Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why traditional intranets fail today's knowledge workers

“Flexible access to people and resources can be enormously powerful in a world driven by changes that, more often than not, lead us in unanticipated directions…we need to become more adept at ‘capability leverage’ – finding and accessing complementary capabilities, wherever they reside in the world, to deliver more value.”  
- From “The Power of Pull” by J Hagel, J S Brown, L Davidson 
Businesses, in particular in the Western world, are becoming more and more knowledge-intensive with an increasing part of the workforce engaged in knowledge-based work. A study by The Work Foundation has estimated that we have a 30-30-40 workforce - 30 per cent in jobs with high knowledge content, 30 per cent in jobs with some knowledge content, and 40 per cent in jobs with less knowledge content.

Knowledge work is about such things as solving problems, performing research and creative work, interacting and communicating with other people, and so on. Such work is by nature less predictable and repeatable than traditional industry work (transformational and transactional activities organized into repeatable processes). Both the inputs and outputs of knowledge work – which is information and knowledge – vary from time to time, from situation to situation. So does the purpose, activities, roles and resources involved in knowledge work. Knowledge work is also less structured and the structure of knowledge work typically emerges as the work proceeds.

In a knowledge-intensive business environment, it is often very hard or even impossible to anticipate in advance what information is needed. You simply cannot know what information will be relevant before the moment you need it. The information might not exist until the moment you need it, or you are simply unaware of its existence. That’s why more is better (“more is more”) when it comes to information supply in a knowledge-intensive business environment. If there is more to choose from, chances are there will be something for (almost) any need. That’s also why it has become critical for knowledge workers to access to the information abundance on the Internet. We also need to have immediate access to anyone who might possess the knowledge and information we need but which is not captured – often because it is hard to capture or simply does not allow itself to be captured (tacit knowledge) and exchanged.

There’s a long tail of information needs that still needs to be served

Assuming we have a long tail of diverse, constantly changing and virtually unlimited amount of information needs, we need to do what can be done to serve these needs in some way or another. The problem is that the information resources that most businesses choose to produce and provide access are not aimed at serving these infrequent, uncertain and constantly changing information needs. Let’s use the Long Tail power graph below to illustrate and further expand this reasoning.

In the left end of the power graph we have the information resources which are most frequently used because they are serving frequently recurring information needs. The information which is needed for transformational and transactional activities - but also administrative knowledge work - is likely to be served by information resources in the left part of the Long Tail power graph. This information does not change very often and thus can be quite easily reused. It’s the kind of information used for commonly performed activities, which means that the information needs are predictable. An information need that has occurred once will for certain occur again. This allows us to define, design and produce the type and structure of the information as well as the actual information before the next time the information need arises (the activity is performed).

Knowledge work is often a completely different story. While the information used us input to an activity or process is likely to be found in the left part of the Long Tail power graph, the information needed for a knowledge work activity is likely to be found in the long tail. There you have information resources which are used infrequently or maybe even once. The information which is needed varies from time to time, from situation to situation. Not only the actual information varies; often the type and structure of the information resource varies too. This makes it virtually impossible to define a reusable information resource in advance before it is needed.

The unpredictable nature of knowledge work is why we need to give knowledge workers access to all information that exists and that might be relevant. Since we don’t know what might be relevant until a certain need arises (which we never might be aware of until we discover certain information), we can’t really put the relevant information in one “for keeps” pile and all other information in another “to be trashed” pile. We also need to provide them with tools so they can create or capture information with each other, or else there will not be enough information available to serve the knowledge workers’ information needs. To help people find and discover information that is relevant to their tasks when they need it, we also need to create powerful pull mechanisms which allow relevant information to automatically surface and be placed at the fingertips of knowledge workers just when they need it.

Traditional intranets are not designed for knowledge work

This leads me to the changing role of intranets in knowledge-intensive businesses. These intranets need to provide flexible access to both information and people by employing pull models for serving as many knowledge worker information needs as possible, including unanticipated information needs. Information supply needs to be maximized by supporting the creation and access to user-generated content as well as by allowing for easy integration of external information sources. The intranet needs to be turned into an “information broker platform” where information is freely and easily created, aggregated, shared, found and discovered at minimal effort.  Such an intranet gives everybody access to all information which is available and make room for virtually infinite amounts of information.

However, most of today’s intranets primarily consist of pre-produced information resources which are intended to serve information needs which can be anticipated in advance. They aim to serve people who perform predefined and repeatable tasks. These intranets are push platforms. As such they might work well for repeatable routine work where the information needs can be defined in advanced, but they are quite dysfunctional for knowledge work. It’s not a coincidence that many knowledge workers find it much easier to find information on the web than in their internal systems and that the intranet plays a marginal role in their daily work.

The information that knowledge workers need can often not be anticipated and served by a push-based intranet. It is also critical that they have access to ALL information that is available, including collaborative content produced by teams, content produced by external resources, tacit knowledge captured in conversations, and so forth. Since the information artifacts on an intranet typically are produced by a relatively small part of the organization’s total workforce, the resources available for producing these information resources are limited. A line needs to be drawn between information needs which can be served and those which cannot be served. A common approach is to identify the most common information needs and focus available resources on serving these needs as good as possible. Assuming that the resources for producing and maintaining information resources are scarce, this is a seemingly feasible approach. But it’s not a feasible approach for an intranet that needs to serve the highly varying, extensive and unpredictable information needs of knowledge workers.

To conclude: a major reason why traditional intranets fail today's knowledge workers is that all information they provide access to is produced with a push-based production model. This model assumes that all information resources on the intranet must be produced in advance (only serving information needs which can be anticipated) by a small subset of all available resources (employees) and that the entire body of information needs to be supervised by a few people for the purpose of controlling the message, format and/or organization of the information resources.

Knowledge workers need a social intranet 

There are plenty of definitions trying to define what a social intranet is, but most of the ones I’ve seen have not been able to see beyond tools and technologies. They don't succeed in describing the paradigm change that is transforming intranets into something completely different from what they are today.

The social intranet is not just about adding a layer of social collaboration tools; it is a platform that combines the powers of push with the powers of pull to supply anyone who participates and contributes within an extended enterprise with the information, knowledge and connections they need to make the right decisions and act to fulfill their objectives. It equips everyone with the tools that allows them to participate, contribute, attract, discover, find and connect with each other to exchange information and knowledge and/or collaborate. It connects information demand with information supply in knowledge-intensive businesses, something which can only be done by involving all employees in the information supply, removing bottle-necks created by the production model (such as approval workflows and that everything must fit in a central taxonomy) and enabling employee-to-employee information exchange.

When it comes to information supply, the previously dominating "less is more" paradigm is being replaced by a "more is more" paradigm. A social intranet must necessarily be designed for information abundance. The increasing volume of information resources needs to be seen as opportunity to be embraced rather than as a problem – a problem which can only be solved by reducing the body of information down to an amount which can be managed by a few people (relatively to the entire population of the extended enterprise).

Although too many options can decrease your performance and create stress, information abundance does not equal an abundance of choice; the social intranet is a pull platform with mechanisms for automatically attracting relevant information and people to you. What’s important is that the options you are presented with are relevant and usable. But that’s another issue. The point is that the information you need is not there in the first place, chances are that none of the options you will be presented with will do. That’s of course an unwanted situation as you might not be able to perform your task or you might make an incorrect decision that can have serious consequences. Deliberately hindering information to reach people is not the way to avoid the sensation commonly called information overload, because as Clay Shirky argues the problem is not the amount of information but rather that the filters we have fail to sort it properly for us. We need to get the filters in place instead of blaming and demonizing ("Tsunami of data", "firehose of information" etc) information supply and arguing that the only way to solve this "problem" is to limit supply.

The social intranet also has an important part to play when it comes to supporting serendipity; enabling people to find both information and people they didn’t know they were looking for. To do so it must have mechanisms that allow information and people that might be useful to us to be pulled to us. Spending time and effort searching for relevant information and people where there is information abundance just won’t pay off. We must have ways that “automagically” attract useful information and connections to us. We just need to implicitly and explicitly share what do and know to other people in our networks, to people who share our interests, or to people who happen to pass us by at any other kind of cross-road.

Needless to say, the push-based production model used for most intranets will still have an important role to play - but only as a component within a social intranet. It will continue to serve the most common, stable and predictable information needs. Even though it is important and sometimes critical that these can be served efficiently and effectively, the greatest value that can be created with the use of an intranet relies on the long tail of information. This is because the long tail of information supports the core of a knowledge-intensive modern business: the knowledge work.


  1. I really do agree :) This is a very interesting aspect of E 2.0 and I believe it is a powerful effect that we have just seen the beginning of just as we didn't understand Amazon, Facebook and Youtube after a couple of years.

    Here is my take on it:

  2. Great post Alexandra! We seem to be in complete agreement :)

  3. This is an extremely interesting take on the future of intranet computing; would you say that this ties into a move away from fixed desktop PCs to mobile devices, creating an 'always-on' workplace, accessible from anywhere?

  4. @Orchid Software: I would say it ties perfectly into that vision.

    Information need to flow like water and we need ubiquitous and instant access to it. The days of the portals are over, just as the days of the village well are over. As knowledge workers, we need to be able to access the information we need from anywhere at any time. Knowledge work is not a place, it's something we do. It is not tied to an office or office hours. That's a fact organizations have to embrace if they are to be able to create an environment is productive and innovative and which attracts the best talent.

    Sometimes we obtain information through content such as documents or web pages where it has been encoded. Sometimes we obtain it through our interactions with other people. We should be able to do that from anywhere, without having to go to the village well with a bucket. The application we use to access the information must be tailored for typical situations and needs, just as we can get water from a tap by the sink in the kitchen to drink, cook or wash the dishes with, from a bottle when we're mobile and have no other way to access drinking water in a quick and convenient way, or from a garden hose when we need to water the plants and flowers in our gardens.

    The point is that our needs differ from time to time, from situation to situation. The only thing we can be sure of is that we need to have access to information and that, in the current and future business environment, the one who can access and use the right information most quickly will thrive. Forcing all knowledge workers to always go to one specific destination for information, one which is accessible only via one type of device to access, is nothing but stupidity. Not even trying to provide knowledge workers access to all kinds of information that might be useful because someone claims it is not worth storing and managing is equally stupid.

    So yes, we are moving to an "always-on" workplace independent from locations, devices. We will equip ourselves with laptops, smartphones, and any device we see useful for the situations where we need to access information and people.

  5. I really like your view on where we are heading - I am writing a blog about exformation, i.e focusing on getting value out of the information that are communicated. My vision of the "future intranet" is all about creating "user profiled" portals/filters that supports each user according to his/her needs. I call this future state "exformation society" ;-)
    /Hedin Exformation

  6. This is a truly brilliant post. Indeed one of the few articles that describes the social intranet without explaining the tools.

  7. Hi - Call DHS right now. They are embarking on a circa 1995 'single computer application' portal effort. See:


  8. Aah. Timely and well-written post! Oscar.....There are so many statements and views in here that ring a loud bell in my mind. I think I can safely claim to be working on (actually, it has already been rolled out) such a social tool (Intranet) that combines corporate equivalents of elements from Facebook, Linked-In and iGoogle.
    PS: Hoping to find an opportunity to present it at an appropriate E2.0/KM conference.

  9. Great post, Oscar. I've tweeted it twice!

    Your argument focuses strongly on social networking. Do you see that being complemented by collective knowledge building via a wiki?

  10. @ryan2point0: Thanks! Although I didn't mention any specific technologies in my post, I definitely had technologies such as wikis in mind when writing it. To quote: "The intranet needs to be turned into an 'information broker platform' where information is freely and easily created, aggregated, shared, found and discovered at minimal effort." Creation, aggregation and sharing of information are key capabilities which can be provided by a social intranet (a pull platform). Wikis is one of the technologies that can help bring these capabilities to an enterprise. The participants can then use these capabilities for whatever purpose, such as building intelligence about something. The social intranet allows them (or anyone who have access to it) to create, aggregate, share, find and discover any kind of information which they collectively can analyze and draw conclusions from.

  11. You say social intranet, I say KnowledgeNet. You say push/pull, I say content producer/content consumer. Potato, Potahto. I believe we agree on the core principle of users needing a better way to access and collaborate on business-specific information and knowledge.

    The fact of the matter is, no one works in a vacuum. We don’t rely on corporate documents alone to do our jobs. Nor do we simply network with our peers for information discovery, or just surf the Web, or solely read research journals, or rely on an intranet. We do all of these things. And until now, we’ve done them in tandem, rather than as a holistic work experience.

    An environment where business users can access information and act with context to address critical business challenges, such as competitive intelligence, new product development and innovation, and knowledge preservation, is the new world order. Content-centric socialization brings together all aspects of a business user’s information needs. It allows you to vet both top-down content (subscriptions, internal documents, catalog and archive information, digital images, etc.) that is contributed by content producers, as well as bottom-up information (comments, tags, and ratings directly relating to the vetted content) that is contributed by the user community, or content consumers.

    Your post clearly demonstrates the paradigm shift that is “transforming intranets into something completely different from what they are today.” And I think we are at that point where we can have the best of both worlds to achieve the social “serendipity” for the enterprise we’ve all searching for.

    Mike Cassettari

  12. The suggestion that a "pull model" would be successful for serving knowledge worker information needs seems misguided.

    Pull methods such, as traditional search, by default rely on the same pre-conceived needs (defined by metadata) that your article so correctly points out fail knowledge workders.

    A push model is better served to meet unanticipated information needs. Delicious or Jumper are great examples of a push model where users push information into an index or directory based on individual and often unique perspectives.

  13. Hi Oscar,
    interesting article, and I strongly agree that you do raise some very important points here. I will scan and read your blog regularly. Do you have or have you seen any further or similar articles about that topic? I have worked on three Intranet solutions (strategic management holding, chemical industry) and sometimes I thought I'm a lone fighter/ lone wolf :-) ... Do you have any case studies?
    Tack så mycket! Please answer in English my Swedish is bad :-)

  14. ... and by the way thanks to all the other participants and their interesting comments. _ Holger

  15. Two things on the intranet: 1. it's decreasingly a destination and increasingly an experience-serving platform to a multiplicity of devices 2. it's not just information brokering -- it's relationship brokering as well in this social business world... Geat post as always thanks Oscar.

  16. Interesting blog. Two comments: First: intranets often do not provide all relevant business information available within other systems (ERP, CRM, etc.) of the company. There is a need to make these information accessible as well. So the challenge goes in my view beyond the intranet. All company information should be available and included where relevant in a "social" communication.
    Second comment on the filtering of information: This has really become a headache for lots of business people. Here new concepts where it is possible to access relevant information in a structured way around a business topic are required. Selecting information and communicate around them for example in a dashboard can be a promising approach.
    What are your thoughts on that?

  17. Very interesting, I may be presenting some of this information to our CIO in the near future.

    Thanks for the information, I'll reference your article if I do so you get the credit.

  18. (Oscar - unrelated to content, but thought you might like to be aware that on Chrome, the RH scrollbar is obscured by a pop-out. Makes it quite difficult to navigate)

  19. Thanks Jonathan! I've actually experienced some problems with Blogger's dynamic template and your feedback made me decide to finally go back to a more classic template.