Monday, August 23, 2010

The business case for social intranets

As I argued in my previous post "Why traditional intranets fail knowledge workers" (originally named “Serving the long tail of information needs”) there’s a long tail of information needs to be served within knowledge intensive enterprises, and which can't be served with the use of traditional intranets.

Organizations typically try to serve their employee's information needs by producing varying types of content (text, images, video…) which is intended to communicate a message to, inform, the employees. Due to limited resources, all information needs cannot possibly be served. The line needs to be drawn somewhere, and it’s usually drawn where the cost of providing a certain kind of content exceeds the potential value of the information that the receivers can gain when extracting information from the content (assuming that the value is created when the content is actually consumed, i.e. transforming into information by the receiver). This is illustrated by the dashed horizontal link in the Long Tail power law graph for information needs illustrated below.

Although sometimes blunt and misguiding (as when there is information which is supposed to be never be used, but yet is absolutely critical to provide access to - such as a Standard Operating Procedures for emergency situations in a power plant), content usage rate (or popularity, if you like) is the easiest way to estimate the value of a certain piece of content, and thereby the information extracted from it. The reasoning is simple; if many people request a certain kind of information, it is likely they see value in it. So if many employees request a certain kind of information, it is likely to be valuable enough for the organization to supply that information to them.

Then what’s the cost of information? Well, a simple way to define it is to define it as the sum of all activities that it takes to supply an audience with a certain kind of information. The lower the cost, the more information needs we can serve. That’s basically why we use media and information technology – to lower the supply costs of information.

Assuming this is true for a lot of the information needs that exists over time in an organization, then the organization have two major challenges to address concerning all the information needs that make the cut (has a value / cost above 1):

1. Make sure the information is, if possible, captured into some content and made accessible.
2. Make sure the content is as easy to access and consume (interpret and understand) as possible

The second challenge usually presents great potential for improvements in most organizations. You might be familiar with the now classic the IDC report from 2001 by analyst Susan Feldman, "The high cost of not finding information" (which you can read about in this whitepaper). Feldman’s research showed that average knowledge workers spent 15% to 35% of their workday searching for information. 15% of the time was spent on duplicating existing information and searchers are successful in finding what they seek 50% of the time or less. Even though 10 years have passed since the findings of the research was presented, I’m pretty sure it holds true also today. As an example, Laurie Buczek,Social Media Strategist and Platform Vision Team Manager at Intel, partly motivated Intel's investment in social computing in the following way:
"The average Intel employee dumps one day a week trying to find people with the experience & expertise plus the relevant information to do their job. We have calculated some of the $$ impact due to lost productivity and opportunity. Let me just say that it is motivating us to take action."
Although the costs of not being able to find and access information fast enough are typically high, the costs of not being able to find a certain piece of information at all is potentially even greater. Rework, delays, suffering customer service, bad decision-making…you name it. All of these things happen frequently due to the lack of access to the right information in the right time - and quite often due to the fact that the information isn't accessible in the first place.

These problems can partly be addressed by making sure all information that has been captured and encoded into content can be accessed and found by anyone who needs it. Yet, it is safe to say that the vast majority of all information and knowledge we have haven’t been captured and encoded into content. Sometimes because it can’t be, but as often as not it’s not been captured due to the high cost of capturing, storing, organizing, managing and delivering it.

The thing is that many orgs don't bother much with the first challenge if they have just been able to produce and provide access to information that is worth managing. The problem is that there are lots and lots of valuable information which does not make the cut. Information that either never becomes accessible, or where access is very limited because it resides in email inboxes, in collaboration spaces that people won't find or access unless they knows about it already and either has access or asks for it, on user desktops, on file servers not indexed by the intranet search engine, and do forth.

So what makes a certain piece of info worth managing? Well, if the value / cost quote is higher than 1, we'll produce, store, organize, manage and distribute it to the users. Given that most of this content will be found in the long neck, that’s where we will focus most of our efforts and resources.

For content where the value / cost quote is equal to or lower than 1, we're likely not going to manage it. We'll much rather not produce or capture it. We'll even delete it if already exists, so that it does not get in the way of other content that we need to manage.

Now, we should ask ourselves what would happen if the following was to become true:

  • The cost of producing, storing, managing and distributing information decreases radically due to new practices and technologies
  • The resources we have available to do this are not longer limited to a fraction of the workforce, but the entire workforce can be used, even resources from the outside - for free?

Would this change the game plan?


By coincidence, these things have now happened.

Thanks to the (technological) development during recent years, we now have technologies available which allow us to communicate and share information with other people, across time and space, in a variety of ways. If you need to have a rich, two-way and real-time conversation with an audience you do not know in advance and want anyone to be able to join, you can do that. If you only need to send a small text message to one specific recipient while you are out on a run in the park, you can do that. If you want to be able to discover, connect and collaborate with like-minded people across the globe who you don’t yet know, you can do that.

The access to these communication tools is also being democratized as virtually anyone who possesses basic computer skills and a device that can access the Internet can get access to and use the tools anytime and from anywhere they want. For free. No education or training required.

Until quite recently, the only way to reach a large audience with a message was to broadcast it via print (newspapers, books…), tv or radio. Now you can be a one-man media corporation and reach as many people as any of the big old media corporations. The great power than comes with mass-communication, which for long have been restricted to those who could afford to buy and own the production means and whp had the education and training required to operate the tools, that power is now available to anyone. That’s a really big shift which has lead to a sort of new Renaissance – one that is not restricted to an intellectual class, but which anyone can join by engaging with other people in the blogosphere, Twitter and Facebook.

As a result of these changes, more and more of the conversations where we exchange information and knowledge with each other are taking place online instead of face-to-face or via telephony. Content is produced as a bi-product of our conversations. With virtual collaboration becoming the norm even when we meet face-to-face or just need to talk to each other, the things we say and do are being captured and encoded into various forms of content such as voice, video, photos and text. The dark matter of the business universe is becoming visible and accessible as our business conversations are being captured instead of being transient and passing by without a notice, only touching a those individuals who participated in a specific conversation.

In short, the cost of communicating has collapsed.

What is interesting is how the information and knowledge exchanged through these various kinds of conversations now is easily captured and can be made available to people who did not participate in the conversation. Content is increasingly being created as a bi-product of conversations. This is to be contrasted with the typical approach where we capture and encode the information into content (documents etc) before it is communicated. For information that is encoded into content this way, one can definitely say that the cost of producing content has collapsed. And here lies the great opportunity when it comes to being able to serve the long tail of information needs; if the information exchanged in our conversations can easily be captured and shared, then some of this information is likely.

To do this we must first make it possible for people to find/discover, connect and communicate with each other in various ways (blogs, web conferencing, micro-blogging, IM/chat) so that the information can be captured into content (text, video, sound…). We must have a platform that empowers and a culture that encourages people to communicate and collaborate with each other.

We must also find ways to store and collectively organize the content so that it can be found or discovered and used by anyone who might need it. Here we can learn a lot from the social web and the use of Web 2.0 technologies and how search, tagging, links, and metadata created from explicit and implicit user activities to make information findable even when there is an abundance of information available to us.

Again, just as I argued in “Why traditional intranets fail knowledge workers”, we need to focus more on creating filters to handle the abundance of information than trying to stop the inflow of information. We need to stop seeing information supply as a problem to be solved (by trying to delimit it) and instead focus on how to satisfy information demand. By using information about our own social connections, the exchange we have with them, and the activities they do, we can employ social filtering techniques to “pull” relevant information. By letting not only any systems you use but also your friends and colleagues become aware of what you’re interested in, currently working on, planning to do, and so on, you can create an attraction to yourself that will “pull” relevant information to you, even information you didn't know existed or you didn’t know you where looking for. Instead of having to spend a lot of time and effort on searching for information, you will get more of your information needs served by social filtering; manual and automatic recommendations on what information might be relevant for you.

To me it's clear that most enterprises, especially knowledge intensive, need a platform that provides the capabilities which I have mentioned above. There are many reasons as it can help them make better use of shared knowledge, improve decision-making, increase agility and responsiveness, and facilitate innovation. If innovation, like Idris Motee says, “is like ping-pong", it is because ideas need to be bounced back and forth before they mature and can attract the right people who can bring it to the market. If an organization really considers innovation to be important, it should engage everyone and make innovation everybody's business. It should provide a ping-pong table, give every coworker, partner and customer a racket to play with, and invite them to play.

To me, it is a feasible (pragmatic) strategy to extend and transform the traditional intranet into a social intranet that incorporates these new capabilities. With the risk that using the term “intranet” adds terminology baggage that might cause problems, I have chosen to accept that the expression “social intranet” seems to stick to people’s minds. Using an existing term will likely help people learn about the new things faster than "Enterprise Social Software Platform" (ESSP) possibly could - at least during a transitional phase. There will certainly be a few who will just put lipstick on a pig and call it a "social intranet", but I don’t expect that many people to be fooled to believe that adding some features such as commenting for corporate news stories and profile pages will really transform a traditional intranet into social intranet.

Most people will, if they' don't already, come to understand that a social intranet is not just about adding features such as blogs, wikis, activity feeds, social bookmarking and micro-blogging on top of a traditional intranet; it's about rethinking the purpose of intranets with the intention of bringing the paradigm shift in how we communicate and collaborate that is taking place on the web to the very core of how enterprises are operated and managed. A social intranet needs to be seen as a strategic component when trying to do this.
Although the notion of social intranets is quite new, the business case for social intranets is anything but new. In fact, it has existed as long as there have been enterprises, and it’s growing stronger and stronger the more vital timely access to the right information and knowledge becomes for an enterprise in order to compete and thrive. The business case can easily be summarized, as in this quote from the 2001 IDC whitepaper mentioned above:
“While the costs of not finding information are enormous, they are hidden within the enterprise, and therefore they are rarely perceived as having an impact on the bottom line. Decisions are usually information problems. If they are made with poor or erroneous information, then they put the life of the enterprise at stake. Therefore, it behooves the enterprise to provide the best information-finding tools available and to ensure that all of its intellectual assets have access to them, no matter where they reside.”
It’s high time to start serving the long tail of information needs.


  1. What's an intranet? Seriously, if a company still has something called an intranet, they're on the way out anyway.

  2. :)

    You clearly have a point, Paula.

    Most customers I talk to actually have an intranet. Then they have collaboration platform. Several of these customers are actually well-managed and successful companies. They know they deserve something better than what they have today, but they don't know what it is. It see it as my task to help them.

    These companies or organizations are often familiar with the concept of an intranet - that's what they have today - and see it as a natural starting point and center in their digital work environment.

    When identifying and defining how this work environment needs to be changed, we will loose them if we don't build a connection (through terminology) to the things they already know about. In my opinion, I'm just being pragmatic. When building a bridge from what is/was to what will be, you sometimes have to use existing materials (terminology).

  3. Fascinating post, Oscar. Would love to have you at the Social Intranet Summit in Vancouver in October!

  4. Most companies we work with have an intranet - not really useful though. They hope or believe that adding a social component to it will solve their communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing problem.

    Over the past 15 years or so... my years at Open Text Corporation... we built hundreds of intranets and extranets for G9000... very few were even remotely successful. The biggest failure point always seemed to be not technology... but ownership and buy-in by the key stakeholders. It was always something forced onto employees by management - with little or no input from staff.

    With the success of web 2.0... one thing we are seeing is that companies are more and more looking at deploying departmental intranets - @ IGLOO Software we call them online business communities within their organizations. The owner is the business or departmental manager who is trying to solve real business problems i.e. get products to market faster, better communications, informed decision making etc.

    Social intranets... whatever the term aren't going away... they appear to be transforming.