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Is being social a bad thing

Embracing the social features that intranets have to offer is not an easy sell in many organizations. When asked, most of our clients rate user adoption as one of the top priorities for the success of their intranet. However, the mention of using social features to help achieve a successful intranet is often met with caution and hesitation.

Perhaps the term "social" is not the best word to use. Instead of asking "Would you like social features on your intranet?", we can ask "How important is it for employees to connect with peers and mentors?", or "Would you like to leverage feedback from end-users to improve the content on your intranet?"

At the Social Intranet Summit in Vancouver this year, there was a great presentation by Deane Barker called "Overcoming the Fear: What C-Level execs are afraid of when it comes to social intranets".

Aside from the great content, he presented an interesting technique for facilitating this feedback and uncovering what executives are really afraid of. Using a fictional character (Julie, an HR manager at BigCorp), he created profile updates which included planned trigger points around three things:

  1. Non-work related information ("Heading out for the weekend!")
  2. Personal opinions ("Not a fan of this Congress at all. We should throw them out!")
  3. Information critical to the employer ("Had a great sales meeting this morning. This year might be our best yet!")

He then asked, "Does this bother you? Why?"

The Fear Findings: (Disclaimer that identification is NOT endorsement)

  1. Lack of social filters
    Fear that there are people who haven't been indoctrinated into the social norms of the organization such as new hires and new professionals.
  2. Productivity
    Interestingly, he found that people were more concerned around the perception of productivity loss than the actual loss of productivity. The implied message behind social features is that "It's OK to do other stuff during company time."
  3. Confidentiality
    The concern that employees will post a seemingly innocent yet confidential statement; "Feeling great after our annual meeting. This year will be our best yet!" There is a fear that too much is being shared.
  4. Diffusion of official communication
    For example, a status update from the accounting department to "Please complete invoices by the end of today" does not seem as official as a memo. The fear that employees may not be able to evaluate the "officialness" of multiple communication channels.
  5. Trails of discoverability
    The fear that everything that is posted may turn up in an audit and may be used in the future as a legal record; e.g., "My job frustrates me to the point where I might do something silly."
  6. Concerted activities
    The fear that employees will organize, and give a union-like power to the employees. The National Labor Relations Act protects union organizing activities and protects employees whenever they collaborate to improve their terms of employment.
  7. Mob mentality
    If one person complains, everyone will.
  8. Asymmetrical usage
    Since it's expected that some people will communicate a lot and some will communicate very little, what value judgments will people draw from this?

Proposed solutions:

The benefit must be sold

Any type of organizational communication carries a certain level of risk. Broadening and improving communication has a benefit larger than the inherent risk. Perhaps show examples of other organizations that are using social such as Accenture and eBay.


Decision-makers were much more receptive to inter-team communication than organization-wide communication. Allow only certain people to communicate to the entire organization. Communication needs context and localization can give this context.

Promote respect for the norm

Start off by providing fewer social features, and then expand over time. Maybe tie the ability to communicate to the length of time one has spent in the organization.

Leverage your vendor's experience

Be honest with your vendor about the state of your internal communication (even if it's embarrassing). There is a tendency to pretend irrational reasons don't exist, but we should be asking vendors what they have done to overcome the issues of social.

Heather Harmse, portal manager for Vancity, made a great point at a recent VanUE presentation. She said that Vancity trusts its employees to manage the finances of its members. So why not trust them with some social features?