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Five Core Tenets of the Social Intranet: Bringing Together People and Process in Context

August 19, 2011
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There’s been no shortage of people saying that social computing represents the next wave of the corporate intranet, the latter being a piece of technology that’s been perpetually disappointing. For a place that’s supposed to be the starting point of people’s day, it has never lived up to that expectation.

The first wave of intranets were static, imposing too much friction for end-users who wanted to post new information. People had to wait for their IT department to hack HTML code and update the page. Then came the second generation of intranets — the self-service variety — that brought more functional use, but ultimately the most time you spent there was during your first and last week working at the company. They also lacked a critical element: People. Who does what? And who can help me get my job done better?

So naturally, enterprise social computing came to save the day and deliver that critical people element, right?

Well, yes, but that isn’t the most complicated part of the equation.

The new intranet will be heterogeneous environment of systems across a whole company — and the challenges of actionable integration points and relevancy will far outweigh the people part of the equation. What the social intranet won’t be is a homogeneous, monolithic software stack that only incorporates people and systems based on one vendor’s view of the world. As a new generation of CIOs take the ranks, they’re realizing such a strategy for their corporate intranet isn’t “good enough” at all.

1. Ensuring Relevancy and Context

In the social intranet, everything in it — from content to people to data from systems of record — must be tied to a particular subject or top-level architectural construction. The purposes of this will be two-fold: One is obviously to increase the chances that people find what they’re looking for. But more importantly, it gives them a mechanism to filter this information as it comes to them in real-time.

This also helps with discovery.

Depending on the maturity of your intranet, your people have different ways of finding information. If it’s old, they’ll search the static HTML pages and experience difficulty finding the information they need. If it’s slightly newer, their searches might yield better informational results, but they’ll lack context since the information is devoid of who or what generated it. Consequently, the careful use and management of top level social architecture Subjects will be key.

With regards to relevancy, speed matters, too. Information become stale quickly in early generation intranets because it required IT’s help to update. The social intranet puts publishing tools right at employees’ fingertips, and gives them the power to update and change information on the fly.

2. Agnostic Architecture

It’s tempting to think you can have one company provide everything in your intranet, but the reality is you need a stack that’s technology agnostic. Otherwise, you’re going to have to mold every single piece of integration to that vendor’s way of doing things. Open web standards and RESTful APIs are key in this endeavor, but they alone won’t work. A strong integration framework that incorporate custom business process will be essential as well.

Even in the year 2011, there’s many pushing for a “their way or the highway” mentality, and that will stifle the success of the social intranet. By insisting on one particular development framework, or pushing the religion of cloud only versus on-premises and ignoring all the nuances in between the two, it makes it hard for companies to think holistically about how they piece together the relevant data and systems they need to make their intranet a successful work tool.

The social intranet shouldn’t care where your data lives; it should aim to provide your employees with a secure location to access relevant data and people in context of where their work is getting done.

3. A strong administrator

No, it’s not a community manager because you’re managing more than just people. This administrator will focus on corporate intelligence – the ability to apply social analytics and business intelligence within the confines of your social intranet to understand key trends, content, and conversations happening around your company.

They will also do some lightweight information management. This will offend the sensibilities of social purists – who think the crowd alone aided by search can manage data – but they can’t.

For example, you want to empower end-users to create their own Subjects inside your intranet, but sometimes, they’ll categorize something in the wrong area, which will much up filters and search results inside your intranet. Thus, the administrator should be able to move things around your intranet and categorize people and data with a simple drag-and-drop. Ideally, this person’s overall organizational and business process knowledge will be a more applicable skill than the hacking of any code.

4. Business Process Execution (The Feed Isn’t Enough)

Simply pulling in events via a REST API or integrating via OpenSocial won’t be enough to make your intranet a place that people rely on to get their work done. If they can’t execute business processes from right within the intranet, and instead have to toggle away to the application in question, then their motivation to live in your intranet will wane quickly. That’s not true integration with enterprise social computing tools.

True integration with the social intranet must be bi-directional. If my company’s Oracle Expenses system sends an expense report into my activity stream, I should be able to view and approve it right there. If I want to upload a document to my document management system, I should be able to pull it from my computer, write a message in my social platform that puts it in context, and post it to both the intranet and the document management system.

5. Shifting from Asynchronous to Live Communication

The social intranet needs to let me shift from asynchronous communications to live ones more easily than what we see today. Though video and web conferencing have been around for years now, it requires so much effort (calendar invites, pass codes, etc.), and is managed outside the corporate intranet (mainly in e-mail). Worse, by the time those meetings finally take place, the collaborative conversation that generated them has gone cold, contest is lost, and the ideas seem more dull.

If I’m having a great conversation with a few of my product and marketing colleagues inside my corporate intranet via a microblogging post, I should be able to quickly chat live with them with as little friction as possible.

These are just five that I came up with. As always, I’ll be talking more with tibbr customers and my friends in the social computing community to think of more. In the meantime, I’d welcome feedback/thoughts.

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