On the surface, a social intranet might seem to be just an intranet dressed up in rounded corners and pastel colors and with features such as blogs, wikis, activity feeds, ratings, profiles and tagging. Yet, the difference between a social intranet and a traditional intranet is far more profound than that.

To really understand the true nature of a social intranet, one need to look beyond the features and user interface design and understand what role it has to play for both individuals and the enterprise in today’s increasingly knowledge-intense and collaborative work environments.

Let’s look at three ways in which a social intranet is profoundly different from a traditional intranet.

Everybody Can Make His or Her Voice Heard

An information system is to an enterprise what a financial system is to a national (and global) economy: it allows information to be transferred from those who have some information to those who need it.

An enterprise needs a functioning information system. It must allow the information created or captured to be distributed and used wherever it is needed. The information must circulate throughout the system and do so at a certain velocity if the information is to remain fresh and useful. It is the same thing with money in the financial system. Excessive hoarding of information can be as fatal to an enterprise as excessive saving can be to an economy.

Money, like information, has only a value when it is used. Until a dollar bill gets used it’s just a piece of paper. If it is kept in a safe by someone who already has more money than he can use, it hurts the economy as other people who need the money might miss out on opportunities to create value (or worse, not be able to pay for food and shelter). Information, like money, needs to be allocated quickly where it is needed.

A defining difference between a traditional intranet and a social intranet is that a traditional intranet primarily supports business-to-employee broadcasting of information that is intended to serve predictable information needs, while a social intranet also supports employee-to-employee communications which, directly or indirectly, help to serve unpredictable information needs. Both are needed for a well functioning information system, and the latter is becoming more and more important as the business environment most organizations are operating in is becoming ever more competitive and rapidly changing.

The social intranet enables anyone to share his or her information with any number of people who might need it. It makes the threshold for sharing as low as possible and harnesses network effects for disseminating the information quickly to the people who need it. Conversations and sharing go in all directions, across all structures such as hierarchies, processes, locations and organizations.

Every individual, wherever they are and whatever position they might have, are just a click away. The informality, immediacy, interactivity and reach of the communication shrink the distance between individuals in the workforce and make even a large global enterprise resemble small startup businesses where everybody knows each other and can make use of each other’s talent, knowledge and information when needed.

[Editor's note: You may be interested in Toby Ward's Building a Social Intranet.]

Tiny Work is Surfaced, Valued and Recognized

We only see the tip of the iceberg of the work being done within an enterprise and we rarely see, reward or recognize the huge amounts of small efforts directly or indirectly contributing to the results we see above the surface. I call these small efforts “tiny work.” One example of tiny work is when you help a colleague to find a piece of information, maybe just by sharing a link or pointing to a source. Other examples of tiny work are answering a question, making a phone call, checking progress on a project, adding metadata to content so that it can be found and updating a piece of information.

Tiny work is work so small that it does not show up on most people’s radar screens. It definitely doesn’t show up on management’s radar screens. It’s so small you don't want to bother your manager with it. Only the people who are directly affected by or benefiting from the tiny work actually see it, but they don’t tell others about it…because it's just tiny work.

Spotting tiny work is kind of like spotting black holes; it’s impossible to observe a black hole directly, which means you have to identify it by its effects on the surrounding environment (material). The problem is we don’t measure work this way; we measure the time and resources used associated with observable work. So what managers and others might see from tiny work is just the time and resources people spent on it, not the work itself or how it contributes to observable work. Tiny work can easily be seen as waste, as an invisible productivity drain.

The paradox is that tiny work often has immense impact on business performance. The amount of tiny work will also need to increase if enterprises are to become more collaborative, innovative, responsive, and make better use of their talent, information and resources. If we don't value tiny work and instead imply that it's a waste of time, most people will likely refrain from doing it unless it is absolutely necessary.

Learning Opportunities

A social intranet is an environment that makes it easier to perform tiny work as well as to see, recognize and aggregate the value of tiny work. It provides knowledge workers with an environment where it is easy to spot a question which you can answer as it is to answer it, and where your answer can be valued and recognized as well as reused by other people no matter where they are or when they need it.

Your tiny work can be aggregated, and instead of being seen as waste it can actually build your reputation as being helpful and caring to both your colleagues and your organization. It can be made visible so that your manager will see that you are contributing to the success of the enterprise, and not just working for yourself. From the sum of all tiny work, new information and insights can emerge that can be used to create competitive advantage.

Everyone Has the Power to Network

A study by the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA) in 2009 confirmed that there is a strong correlation between being a successful leader and having a strong personal network, and vice versa. It found that 93% of successful change initiatives were led by leaders with strong or very strong personal networks, while 73% of less successful change initiatives were led by people described as having moderate or weak personal networks.

Informal networks have always been important. The stronger, bigger and more diverse network you have, the more access you have to knowledge, information, ideas and people that can help you do a better job or find and seize new opportunities. As the work environment becomes increasingly complex with information abundance, constant and rapid changes, specialization and increasingly dispersed workforces, the more valuable your network becomes.

It becomes your filter to find or discover relevant information and people. Your ties, weak or strong, direct or indirect, become your senses and tentacles that help to feel your way and navigate successfully in this environment.

The social intranet brings the power of professional networking to everyone within the workforce. Professional networking is no longer a capability exclusive to executives, managers, formally appointed experts and sales people who frequently get the opportunity to travel and meet many people face-to-face. The cost of building a network has collapsed, and so has the cost of accessing it it. The easier it is to access your network, the more likely it is that you will be able to use it to do a better job and to find opportunities to seize.

A social intranet empowers individuals within an enterprise to efficiently and effectively use their own and their collective intellectual and social capital to create value together. It does so by connecting them with each other, exposing and providing access to their expertise, harnessing network effects for rapid and precise distribution and access to information, enabling reuse, repurposing and remixing of information for new uses, and simplifying sharing and collaboration across organizations, locations and systems.

[Editor's note: Read Oscar Berg's Driving Usage and Adoption for Today's Social Intranet.]