We currently face a higher education system that is hundreds of years old and stuck in the past. I believe that social intranets may be a key to radically bringing higher education into the 21st century.

These are disruptive times for colleges and universities. Higher education is being flattened. My use of the word “flattened” comes from Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat and is defined as “When the impact of the Internet and globalization render an industry unrecognizable, and in many cases, obsolete.” Another word for flattened is implode. The fact is we have an education model that is hundreds of years old that was built for a world that no longer exists.

One of the many challenges facing higher education is an organizational structure and culture that is not conducive for success in the 21st century. Problems include stifling bureaucracy, entrenched silos, resistance to change and campus politics so petty that Henry Kissinger once said “University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” Colleges and universities will need to change radically in the coming years and I think social intranets may be a key to this transformation.

Historically, intranets have never been a strategic asset on most college campuses. If there is an intranet, it is usually part of the campus portal and suffers from information overload, confusing IA, poor usability and very limited value. It’s no wonder nobody uses them.

Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy

The Cluetrain Manifesto provides inspiration for rethinking the traditional intranet. Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore (Thesis #44). Instead, intranets should be about hyperlinking people outside the organizational chart. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked corporate conversation (Thesis #45).

Learning Opportunities

Social media is now being used extensively on college campuses for external communications and in the classroom. It’s time to turn our thoughts inward and think about how to leverage social media internally. It’s time to eliminate the silos and leverage the intellectual capital on college campuses that can chart our future. I see many things that a social intranet can accomplish including:

  • Breaking down the silos. While all organizations have silos, nowhere does this manifest itself like it does in higher education. Many universities acknowledge that they are decentralized as if it was a defining quality. A social intranet when implemented in the spirit of the cluetrain can bring down the silos and create a cohesive campus community.
  • Improving efficiency. Most college campuses are notoriously inefficient. There is considerable duplication and little sharing of knowledge and processes. A social intranet can provide a platform for improved communication and collaboration.
  • Leveraging institutional knowledge. No place has more intellectual capital than a college campus, yet this knowledge and expertise is rarely shared outside of an academic department or administrative unit. Using a social intranet to leverage the collective IQ of faculty and staff will help the campus prepare for an uncertain future. This is especially important as attrition increases due to early retirement incentives and yes, retrenchment.
  • Improving morale. As higher education gets flattened, faculty and staff will be dealing with many difficult issues. At the end of the day people work better when they know each other on a personal level and a social intranet can help build community and weather the difficult times.
  • Improving training.One of the best books I’ve readthis year is The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner. The book provides a thorough overview of how to use social media internally and makes a compelling case on the importance of social tools in the 21st century workplace. Colleges are in a great position to combine their existing teaching skills with social learning.

Final Thoughts

In closing, higher education needs to leverage the power of social media internally. These intranets must move from monologue to dialogue, from a repository of institutional documents and forms to a true collection of institutional knowledge, from a rarely visited outpost to a vibrant community that is the center of institutional life. If anyone has successfully deployed a social intranet on a college campus, please let me know. I would love to learn from your experiences.

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