Social intranets make the job harder for internal communication

During the past years, intranets are often presented with a social in front of them. The hype behind social intranet remains deafening, technology investments have been made in many organisations and yet most social intranets are not being put to much use.

It is one of the insider secrets in the industry and a good example of how analyst and vendor marketing still disconnects with reality from time to time.

That does not mean that some intranets are not helping drive change, but clearly many implementations of social have been troubled and are far from achieving the intended productivity improvements. The required investment in training has been largely underestimated and so has the necessary change management.

Calling it ‘social’ doesn’t make it so

The term social adds new features to an intranet. Intranet experts Step Two from Australia have listed five fundamental capabilities of social intranets, incl. social networking, collaboration spaces and problem solving as the outset.

Still, adding these features on top of an existing intranet based on top down information sharing doesn’t make it social. Truly implementing such features implies a shift in focus from information to collaboration. A change in culture.

But is a social intranet always the best approach to internal information sharing? My experience with both internal communications managers and intranet professionals in the Boye network tells me that while a social intranet definitely offers many potential advantages, it also poses challenges.

Besides the required changes to often deep-rooted ways of working, a scattered information flow is commonly mentioned as employees are empowered to create content, comment and engage more freely. Without really good navigation and search, many complain that they can no longer find the information they are looking for.

From internal communication to employee engagement

Internal communication has traditionally been about directing information flows, but this way of thinking is being challenged at a time when information is perceived as something autonomous. A mindset which has its benefits, but also poses problems when it comes to internal communication.

The classic complaint against pretty much any intranet, has always been that employees are unable to find the information they are looking for. The number one challenge for the intranet designer has then been to create an intuitive intranet that helped made the job easier. Ideally relevant information should find the employee — not the other way around.

The question then becomes whether or not a social intranet will facilitate this? A social mindset is democratic and when engagement is prioritised, it can detract from an intranet’s ability to mitigate crucial, but in no way engaging information.

A key purpose of an intranet is to lead employees’ attention towards rudimentary information in due time. Many large organisations will want to retain this structure, even though this may result in a superficial deployment of social features to the intranet. These functions end up almost working against each other.

Relationships — it seems — are just as important in the workplace as they are outside and finding the right balance between top-down and one-to-many requires careful planning.