The (anti) social intranet at #ukgc12

Social intranet session

While UKGovCamp overwhelmingly focuses on how we use digital to engage with the public and improve public services, I firmly believe that to make that happen we also have to make public authorities themselves work better. So I was keen to have a session on intranets.

Fortunately, so was Stuart Murdoch of Surevine. It turned out to be a popular topic – so much so that we had to get a much bigger room. Stuart’s take on things was rather different from mine; he’s introduced social intranets at many organisations, and is a firm believer in social to make a better digital workplace.

Whereas I’m more critical of social for social’s sake, and feel the real value for intranets over the next 3-5 years is in transactional, making the intranet deliver real business value and helping people to do their jobs better. So this made for quite a lively debate, and we all had plenty to say.

Stuart contends that people are the most important part of intranets. I’d agree that the focus is fast moving away from documents and policies; content is no longer king, and the intranet is no longer simply a vast repository of HR documentation. Nor, the group felt, was the primary role of the intranet to push information at people.

A couple of people talked about the value of building a community around information. It’s one thing publishing hundreds of pages of HR policies, but barely anyone will be bothered to look for them. The social intranet could enable people to ask questions, and get answers from internal experts, who can then signpost them to information or resources they need.

One person suggested that “social can help you find the people in your organisation who can help you do your project”.

However, this is based on a simple fallacy; that these people want to be found. In almost all cases, in large organisations people are heavily silo-ed. An individual’s objectives relate entirely to the team or department they work in. Their performance will be measured on this, and in many companies (particularly in financial services) individuals will get financial rewards based on the value they deliver to their own team and projects – not anyone else’s.

If you work in Group Risk and someone rings you up out of the blue, having spotted that you speak Russian in the company expertise finder, you have no particular incentive to drop what you’re doing and help, do you?

Next we moved on to the question of what the intranet is and who it’s for. This isn’t as straightforward as it once was. Local authority intranets, for example, deliver content to council employees. But as departments are being merged into cross-borough shared services, and private firms and voluntary sector firms take on the role of service delivery, the simple question of who is the audience for an intranet isn’t at all clear-cut.

In such a diverse landscape, the one-size-fits-all intranet is no longer sufficient. Dan Harrison suggested we move beyond the idea of the intranet; the internet includes millions of sites, so why should the workplace web have only one? The answer is the heterogenous intranet, comprised of a variety of sites and services that meet the diverse needs of users.

Another participant gave the example of the RAF, which has different levels of intra- and extranet sites with different groups given access to each according to user need, blurring the boundaries between internal and external sites.

On the Twitter backchannel, Alex Manchester suggested the city as a metaphor for the digital workplace, with different suburbs and neighbourhoods that people visit for different reasons. Think of the corporate front page news as Piccadilly Circus, collaboration as Shoreditch, and the HR policy pages as Pinner.

We moved on to the question of how you encourage people to participate in social intranets. Most were, like me, pretty cynical about gamification, asking what value it delivers for either the individual or the organisation.

A few participants noted bottom-up, grassroots solutions often had more traction than corporately imposed ones. One example given was where a Yammer pilot was replaced with a corporate (Sharepoint) tool that quickly fell flat.

But bottom-up solutions often exist for a reason; where people find the tools they’re given at work aren’t up to the job, they’ll find their own – whether that’s using their Gmail due to tiny inbox sizes, or starting a Yammer network to collaborate on a project.

The key difference with grassroots solutions and small-scale pilots is that they are allowed to quietly fail. This process of trial and error enables people to find the right solutions that marry technology to organisational culture – a process that a big Sharepoint project is rarely able to go through.

A big variable here is organisational demographics; different solutions are needed for organisations full of knowledge workers and those with a high proportion of workers out on the coalface. But for both types (and all those in-between), the question of whether social functionality is what people actually want or need should really be asked before top-solutions are imposed.

Social is not an outcome. Making the organisation work better should be the desired outcome (measured in money saved, projects completed more quickly, enquiries dealt with, etc.). Social functionality can be part of the solution, but should fit alongside redesign of processes to make the intranet deliver real business value and efficiency.

5 thoughts on “The (anti) social intranet at #ukgc12

    • Thanks, James. I thought I’d best get out quickly, or it’d languish in the draft folder forever. No time like the present and all that.

  1. (Disclosure – I run Yammer’s Customer Success team for EMEA). Great view, and sorry we couldn’t be at the session yesterday to discuss further (we’re here on Saturday though!). I really like your point that ‘social is not an outcome’ and this is something we work closely with our customers to achieve. To add to your points, we see active sponsorship and participation from someone at or near the top of the organisation also being key, having a clear purpose that’s something other than “isn’t social media awesome” , linked to business objectives, as well as having moderation of the network and engagement with the people in the organisation to help get those objectives realised further. There’s some blog posts on adoption at , if this helps!

    • Mike – absolutely. Social media being heaped upon an organisation for its own sake is destined for failure. It needs to help people to do their jobs more easily, and be linked to business objectives.

      Like any new intranet functionality, time spent talking to potential users about what they actually want and need is time well spent.

  2. Pingback: Surevine : blog

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