Social Intranets: Evolution or Revolution?

There has been a lot of talk about the use of social media in corporate intranets lately. As more organisations implement social technologies to improve their internal communications and enhance engagement, we set out to explore the pros and cons of this movement.

Intranets are private organisational networks that support part of the IT infrastructure as well as internal communication and collaboration and are, more often than not, protected from unauthorised external access. Intranets have gone through many evolutional stages. They started as simple web pages with contact details, moved on to corporate bulletin boards with online access to employee directories and evolved to portals with advanced search facilities, internal email systems, personnel information and HR access.

Social intranets are all of the above but are additionally equipped with social media capabilities. These include blogs, wikis, micro-blogging facilities, RSS feeds, instant messaging, discussion forums, tagging and social networks. User profiles can be created and there is the opportunity for customisation by choosing the channels of inactive (reading) or active (content generation) participation for each employee, depending on their role and level of desired engagement.

Organisations are unsure about the implications and sceptical about the new trend.  Traditionally-run companies wish to improve employee engagement and participation but see social media adoption as relinquishing control. Some organisations with a “conventional” intranet run a social platform on the side that aims to socially engage employees and facilitate collaboration. Innovation enthusiasts see social intranets as the way forward and want to unify company intranets and social platforms but struggle to match existing business problems to the correct social tool that might solve them.

So, is a social intranet the right decision for your company? And what are the implications and the financial risks involved? 

Distributed organisations with crucial interdepartmental functions and often problematic communication that leads to overlapping and duplication of work are the best candidates. In relation to the cost, there is no need to start from scratch. Most adopters create a lightweight layer between their existing intranet and their new social hub. Partial solutions are also popular and intranet portals are re-designed introducing some social media capabilities into the mix.

When it comes to examples the available case studies that highlight advantages and disadvantages are mostly sector-related and the arguments provided are tightly linked to organisational specifics. Sorting through these cases for generic points we have arrived at the following list of benefits and challenges.

Benefits: The advantages mentioned by the companies who have adopted (or are thinking about adopting) social intranets can be grouped into the following six categories.

1.    Employee engagement. This is the main objective most companies quote for adopting social intranets. Engagement goes hand-in hand with employee empowerment and improved participation.

2.    Communication. From contact lists and events calendar to news space and personalised communication facilities, social intranets improve communications and enhance customer relations.

3.    Collaboration. Community building is supported and customised solutions encouraged. Success stories in collaborative content generation however require a shift of culture and are often slow during the first year of adoption.

4.    Knowledge capture. Social intranets improve knowledge capture and promote knowledge flows much more effectively than the traditional information storage. Personalised workspaces inform specific needs and customise social aspects.

5.    Collective learning and training. Employee training is supported and training resources shared. Training material can be showcased and courses can be fully managed. Topic forums and wikis can further support learning.

6.    Innovation. From quick polls, toolboxes and widgets to full-fledged application building facilities, social intranets foster novelty and innovation.

Challenges: Social intranets’ shortcomings are linked to issues associated with resources (company or employee-related), requirements and the company culture. The following issues highlight the main challenges:

1.    Technical issues. These are linked to connectivity, infrastructure and the existing intranet.

2.    Knowledge management. Social intranets do not solve problems overnight. Know-who, know-how, know-where need to be captured and stored before being retrieved.

3.    Company culture. Even when the advantages are made clear there may be unwillingness to engage and/or share knowledge. Time constraints are a subcategory here and maybe an issue to address.

4.    Social tool selection. Social software does not begin and end with customised user profiles and collaborative authoring facilities. Requirement-based choice which is founded on a wider expertise in social media is important.

5.    Training. Inadequate instruction and lack of level-specific training might create problems and hinder adoption.

6.    Policing, etiquette and good practice are also issues to think about.

A few, if not all, of the above challenges can be addressed by a good intranet strategy. Just like with conventional intranets, the strategy is crucial and can be summarised as knowing the target audience, setting the core objectives, addressing issues of governance and deciding about deliverables and performance measurements. All in all, more and more companies find that the advantages of adopting a social intranet outweigh the challenges and that connecting people, content and capabilities is the way forward.


Fefie Dotsika, Senior Lecturer in Business Information Management, Westminster Business School



Social Intranets: Evolution or Revolution?
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