unstructured, formal, informal, ambient (e.g., microblogging), coupled with excellent search and 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?

But what about the other elements of collaboration that are crucial to organizational effectiveness? Effectiveness is about a lot of different things, but productivity is certainly one of the main ones.

Creative and compounding collaboration are essentially about enabling teams to be more effective. An organization will generally have dozens of teams formed for different purposes and durations, and tasked with a diverse set of goals and deliverables.

The teams may vary in size and often include people outside the organization - vendors, contractors, suppliers, partners and customers. So how do we support these teams? We make 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.

In order to ensure the highest quality and fastest outcomes, they should also be leveraging the power of their connected and compounded organizational assets. In other words, teams should also have the ability to be a part of a larger, weaker-tied community within the organization, and constantly have rich, highly contextualized access to prior relevant work.

Social Intranet and Collaboration – Not the Same

In a perfect world, the two flow and leverage one another, but social intranets and collaboration can't replace each other. They have different goals and different requirements.

The social intranet supports the existence of the organization and the community that is its workforce. Collaboration needs to be thought of differently - one part is supporting the connective collaboration of the organization as a whole, and the second part is enabling specific teams toward specific action.

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

The social intranet offers structured information and resources and supports a broad community 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, for instance, and wikis. But the context and depth to which they're used will differ dramatically depending on the goal.

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

Additional Articles on Collaboration and Intranets: