It's been fascinating to see how our clients are beginning to use the social tools on intranets. They've gone from unusual to usual to usual with our clients in just a few years.

I've also had the chance to listen to some really insightful people speak about social intranets lately. One of our clients, Heather Harmse of Vancity, recently spoke at VanUE about her experience supporting and promoting the use of social features in Sharepoint 2010. (You can also read about Vancity's intranet on our site.)

I also attended the Social Intranet Summit here in Vancouver last month and it was a real treat to be able to listen to the thoughtful perspectives of people who design and manage the social side of intranets.

Here are some thoughts and themes that have stood out.

The term "social intranet" is confusing

I don't think the term "social" really captures what a social intranet is about. It sounds more like 'chit chat' than supporting people across the organization to connect, communicate and work together (which is more what it's about).

Plus, we're using the term to refer to relatively new social tools like blogs, micro-blogs, wikis, profile pages, comments, and ratings. But a lot more things are also social.  Email, telephones, bulletin boards, and spaces to have meetings and work together are also social.

There are some very compelling reasons to support the use of social tools in organizations

The best reason I've heard to make intranets more social was pointed out at the Social Intranet Summit this year. Almost everything someone needs to know is known by another employee. That's a pretty good reason to use tools that help people find, share and communicate with each other.

Heather Harmse is often asked  if she's concerned about people conducting themselves appropriately on Vancity's intranet (the intranet is open for anyone to comment on pages). She points out that we spend so much time hiring the right people and then trust them to manage their time and resources. Shouldn't we also be able to trust them to behave themselves on an intranet? Also, on intranets people are not anonymous, which means people only say what they are willing to associate themselves with.

Other reasons to support new social tools on intranets:

  • The use of new social tools outside of work will continue to grow and more people will become proficient in using them and expect them.
  • Social tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are effective ways of staying current with what your friends and acquaintances in different cities and countries are doing. I think they have the potential to be be equally effective in staying current with what is going on with your work colleagues across different departments, offices, or cities and support the goal of employees being and feeling informed of what's going on. 
  • I've heard some people say that they think social tools have the potential to be more interesting at work than away from work because people have a wider area of common focus.
  • A lot of effort goes into creating news to keep employees up-to-date on what is going on in a company and I wonder how much news could be reduced in an organization where micro-blogging is common.
  • The potential to improve search and findability and surface the right information. Search is a perennial issue on intranets. I think one of the most promising ways to make search and findability better is through using social features, like ratings, page views and comments to surface information, which takes into consideration the people you share things in common with. This would include people that share a role or department, but also people whose profiles you are connected to, who comment on similar things to you, have similar ratings, and visit or use similar pages. The reason Amazon's book suggestions are good is because they show you books from people who share your taste and interest in books. An intranet that is social will have more ways to show information to you from people who share your interests.
  • The potential to improve the quality of content. Keeping content up-to-date is another issue that exists on every intranet. This is often partly due to content owners not knowing what people find useful and where to focus their efforts. Employees being able to rank, comment or publicly bookmark pages is a great way to motivate authors to invest time in that content.
  • Supporting employee engagement and the positive aspects of a company's culture. I don't think intranets really create employee engagement where it doesn't already exist, but where it does, social features can support it and other positive aspects of a company's culture.

There are some very valid concerns about making intranets more social 

This is a topic my colleagues who also attended the social intranet summit will be blogging about soon, so I'll just cover it briefly:

  • Not all employees are comfortable using new social tools. How will this affect adoption, and how effective will they be if only a minority of people use them?
  • Employees need to know how to use the new tools effectively and guidelines and planning around this are essential.

A big bang approach to using social tools is pretty crazy

Even if most people have some experience and comfort using social media tools, those tools are still new in the workplace, and in many organizations a majority of people will need time to get used to them. There also needs to be a culture in place to support their use. Introducing tools as pilots and within small groups is a good way to understand how they could and should be used in a particular workplace.

A supportive culture and environment is essential 

Two intranets here in Vancouver where social tools are quite well-used are the Vancity and Mountain Equipment Co-op intranet. Both of these companies have unique, open cultures people can describe, value employee engagement, and have well-developed brands and clear goals. Employees know what the company is all about. So they are supported and encouraged to communicate — because people are clear what the company is about, it's easier to know what kind of conversation and sharing is appropriate and supports the organization.

Related to the above, I also think a healthy culture is a prerequisite to a successful social intranet. Providing more social tools in a company with a culture of poor communication is, in most cases, going to create more poor communication.

Social intranets need attention and management

Getting employees to actively engage with the intranet in ways that are productive takes work. It means asking the right questions for people to answer — and guiding, supporting and encouraging the kind of conversation that supports business goals. One of the presentations at the Social Intranet Summit was about the evolving role of the community management discipline. There's a whole discipline evolving around the managing of online communities, of which social media and tools are typically a part of. I suspect community management today is a bit like content strategy a few years ago (a solid idea whose time for everyone to know and accept hasn't yet come.)

For more information about social intranets, here are some highlights from speakers at the Social Intranet Summit:

Social Intranet Survey 2011 - a comprehensive report on how intranet 2.0 tools are being used in organizations based data provided by 1400+ organizations from North America, Europe, and Asia.

The 2011 State of Community Management: Best Practices from Community, Social Media, & Social Business

The Social Organization - has some good metrics and lots of social media examples.