Through several rounds of research on intranet portals, we've repeatedly reached the same conclusions:
When Intranet information architectures are structured according to the org chart, employees have a hard time finding their way around. It's better to structure information according to how people use it, rather than what department owns it.
Role-based personalization lets portals bring information to users in centralized views, rather than forcing users to navigate an immense information space to find individual (and dispersed) locations.
Social features on intranets take these two trends a step further, creating a "person-structured" intranet IA focused around the individual users as well as other people on the intranet.
Ready or Not, Here Comes Enterprise 2.0
As people embrace social media in their private lives, they naturally expect to use similar tools within the enterprise. This is especially true for younger workers who use these tools in everyday life. Open communication, collaboration, and content generation are as much a part of their standard toolkit as using a computer or mobile phone.
So, how should companies deal with the increasing expectation that Web 2.0 will drive Enterprise 2.0?
Taking the slow road means that companies will risk losing workers who expect innovation in the outside world to reflect directly on how they communicate at work.
Going for quick adoption means that companies must find ways to overcome the risks to corporate culture that adopting these tools can entail.
If your organization is still unsure about what to do with these emerging technologies and how to adapt them to suit its culture, you're in good company. A main finding from our study's interviews is that most companies are not very far along in a wholesale adoption of Web 2.0 technologies — unless "thinking about social software" is considered progress. The oft-repeated refrain from interviewees was "talk to us next year."
But for organizations that have taken the plunge, a few things are already clear. Social software is not a trend that can be ignored. It's affecting fundamental change in how people expect to communicate, both with each other and the companies they do business with. And companies can't just draw a line in the sand and say it's okay for employees to use Web 2.0 to communicate with customers, but it's not okay to use it when communicating with each other.
Given the current economic situation, companies are struggling on many fronts; rushing to add "tools that teenagers use" to the company intranet might not be a high priority.
That could explain why, in our studies, successful social media initiatives at many companies emerged from underground, grassroots efforts . This might be surprising, as companies often keep a tight rein on technology initiatives and force all employees into a standard desktop build, right down to a mandated version of the Web browser. Underground adoption of off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools seems a little out of character, but users are more likely than executives to see the tools' value and translate that value to an internal use.
To find out how to best employ social features on intranets, we took our usual approach: eschew the hype about what's hot and instead look for what works in real life.
For this project, we collected case studies from 14 companies in 6 countries:
Agilent Technologies, Inc.
American Electric Power (AEP)
Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, L.L.C.
Officenet Staples Argentina
Portugal Telecom — Sistemas de Informação
Philips Healthcare (a division of Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V.)
The Rubicon Project
Sprint Nextel Corporation
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Telecom New Zealand Limited
We supplemented these case studies with information from several companies that prefer to remain anonymous.
Perhaps more than any other corporate intranet innovation, social software technologies are exposing the holes in corporate communication and collaboration — and at times filling them before the (usually slow-moving) enterprise can fully grasp (and control) the flow.
Here are some things that might surprise you about the social media initiatives we studied:
Underground efforts yield big results. Companies are turning a blind eye to underground social software efforts until they prove their worth, and then sanctioning them within the enterprise.
Frontline workers are driving the vision. Often, senior managers aren't open to the possibilities for enterprise 2.0 innovation because they're not actively using these tools outside of work. Indeed, many senior managers still consider such tools as something their kids do. One of the dirty secrets of enterprise 2.0 is that you don't have to teach or convince younger workers to use these tools; they expect them and integrate them as easily into their work lives as they do in their personal lives.
Communities are self-policing. When left to their own devices, communities police themselves, leaving very little need for tight organizational control. And such peer-to-peer policing is often more effective than a big brother approach. Companies that we studied said abuse was rare in their communities.
Business need is the big driver. Although our report discusses specific tools (blogs, wikis, and such), enterprise 2.0's power is not about tools, it's about the communication shift that those tools enable.
Organizations must cede power. Using Web 2.0 technologies to communicate with customers has taught many companies that they can no longer control the message. This also rings true when using Web 2.0 tools for internal communication. Companies that once held to a command-and-control paradigm for corporate messaging are finding it hard to maintain that stance.
It's Not Just About Tools, But Tools Do Matter
People instinctively latch onto specifics to illustrate broad concepts. With Web 2.0, the specifics are the tools. When someone says "Web 2.0," they often immediately follow the term with words like blog, wiki, or tagging, or even brands like Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, or YouTube. But in truth, social software isn't really about the tools. It's about what the tools let users do and the business problems the tools address.
A uniform finding across all of our case studies is that organizations are successful with social media and collaboration technologies only when the tools are designed to solve an identified business need. Different companies have different priorities and use different forms of internal communication; not every company needs every tool. Although picking the tool to support the need sounds obvious, it runs contrary to the technology fetishism that characterizes much talk about the latest Internet fads.
So, rather than saying: "X is hot on the Web, let's get it on the intranet," say: "We need to accomplish Y; can X help us?"
Once you take this perspective, then the tools obviously follow and must be integrated appropriately within your overall intranet user experience. Thus, in actual projects, teams focus on tweaking tools and building connections among them. An old lesson that holds true with social software is that a bunch of stand-alone tools will provide a disconnected user experience, causing employees to waste inordinate amounts of time moving between environments. For more than a decade, we've talked about the need for a unified intranet user experience, consistent design, and features organized around humans rather than technology. All still true.
Gently Guiding Users, Integrating Social Features
While some users will eagerly adopt community features for their own sake, others will be skeptical and need guidance. One successful approach is to avoid advertising the new tools as new tools. Instead, simply integrate them into the existing intranet, so that users encounter them naturally.
You can, for example, turn an existing bookmarking (or "quick links") feature into a socially shared bookmarking feature without great fanfare. Or, instead of using the scary term "RSS" — which we know confuses many people — gently transform an existing news listing into a news feed with appropriate editing features that users can gradually discover. It's important to pre-populate such feeds with relevant information; if you offer users a blank screen to customize, they'll often experience the social-media equivalent of writer's block. Luckily, designing social media for an intranet gives you a major leg up on similarly tasked Internet designers: You know enough about employees and their work to pre-select stuff that they'll likely find interesting.
It's important to integrate social features with the main intranet to avoid burdening users with double work. Don't, for example, force users to update their profile or photo in both the traditional employee directory and a Facebook-like social connection tool.
That said, several of our case studies successfully implemented a staged approach, initially separating social features from the main intranet because of their different design and feel. Eventually, these features should be integrated, ideally as part of a bigger project to redesign the entire portal.
It's also important to budget something for community management — not to control the conversation, but rather to guide it. Designated community managers should serve as facilitators and moderators. They can also reignite slow areas. Ultimately, by keeping a finger on the pulse, a community manager will also know when it's time to pull the plug on something instead of flogging it beyond its time.
Integration is not just a technical matter, but also an organizational issue. For example, if a conclusion gels within a discussion forum, it then needs to move from talk to action. It's not enough to build knowledge; you need a feedback loop to bring lessons back to sales, marketing, and other groups responsible for getting things done. Capturing trends can be as simple as a short report to key stakeholders, but feedback loops should be somebody's explicit job assignment or they may not happen.
As with the open Internet, there's substantial participation inequality in enterprise communities: some employees participate a lot, while others mainly lurk. It's therefore important to value a community based on a combination of posting and use, because those who lurk also benefit. Your Enterprise 2.0 initiative should be credited with the value these employees contribute to the company based on their increased knowledge and understanding.
In some cases, even a few active contributors can add substantial value to the rest of the organization. In our case studies, this was often the case for tagging or rating systems, which considerably improved the quality of results prioritization for the notoriously ailing intranet search. Traditional methods for relevancy scoring on the Web don't work as well on the smaller scale of most intranets: for example, counting links works only if you're doing so across a huge base of links. But, even if only a few employees tag a page with a given keyword, it's likely that the page will produce a good search result for that query in your organization's context.
In previous intranet usability studies, we've found that it's essential to provide a single, unified search across all intranet resources. This finding was replicated for social intranet features: they should be searched as part of the overall intranet search rather than having individual siloed search engines for each social tool. Depending on the implementation, the need for integrated search can be a strong argument against outsourced or hosted social software, because many SaaS services don't support federated search.
For almost all Enterprise 2.0 tools, content is king. The tool itself is nothing; the value comes from the strength of its content. An empty wiki can be a lonely place and also a hard sell to users. But when users encounter an environment seeded with content that they can build upon, they'll quickly realize a tool's value.
Besides seeding social tools with early content, you should also make it easy for users to import content from existing knowledge repositories and PC applications.
A Tad of Training
In general, you should design social tools that employees can easily use without special training. In addition to following usability guidelines, you can achieve this goal by emulating popular designs on the open Internet. For example, your rating scales might as well follow the five-star system known from Amazon and Netflix.
At the same time, you can't assume that all employees will be familiar with social networking services. For some people, introducing such tools on the intranet will be their first exposure to this class of user interfaces. While Twitter is famous among people who care about such things, for example, it still has less than a hundred million users — which is nothing compared to the 1.6 billion people on the Internet. Thus, if you introduce Yammer, it's not enough to say that it's "Twitter for the Enterprise." Explaining it as "microblogging" will be even less helpful for many employees, especially older ones. You'll need simplified training materials to help the uninitiated understand how to use these services.
The question is not so much how to manipulate the user interface (assuming that it's designed according to usability principles). The main training issue is how to derive business value from the new tools. Also, even people who use social tools heavily on the Web can benefit from training on the appropriate code of conduct for corporate use.
Widespread use of internal social media breaks down communication barriers. That sounds good, but it can threaten people accustomed to having a monopoly on information and communication. Ironically, corporate communications departments sometimes resist the move to broader communication. They're better served, however, in finding ways to increase the value of new media rather than in trying to suppress it.
Corporate communications must adapt to social media's real-time culture and become much more proactive than in the past. Procedures that required days or weeks for approvals need dramatic streamlining, or the story will run away on its own. Yet again, business and organizational change is what it's about, not just the "2.0" tools themselves.
Before implementing intranet collaboration tools, you must consider company culture. If people are strongly committed to the "knowledge is power" tenet and don't want to share, then sharing technologies will obviously fail.
It can be unnerving for traditionalist executives to see employees freely discussing company strategies. But loosening control of information on the intranet is a way to control a much bigger risk: that employees will spill the beans on Internet-wide social media. When people have internal media at their disposal, they'll post their questions and comments there, as opposed to going outside.
As it grows, user-generated intranet content can help employees address many of their questions. However, a role also remains for "official" content to state official policies and positions. You shouldn't segregate these 2 types of content — the guideline to provide a single federated intranet search, for example, remains more relevant than ever. But your design should reflect the different status of different types of content, with official information labeled as such, and potentially color-coded as well, for easy scannability of SERPs (search engine results pages) and other lists.
Like a clogged gutter, the Internet overflows with inappropriate postings. Do you want such junk on your intranet? Even Internet postings that aren't actively offensive are often banal me-too utterances that waste people's valuable time. When that time is your employees' work time, your first impulse might be to close down communication to guard against the junk. Luckily, junk postings didn't seem to be an issue in the companies we studied.
The big difference between the open Internet and enterprise social networking is that people use the company features for work (or at least to communicate with work colleagues) and therefore retain their professional work identity. This keeps a lid on profanities and encourages constructive contributions. In fact, banning anonymity is one of the first governance steps that all organizations should take when implementing social networking. (The one company in our research that initially allowed anonymous postings quickly reversed this policy.) Aside from this, most of our case studies had a fairly light governance touch.
Things Take Time
... particularly on an enterprise level. Most of the people we interviewed during our initial research said, "come back next year" if we wanted a case study of their company's use of social features. It's easier on the Web where the proverbial two guys in a garage can seemingly create and launch a hugely successful site in an instant. Of course, we never hear about all the people who try this and fail to get any traction. In the enterprise, it's a bad idea to throw features at the wall "to see what sticks" because the spaghetti that fails and falls disrupts employee productivity.
When you consider that successful adaptation of Enterprise 2.0 tools requires the organization to change its ways, it becomes clear why these projects don't happen overnight. Yes, pilot implementations can go live in a matter of days, but the political and cultural changes needed for useful and widespread use take longer.
Although there's no single answer, across our case studies, 3–5 years seems to be a common timeline for social intranet projects. This is a good time to remind you of the French general: when told that it would take a hundred years for newly planted trees to grow big, he said, "better get started now."
The full report from this research project on Intranet Social Features is available for download. (This link points to an updated version of the report, based on additional research conducted after this article was written.)