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The email-free future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

November 24, 2015

It’s over five years since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicted email is probably going away, and yet I returned from holiday this week to a bulging inbox. So what went wrong?

Here I explain why email alternatives haven’t yet made the breakthrough – and what needs to happen to really see an end to inefficient email culture.


Underestimated the need for culture change

Cultural barriers in moving from email to enterprise social have been wildly underestimated. Email has had a long (20 year +) period of dominance, and has found its way into a vast range of tasks (many of which it’s inappropriate for, but nonetheless). Old habits die hard, and email is quite some habit – taking up 28% of employee time. Intranet expert Sam Marshall once commented that only two things will survive a nuclear winter – cockroaches, and email.

Email, for all its faults, offers privacy, preservation of silos and hierarchy, and the hoarding of knowledge – all things which fit with traditional ways of managing business. For enterprise social networks to really make a difference they need to form part of a massive change management programme – one that sees the ESN as a small part of a change to make the organisation fit for the future.

If an organisation is serious about embracing openness, meritocracy, flexibility and collaborative working, as a means of making itself more agile and innovative, and engaging its people, then an ESN will enable that. But the organisation needs to lead that change – the tool is merely a means of delivery, and can’t be seen as the culture change itself.

Few organisations have done this successfully yet. Most have barely started. But as hardly a day now passes without another news story about how traditional industries and business models are being disrupted by smaller, newer players – firms who are already embracing those values and working in open, collaborative and innovative ways – big business has to adapt or die. That culture change isn’t a nice to have: it’s existential.

The tools sucked

Back in 2010, the tools to go email-free just weren’t widespread enough; few enterprises had rolled them out, and where they had they were found wanting. Let’s be blunt here: they sucked compared to what was available on the web.

Enterprise social tools lacked powerful enough functionality to make people ditch their long-held habits. They were typically rolled out organically, which meant they relied heavily on enthusiasts and failed to gain critical mass.

All that has changed, though. Social intranet products such as Sharepoint, Jive and IBM Connections have continued to grow and evolve their functionality. At the same time, products like Salesforce, Oracle and SAP have moved on from token inclusion of social functionality to offering fully social systems. And a host of new entrants like Slack have come along to shake the whole enterprise collaboration market up, forcing everyone to raise their game.

The current crop of enterprise social tools now offer substantial and realistic alternatives to email with functionality and usability that are as good as anything offered to consumers.

The challenge, then, is ensuring the organisation has the right tool or set of tools. And that means focusing on user needs…

Lacked understanding of user needs

Too many intranet projects are conceived and designed from the corporate centre, designed without a detailed understanding of how, when and why people work – so that social fits the way people work, rather than expecting people to change the way they work to use social tools.

In this (old) blogpost, Andrew McAfee suggests that the continued use of email when superior alternatives are available is an example of the 9x problem. That is, that people are generally averse to change, so they overvalue what they have by a factor of three, and undervalue alternatives by 3x. So something needs to not just be better than the alternative for people to be convinced to change, but it needs to be 9x better.

The number one driver of adoption is utility. Intranet and digital workplace professionals need first to understand what people do and how they work – and why they use email – then select and configure tools so they provide a compelling alternative – one that users perceive as genuinely useful enough to be worth investing their time in learning.

Poor integration

All too often social intranets are yet another in the plethora of workplace portals, presenting users with a hot mess of interfaces and user experiences. It’s no surprise that people reached for the comfort blanket of Microsoft Outlook.

Email dominates because it’s familiar, and it’s made its way into almost everything we do at work. Email doesn’t force people to think about what tool to use – and nor should your digital workplace. The current generation of enterprise social tools are easy and cheap to integrate with each other, and with other systems. Crack that and present a coherent, integrated digital workplace that doesn’t require users to think, and you reduce the barriers to change.

Too inward looking

Finally, they didn’t extend beyond the firewall, forcing people to go back to email if they want to collaborate with anyone outside of the organisation. In this day and age collaboration can’t just be inward-looking; it will necessarily involve third parties like agencies – and ideally customers too.

With most vendors offering robust cloud-based solutions, there’s no longer a need to limit collaboration to inside the firewall, nor to force people to go back to email to collaborate externally.

The future

These five factors can explain why predictions about the imminent demise of email have failed to come true. While the tools have improved markedly, implementations must focus on user needs so that users feel social tools are substantial and realistic alternatives to email.

As William Gibson commented, the future is here… it’s just not evenly distributed yet. While the tools now exist to deliver on Sheryl Sandberg’s prediction of an email-free future, without significant investment in culture change email will persist.

Photo credit: Daniel Voyager


Crafting the gemeinschaft: the case for grassroots approaches to enterprise community management

November 18, 2015

A LinkedIn invitation lands in my inbox. Ian’s added me. I don’t think we’ve ever met. Says he’s a friend.

If I’m such a good friend, can I borrow a fiver?

That distance between a friend and a ‘friend’ is a good illustration of the difference between a network and a community online, and the extent to which communities and friends have lost their meaning in an age of constant connectedness.

My social network allows me to maintain connections with people with whom I’d otherwise have lost touch years ago, and to create connections with others I may never meet. But this comes at a cost – the depth of those relationships.

My friend Richard, who I spoke to pretty much every day in the late 90s, says he doesn’t even need to call me anymore as he only needs to look at Twitter to see what I’m up to. He’s not alone; recent research found that the more up to date we are with our friends’ lives on Facebook, the less likely we are to call or meet up with them in real life, leading to increased feelings of loneliness.

This is all a long way from early analyses of the web (in the McLuhan tradition) which posit that where technology bridges the hindrance of physical connection in order to facilitate real-time communicative activity, social circles expand and thrive to create a “global village”.

The very openness of the web can, the theory goes, allow people to create communities of interest and interact with others who share their interests, regardless of their physical location. But this is rarely borne out by the reality of Facebook, which is a reflection of our own narrow interests, and a series of tiny, posed glimpses into the lives of people with whom we share a degree of connection.

It’s not, in the true sense, a community.

  • A network is a set of relationships, personal interactions and connections (in social network analysis terms, sets of nodes and links), with linkages and information flows between them.
  • A community, on the other hand, has a sense of shared identity, one which – however tacit and distributed – has a shared sense of purpose.

Over time the term community is increasingly being used to describe what are really networks. When people talk about the “investor community” or the “open data community”, they’re talking about people with common interests, not a shared sense of identity or belonging.

Like most debates the internet throws up, this one has a history that predates Berners-Lee. Sociologists have long sought to define different types of group identity and social bonds, most famously in the work of Ferdinand Tönnies, who proposed two dichotomous social groupings, called (in German) gemeinschaft and gesselschaft.

According to this model, social ties can be categorised, on one hand, as belonging to personal social interactions, and the roles, values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gemeinschaft, commonly translated as “community” ), or on the other hand as belonging to indirect interactions, impersonal roles, formal values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gesellschaft, commonly translated as “society” or “association”) [wikipedia]

Gemeinshaft is characterised by:

  • Emphasis on the needs and interests of the group
  • The group being more important than the members
  • Strong communal relations and a “unity of will”
  • Shared moral values and beliefs
  • Weaker division of labour, with less task or role specialisation

Examples of gemeinshaft social groups include families, sports teams, rural villages and tribes

Gesellschaft is characterised by:

  • Individualism overriding community
  • Contractual relationships over informal ones
  • Stronger division of labour and greater specialisation
  • Diverse social mores

Examples of gesellschaft social groups include corporations, companies, countries, social clubs or universities.

Tönnies proposed these as ideal types; he argued a social group isn’t purely gemeinshaft or gesellschaft, but rather both types will be at work at varying strengths or in different parts of the group.

Nonetheless, Tönnies’ theory provides a useful lens through which to view enterprise social networks (ESNs). The aim of many ESNs is to build engagement, to connect people with common purpose, to build and strengthen relationships between individuals and with the group and to achieve buy-in to the organisation’s brand and purpose – in other words, to build a gemeinshaft. Yet ESNs exist within large organisations and corporations, characterised by individualism, contractual relations and deep division of labour – an almost ideal-type gesellschaft. That dichotomy could explain the failure to gain much of the promised value from such networks.

As any social network – on or offline – scales, there’s a shift from gemeinshaft to gesselschaft, as community size begins to demand the need for governance, rules and specialised roles. This process happens less frequently in reverse, where members seek a return to the days where networks were smaller, purer and characterised by personal relationships. And therein lies the challenge for community managers.

Establishing an ESN

ESNs are typically established in one of two ways: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down networks are conceived and rolled out with senior management support; they typically have strong governance, rules and formal community management from the start – and so exhibit more gesselschaft-type features. This contrasts with the bottom-up approach used by freemium ESN products, where networks can be created by groups of employees themselves, existing as gemeinschaft-type groups before being adopted and scaled by management, where governance, roles and rules are imposed.

The latter approach has – for good reason – fallen out of favour in the digital workplace world, replaced by models which focus on identifying and delivering replicable use cases for social and collaboration. But that’s been at the cost of the strength of group identity and purpose, leading to a failure to realise wider engagement benefits.

Successful social networks outside of the firewall have long since recognised the need to cater for both weak and strong social ties and groupings. Facebook, for example, allows you to restore gemeinshaft by delineating between friends and acquaintances, or by creating your own closed and secret communities which can turn a blind eye to their terms of service.

For global organisations in particular, collaboration and communication tools are fast becoming essential.They enable communication to scale, and for big companies to feel smaller and more personal. But enterprises succeed when they foster and deepen personal, collaborative relationships – albeit ones which operate and speed and scale, across distance, thanks to technology – to create a common sense of identity and purpose. In other words, they thrive when they function as both networks and collections of functioning communities.

A shift in approach

To drive greater value from an ESNs, companies need to take a similar approach to Facebook and create the conditions for more gemeinshaft-type communities to exist, characterised by close social ties and shared purpose, within the wider network.

This approach requires a shift in mindset in the use case approach to ESN rollout. Here are three ways in which standard adoption models could be adapted to allow for more grassroots growth, in order to create groups with stronger social bonds and shared purpose:

1. Find existing strong communities and give them the tools to deepen those bonds

When rolling out any tool, the temptation is to focus on fixing problems in collaboration between existing (dis)functional teams. By shifting this focus to groups who are already working and collaborating successfully and allowing them to build on that success, we can create advocates for the network and identify ways in which it can add value.

This contrasts with one of the stated aims of social within the enterprise – that of ‘breaking down silos’. But such as approach presupposes that silos are entirely bad; in many instances what can be seen as a ‘silo’ is in fact a well-functioning group. The aim should instead be to grow or replicate the success of that group rather than destroying it.

2. Create a beachhead

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoff Moore recommends establishing a small, narrow “beachhead” to scale up from early adopters and “cross the chasm” to the mass market. This beachhead is a small slice of the mass market – a gemeinshaft community. By identifying and taking over this thin edge of the wedge, you establish a basis on which to grow adoption and use.

This approach forms part of the recommended use case-focused ESN rollout plan recommended by many vendors – but taken alone providing ‘cookie cutter’ models of group types, that can be deployed multiple times across the organisation, can add to feelings that the ESN seeks to reduce people to interchangeable resources. The beachhead strategy could reduce those feelings of atomisation.

3. Let communities grow from the bottom up

Finally, there is a need to recognise the value of groups that emerge from a company’s grassroots. These often have stronger group bonds and a clearer sense of purpose than models imposed from the centre. In this qualitative study of one large organisation, employees saw the ESN as a “tool full of possibilities”.

But it’s only when users begin to understand and use a tool or information system that they begin to place it in the context of their own work and understand how they might use it within their own group context – what the researchers called “interpretive flexibility”. That is, for systems to be adopted, people need to begin to use them, interpret them, and finally place them in their own context, tweaking as necessary.

Adoption of Enterprise Social Collaboration, the paper notes, benefits from users finding their own affordances for the tool in the context of their own work and relationships, which helps to build networks effects (what we’d call viral take-up).

Affordances depend not just on what a person perceives they can do with an object or system, but all of their goals, plans, values, beliefs and past experiences (what sociologists called “sociomateriality”). People look at systems or objects and think of their uses in the context of other tools they’re familiar with – in the case of an ESN, they might think about its potential by considering what they do with networks such as LinkedIn, and sites on the external web, but also their experiences with self-service HR systems.

To allow people to understand the possibilities and affordances the ESN provides, we need to give people the space to experiment, and in doing so enable them to understand the potential uses and affordances, and to contextualise them.

This requires taking a different approach to rules and governance – an acceptance, for example, that a grassroots-up community has very different ideas about brand guidelines than those at the corporate centre – but creates the conditions for groups that have a strong sense of purpose and engagement to emerge and thrive.

By taking a different approach to establishing and rolling out an ESN that allows for – and builds upon – the existence of strong social groups and ties, we can allow them to function as both networks and successful communities, enabling our organisations gain greater value from their investment in social tools.

Social media lessons from Ed Balls

April 28, 2015

Today marks four years since Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls accidentally tweeted his own name, and inadvertently became an internet phenomenon.

It was back in 2011 when Balls was shopping for the ingredients for a 14-hour pulled pork recipe in Asda that an aide suggested he search for an article on Twitter which mentioned him. Balls began typing in his name, but a phone call distracted him and he accidentally hit ‘send’, to the delight of the Twittersphere.

Balls didn’t delete the tweet afterwards, apparently because he didn’t know he could. It has since been shared over 37,000 46,000 times. Tweeting Ed Balls became an internet meme – spawning photoshopped pictures, celebrity endorsements, media coverage and even fame on London’s tube network.

In 2013 internet users began marking the anniversary of the tweet’s now-legendary publication, tweeting Ed Balls at 4.20pm GMT. 28th April is now known as Ed Balls Day.

What can we learn from this?

  • Memes and social media backlashes can come from anywhere. While Balls is in the public eye, even private individuals can find a single tweet can make them a target for mockery or even hate. Balls was lucky; most people just found it funny. However, social media mistakes may have serious consequences. Once made, those mistakes are not easy to fix. Be mindful of what you share on social media. This story about comms professional Justine Sacco’s very ill-judged tweet is a salutatory lesson.
  • Tweet in haste, repent at leisure. Ed Balls’ attempts at multi-tasking made him the butt of many jokes. Take a moment to proof your social media posts, particularly if it’s anything important or serious. (That includes checking the links. I once tweeted a link to some underwear I was buying online when I meant to share a news story. #awkward.)
  • The internet never forgets. Balls’ eight-character mishap happened four years ago, but it’s still very visible. Be mindful of your digital footprint. Social media has not only made us more accessible to one another, but also more accountable. Your online presence can be an asset or a liability. Any remark you post in the public domain can be found, mocked, distorted or misinterpreted – even years later.
  • Acknowledging mistakes can earn you (some) respect. Four years on, the offending tweet is still up. And that Balls has accepted and even joined in the (largely good-natured) ribbing has earned him a little respect (alongside the inevitable laughter at Twitter incompetence).

UPDATE, 4.20 GMT: Ed Balls responds from the campaign trail:

Delivering Digital Democracy ≠ delivering better democracy

January 28, 2015

On Monday the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy launched its long-awaited report on how digital can deliver a better functioning and better informed democracy.

Their final report  concluded with five fairly conservative recommendations – which in itself is no bad thing, as they feel both realistic and achievable. Having worked in Parliament, I’m well aware that what feels unambitious on the outside will take a superhuman effort to make a reality in the context of an establishment that’s resistant to any kind of change.

The five targets are:

  1. By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
  4. In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  5. By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in open format.

Four of the five focus on making Parliament more open and accessible – though releasing data and media, more active engagement and communications campaigns, and by inviting greater participation in the legislative process. Simple in theory, but many of the dates proposed are incredibly ambitious by Parliamentary standards. I applaud the Commission for laying down the challenge.

It’s absurd that Erskine May, the guide to the workings of our democracy, is only available as a £300-a-pop dead tree book, and it’s absolutely right that the Commission are finally forcing the issue of opening this up, as well as pushing for open formats and improved searchability for Parliamentary data and debate.

It’s also good to see the report written in such a clear and accessible way – in itself highlighting how arcane Parliamentary language and protocol contributes to disengagement. Laudable efforts are being made by GDS and others to make government more accessible, but the suggestion that Parliament itself has a role to play in actively engaging people with the issues, rather than simply publishing transcripts of debates is a sensible and valuable one.

Critically, the report highlighted the need for Parliament to become more outward-looking, learn from external organisations, and to close feedback loops for those who take the time to engage with debates. The big question now is whether they will be adequately resourced to do this.

Similarly, it’s great to see pressure being put on the Parliamentary establishment to finally make data sources like Hansard available in open data formats. Whether this is achievable by 2016 remains to be seen, but it will certainly focus minds in the Palace of Westminster.

For the media, however, it was recommendation four which caught their interest – that online voting should be made available for the 2020 election. I remain unconvinced by this. Leaving aside the many security issues this raises (well summed-up in Tom Scott’s video here), this seems like a distraction from the real issue of widespread disengagement from the political process. Which is a shame, as the other four very sensible recommendations are likely to get lost in a load of frothing over voter fraud and civic duty.

It’s patronising to suggest that young people don’t vote because they can’t do it on their phones. They don’t vote because they don’t feel they have anything to vote for. Today’s news that Twitter will offer postcode-targeted advertising in time for the UK general election illustrates the point well; thanks to our voting system, the election is decided by a small number of voters in a small number of swing seats, who in turn become targets for intense campaign activity. In the coming election, parties will focus their resources on those.

It’s not simply that young people aren’t engaging with the political process, but also that the political establishment isn’t engaging with them, or with anyone outside those crucial swing voters.

But given the UK said ‘meh to AV’ in the referendum just a couple of years ago, we’re not likely to see voting reform on the agenda anytime soon. Politics is about the art of the possible, and we have to work with what we have.

The proposals set out by the Speaker’s Commission set out pragmatic and sensible steps to open up our democracy so that people understand what politicians and parliament do, have more opportunities for meaningful engagement with the legislative process, and access to information so they can better hold politicians to account. But we can’t sit back and assume this will happen. These are changes that are necessary and long overdue; it’s up to us all to keep up the pressure so these ambitious targets are met.

Nor can we assume that more information about Parliament will fix democracy. That won’t solve the problem of large swathes of the population feeling unenthused by the voting options on offer.

Politics is a participatory sport. It’s incumbent on all of us to get involved – to engage with debates, to vote, to join political parties and help to shape the policy agenda. Because if we leave representative democracy to everyone else, it will never represent us.

On finding solace in sharing

January 12, 2015

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen while travelling around Asia in recent weeks who seem to put more effort into recording and sharing things than actually enjoying them.

Walking around Angkor over Christmas, for example, I was amazed at the number of people who walked around filming the place on the phone rather than looking at it with their eyes. Most baffling of all was a young couple who set up their GoPro to film the sunset – then sat back playing Pokemon on a retro Game Boy rather than experiencing the magnificent sight happening right in front of them.

In my last blog post I wrote about why I tweet, based on George Orwell’s motivations for writing. Chief amongst these was historical impulse, what Orwell described as the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

As I said then, by sharing with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

And yet it was this same impulse to record and make sense which motivated engineer Jordi Mir to post online a video of policeman Ahmed Merabet being murdered on the streets of Paris last week – a move that was criticised by the Merebet family, and which he now bitterly regrets.

Mr Mir told The Associated Press he posted the video out of fear and a “stupid reflex” fostered by years on social media. At first he didn’t know what he was seeing, so he recorded it. And then he didn’t know what to do, or how to make sense of something so inexplicable.

“I had to speak to someone,” Mir said. “I was alone in my flat. I put the video on Facebook. That was my error.”

An error, absolutely, but Mr Mir is hardly alone in being at a loss to explain why he filmed – still less shared – the chilling video.

“There’s no answer,” he said, blaming it on a decade of social networking which has trained him to share whatever he saw.

“I take a photo a cat and I put it on Facebook. It was the same stupid reflex,” he said.

Recording and sharing has simply become a habit – we share to show off (like the Angkor sunset pair), but we also record when we simply don’t know what else to do, or we don’t know how to respond to what we have seen, like Mr Mir’s footage from Paris.

Has the urge to record and share become uncontrollable? Perhaps. In the past decade sharing details of our lives online has grown from niche hobby to hourly habit, reaching epidemic stage in 2014 as overshare was named Chambers Dictionary’s word of the year.

As Keith Porter wrote on the Live Simple blog, we all need to learn to put the phone down and be present – to soak up the atmosphere and truly experience what’s happening right in front of us. It’s easy to criticise something as patently ludicrous as going to a concert and experiencing it through a screen, or filming a sunset rather than looking at it.

But while many have lined up to condemn Jordi Mir for sharing a video of the brutal murder, his response is more comprehensible. When reality is simply too awful to look at or understand, sharing it can help us to seek reassurance, or help, or simply to process what is happening. When sharing is a habit that we use to make sense of the world, the urge to do so in the darkest of times is completely understandable.

Why I Tweet

July 27, 2014

Last week I spoke about 300 Seconds at #digitalcswomen, a workshop introducing women from the Senior Civil Service to social media. Organised by Sarah Baskerville – best known as tweeting civil servant Baskers – it opened with an introduction from Emer Coleman on the many benefits social media has bought her in her career. Chief amongst these was the ability to build a network which you can then use to find answers, and to learn from.

Twitter, and social media in general, remarked Emer, exists because of sharing – people sharing their thoughts and ideas, but also sharing their knowledge. Adding contributions to the debate, but more importantly by passing on tidbits they’ve found along the way that may be of value to others.

Later in the event, we broke up into small groups to talk about getting started on social. Someone asked me why I tweet. I replied that it’s because I find the network I have built on Twitter really valuable to me, but the question’s gone round my head all week since. I’ve been on Twitter around six years (under my current persona for five), and have sent over 25,000 tweets in that time. But I’ve never really sat back and reflected on why I’ve done that.

Book cover

Back home, I flicked through my old copy of George Orwell’s essay on his journey to becoming a writer, Why I Write.

Like Orwell, at an early age I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Unlike Orwell, I soon disbursed myself of this notion when I realised I’m not a particularly good writer. (As it happens, I married one and live the life of a journalist vicariously through him instead.)

Orwell listed four great motives for writing – which, to my mind, could equally apply to tweeting. All of us who tweet are motivated by a balance of these four drivers, together with the desire to share that comes with media being social.

Sheer egotism

Orwell argues that a writer writes from a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”

Social media has opened up the prospect of being talked about  to anyone. Like most social media users, I am narcissistically self-aware of my online presence, carefully curating my tweets to show my ‘best self’ – me at my most interesting, clever and attractive (and not, as I am as I write this, nursing a mild hangover, still wearing some mis-matched pyjamas at lunchtime).

Aesthetic enthusiasm

“Perception of beauty in the external world,” as Orwell put it, adding that the writer takes pleasure in good prose itself. It’s true that I get a kick out of creating the perfect 140-character bon mot, generating a handful of retweets and emoji-heavy replies. But Twitter enables me to capture and share the ordinary, everyday beauty of the world around me. A rainbow after a storm. The sunset over the Thames on a summer’s evening. Faces in places.

Social media awakens the aesthete in us all, allowing us to capture and share beauty where we see it.

Historial impulse

The “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

This is probably my most regular motive for tweeting. The recording of things as they happen. By sharing them with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

Political purpose

Writers write out of a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”. No book, notes Orwell, is genuinely free from political bias. Every tweet, I’d suggest, is political too. Every comment, every link we share, is a contribution to public discourse – an attempt to bring people round to our way of thinking.

In that respect, no tweet is an island. One tweet won’t change the world, but taken en masse, the volume and sentiment of what’s said and shared on our networks shapes public debate. This can be seen right now with the parallel social media war taking place alongside the conflict in Gaza. Both sides have their official propaganda, but social media allow us to see deeply inside the war zone, and the steady drip-drip of stories and images has led to a notable shift in public opinion. Stories become more real when shared in real-time by people we know and trust.

Israel/Palestine is a topic on which strong opinions are held – for many, views shaped by their own family and friends’ experiences of oppression, racism and diaspora.The writer’s subject matter, noted Orwell “will be determined by the age he lives in, but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape”.

Our tweets are shaped by our pre-existing opinions and beliefs, however much we might believe we are impartial. So, too,  are our networks – we each build filter bubbles around ourselves, which can mean social media reflects our own views back at us rather than opening us up to a wider spectrum of views.

For Orwell, the Spanish Civil War marked a turning point, from which he wrote in support of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism. “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias”, he added, “the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity”.

Tweeting is political with a small p. So it’s important we recognise the limitations of our own bias, and that of our networks, and actively look beyond them so we can see the world as it really is.

Reciprocal generosity

However, when Orwell wrote (and when he wrote Why I Write), writing and journalism were one-way processes, with prose crafted by writers and read by the masses. As a truly networked medium, social creates a fifth significant motivation for writing; the culture of sharing itself. I tweet because I want to share my knowledge, and in turn have others share theirs with me.

Building a network requires us to be generous with our knowledge – sharing our own ideas, but more importantly sharing links to things that we find interesting, in the expectations that others might find them of value too. In doing so, you position yourself as a valuable source of information on the areas you care about (in my case, intranets, digital comms, and the current status of the train service into Waterloo).

Once you’ve built a network of people you trust, you can draw on it. Social media is my go-to for answers on everything from digital best practice to how to upholster a chair.

Knowledge is power, and knowledge is more powerful when shared.

Concluding, Orwell said that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”. He has a point. I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

Intranets need to be a bit more fabulous

May 12, 2014

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Beauty Project, a celebration of all things beautiful at London’s Selfridges department store. There I listened to beauty columnist Sali Hughes talk to a panel of women about their experiences of – and different attitudes to – beauty.

While many deride the beauty industry as frivolous and superficial, for others make-up instills chameleon-like superpowers, giving them the confidence to go into any new context knowing they look the part.

As I returned to work the next day, it struck me what a depressingly under-appreciated quality beauty is in online experiences, and particularly in intranets. And how because we don’t apply make-up to our standard intranet faces, they suffer the fate of appearing unglamorous, dowdy and frequently unloved.

For a couple of years now I’ve been collecting intranet screenshots in a Pinterest board – over 230 so far. There are some great examples, but a lot of bad ones too.

It got me thinking: wouldn’t intranets be better if, like this weekend’s Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, they were just a little bit more fabulous?

Ugly sister

Intranets have historically been the poor cousin of the organisation’s website. They’re utilitarian things. Intranets often began life as a little side project, put together by someone in IT, built using clunky old tools. They served a purpose, but they didn’t do it very elegantly.  That purpose was usually communication, resulting in dense, ugly pages of text.

If you were really lucky, you’d get some icons. But these early intranets were no fun – they were serious stuff, and they had the rugged bad looks to show for it. These early intranets were managed, painfully, using tools like FrontPage and LotusNotes.

Early intranets were no lookers

Creating and managing intranets became easier with the widespread adoption of content management systems. Unfortunately, this often meant Sharepoint. Sharepoint is packed with functionality, but left a lot to be desired when it came to visual design. At the same time, few organisations gave much thought to the need for strong graphic design on an intranet. After all, it’s not like you’ll look anywhere else, is it? (Remember, at this time many organisations still routinely blocked web access for staff).

Over time, intranets got a little better, with text communications giving way to other content. Early attempts were made to try and engage users with more than just text, with the use of banners.

As intranets evolved, they began to provide a route through to key services, like HR, IT or room booking.  Problem was, these services were often designed by HR or IT people who didn’t give a great deal of thought to user experience, still less to visual design.

Text-heavy and dull, but early attempts were made to use imagery

Now intranets aren’t on the web, but they are of the web. And as websites became clearer and more engaging, so too – eventually – did intranets. Slowly.

Intranets began to be aligned more closely with an organisation’s brand, using more imagery, bolder fonts, and embracing the use of white space rather than trying to pack every available pixel with more internal communications.

Cinderella moment

But no intranet manager can escape the march of progress. In the first decade of this century, Apple emerged from its doldrums to become one of the dominant forces in technology. And it did this through making products that didn’t just do more, but also looked better than their rivals.

Functional and beautiful became the order of the day. And people loved it. The web stopped being a nerd’s hobby and became a way of life for almost everyone.

In just a few short years, we had a revolution in our hands. Almost all of us now has more powerful technology in our pockets than we do on our desktops. The consumerisation of IT made us all more demanding – we wanted better functionality, faster pages, but we demanded better visual design too. The ugly web just wasn’t good enough anymore.

Intranets have responded to the changing demands of their users with intranets that offer utility as well as communication, in a form that approaches some of the cutting-edge cross-platform design we see on the wider web. This means offering communication and services that don’t just work, but also engage.

Intranets have begun to learn from the best of website design

Embracing the power of imagery

Once freed from the shackles of slow connection speeds, the web has quickly become more visual as brands began to recognise the power of imagery.

We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and because of that  images have become the currency of social media. They can instantly inform, intrigue, inspire, delight or capture the imagination of those that engage with them.

That’s because they affect us in two ways: cognitively, they expedite and increase our level of comprehension, recollection and recognition. But they also work emotionally, enhancing or affecting an emotional response.

And they do that in the blink of an eye. Following the lead of websites and social media, more intranets are making the most of visual assets to inform and engage, and tell their brand story.

Reaping the rewards 

And that’s because there are strong business drivers to do so. Organisations have long realised the impact an ugly office has on morale and productivity. Studies have shown that a well designed work environment improves productivity by anything up to 50%, increases job satisfaction by 24%.

Organisations invest time and money in making their offices look good, even if they’re not client-facing, because they know it makes business sense. But as the digital workplace becomes the place where we got to get work done, it follows that the same is true in our online environments too.

If the primary place that you do your work is online, then making that digital workplace one that people want to work in will have huge benefits in productivity and engagement.

As more of us work flexibly supported by a digital workplace, then the intranet becomes the primary way that we experience and understand our employer brand.

By connecting employees with the organisation’s brand and vision using both content and design, good-looking intranets create more engaged employees. Better looking intranets can have a big impact on their business outcomes.

The times, they are a-changin’

It’s encouraging, then to see intranets finally embracing the power of beauty. This year’s My Beautiful Intranet competition, the Digital Workplace Group’s annual intranet beauty parade,  is already seeing a steady stream of entries – and they’re a million miles away from the out-of-the-box ugliness that’s plagued the industry for two long.

Dense blocks of text, tiny images and 1990s styling has been replaced with big, blod and on-brand design on par with some of the best web sites around.

The competition is still open for entries – take a look, vote for your favourites or submit your own. I’m on the judging panel this year, and am looking forward to seeing more.

Is there more to life than being really, ridiculously good looking?

Of course a great intranet can’t just be about form over function. But by combining form and function, pairing great functionality with an interface that functions well and looks good, we create intranets that have a huge impact on engagement and productivity – and are really loved by our users.


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