Social Business, Social Intranets, the Lemming Curve and
The empowerment of consumers by the forces of digital disruption means that every organization has to work better, smarter and faster in order to create and manage the omnichannel experiences consumers favor and reward.

In short, “only empowered employees can [support] empowered customers,” as Ted Schadler has said. Traditional intranets -- one-way, push-only, top-down communication platforms -- are woefully inadequate in this regard – but then, so is the rest of the typical environment for knowledge work, with absurdly poor findability, fragmented task support and disparate repositories and applications that are integrated solely via the application of thumb and forefinger on the “ALT + TAB” keys.

'It’s All About the People'

The numerous “social intranet” solutions offered today aim to provide many-to-many communication and connectivity by surfacing information, expertise and activities that previously remained hidden in one-to-one exchanges or task flows.

The increasing popularity of such social tools in the enterprise (whether stand-alone or within a social intranet platform) is accompanied by a widespread and, in my view, dangerous misunderstanding of social exchanges in the workplace. Namely, we hear more and more often that in order to supercharge internal processes and engagement, you need to think about the people. At every event even remotely concerned with employee engagement and knowledge management that I’ve attended in the last year, one speaker after another will state, “Because, you know, it’s really all about the people.”

But -- is it really? If it’s really all about the people, why do so many enterprise social initiatives exhibit what I call the Lemming Curve? (A steep rise followed by a deadly plunge.) If it’s really all about the people, why does Gartner confidently predict that through 2015 -- for at least two more years -- 80 percent of internal social business projects will fail to meet their objectives?

No, It’s All About the People’s Work

To believe that employees will (and should) embrace social simply because it’s available is to confuse a sociological fact (people tend to, and like to, work in teams) with a psychological driver (given a chance, people at work will adapt social tools and platforms) and a business outcome (social inherently adds business value).

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: “It’s all about the people” isn’t false -- but it’s only half true. The difference between consumer social and enterprise social is that the former is all about the people. Whereas the latter is all about the people ... in the context of the work they need to (and want to) perform.

The Lemming Curve occurs when social is introduced and employees flock to it as something new, fun, popular, diverting ... and, yes, social. The ramp up is often extremely impressive. But busy, overworked employees can quickly figure out that the new social tool doesn't make their work faster, easier or more efficient, and they will abandon it in order to ... get back to work.

(And then project sponsors and advocates of enterprise social have to experience the depressing side of the Lemming Curve. Honestly -- would you rather spend an extra 15 minutes at the office being “social”? Or get home and see your spouse and kids and play with the dog?)

Avoiding the Lemming Curve with the Social Intranet

Now, I think that’s very telling, since needing to get back to work -- instead of, say, rummaging around in a poorly architected document repository looking for an old design schematic -- is also a primary reason for the low adoption and usage of many traditional, “non-social” intranets. And so we actually come full circle -- employees, like consumers, are context and task oriented. But whereas consumers are frequently interested in social for the sake of socializing -- that can be their context and goal -- the task orientation of employees is always in the end fundamentally about producing work.

A social intranet can play a significant role in empowering employees and helping organizations compete in the era of the customer. But the benefit will be realized only if, first, social is not merely icing on the intranet cake, and second, if it is knitted directly and visibly into well-integrated knowledge work task flows. (Which implies that the social intranet is itself, or serves as a constitutive part of, a coherent digital workplace. But that’s the topic of another discussion.)

Title image from Kimb Jones (Evolve Blog) 

Editor's Note: Read another take on the modern intranet in Solving the Modern Intranet's Identity Crisis