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A Social Intranet – Part 2: Critical Steps to Building a Social Intranet

Having just launched a new intranet site that allows for a more collaborative and, what I hope is considered, a more productive environment, this post from the IABC CW Bulletin resonates very strongly with me. So much so that I thought I would make it available here. Enjoy! :-)

Social Intranets: The magic is in the culture, not the tools

by Stephan Schillerwein

Using social media successfully in internal communication can be much more challenging than using it externally. With external social media use, the rest of the organization doesn’t necessarily need to get too involved or fundamentally change how it operates. The opposite is true for the internal use of social media: If you want a social intranet to truly take off, the entire organization has to get on board and gradually change its way of working and communicating.

Looking at the figures, one might think that social intranets are already well established in most organizations. According to the recent “Intranet 2.0 Global Study” (conducted by Prescient Digital Media Ltd.), 87 percent of organizations have at least one social media tool on their intranet. But it takes more than tools to make an intranet social.

Participation is key
Until now, intranets have been characterized by one-way communication and a lack of opportunities for direct participation by employees. The social intranet (or Intranet 2.0) enables employees to openly communicate, collaborate and share with each other, independently of hierarchies, job functions and geographies. It thus enables everyone to participate in what is going on in the organization.

While much talk is focused on the tools (e.g. wikis, social networks and microblogging), it’s the principles behind these tools that make social media attractive to organizations of all sectors and sizes. If used correctly, social media can address fundamental problems of today’s knowledge-driven organizations. From talent management to creativity, from engagement to productivity, from idea generation to increased agility, there is ample evidence that shows social media can provide organizations with a competitive advantage in the Information Age. Enabling employees to participate more can help corporations unlock the vast, but often underutilized, potential of their employees.

People are social—most organizations are not
As a social species, humans are conditioned to conform to what is socially acceptable in a certain context. For instance, if drinking alcohol in public is a commonly accepted behavior in society, nobody will think much about doing it. If it’s not, you’re much less likely to partake in this activity. This rule applies even if you come from a cultural background where this activity is the standard.

The same applies for the use of social media. In an environment where everyone is free to—and encouraged to—contribute, participation is very high. But if the environment does not encourage this behavior, as is the case in the majority of organizations today, the barriers to getting people to contribute can seem insurmountable.

Author David Weinberger aptly described this phenomenon more than a decade ago with one simple sentence: “The Web is a world.” That is to say, the Web is a place that has its own rules and its own “context for behavior and personality.” Now, the “world” of an organization is typically quite different from the world of the Web. In most organizations, there are hierarchies, politics, busy employees, competition among peers and incentives offered only for hard returns.

Obviously, this is not a climate in which social media or a social intranet will prosper. If the organizational culture is not ready for a social intranet, only a small number of people within the organization will be brave enough to step into the spotlight and discuss critical issues in a public space, such as the comments to a blog post.

A strategic approach
There is no quick fix for changing culture. But you also can’t wait for your organization’s culture to change before you start to take advantage of the benefits of a social intranet. Also, a pure “bottom-up” approach (where employees drive the proliferation of social media’s use inside an organization) will not do the job for most organizations.

In light of this situation, it is critical that you first develop a clear strategy for integrating social media tools into your intranet and outline the benefits they will bring to your organization. Think about what it is you want to achieve with social media tools and a social intranet. Examples of questions to discuss include:

  • What existing problems do you want to address with a social intranet?
  • How does your social intranet fit into your overall intranet strategy?
  • What organizational goals will a social intranet support?

Once it has become clear how your social intranet will address your organization’s requirements and issues, it is time to implement some steps that will be critical to the social intranet’s success. These include:

  • Seamlessly integrating social media tools into your intranet strategy in order to show that your organization really means business.
  • Requiring management to act as role models in order to show that everyone should participate in the social intranet (Note: Management doesn’t just mean senior management here, but rather management on all levels).
  • Activating and providing support for moderation of comments and information in order to have employees in place who feel responsible for relevant “pockets” of the social intranet (e.g., moderation of a community focused on one of your products).
  • Defining and implementing a simple, but effective, governance structure for your social intranet.
  • Integrating social media activities into your organization’s foundation in order to express acknowledgement and appreciation of participation in the social intranet (e.g., incorporate it into your organization’s appraisal systems, values, face-to-face communication, etc.).

Organizational environments and cultures can change, but they do so only slowly and gradually. A company intranet is a great instrument to support such changes, as it can become a tool that reflects your corporate culture every time an employee makes use of it. And as intranets increasingly become the key ingredient of the digital workplace, the number of chances to express that culture is rising exponentially.

Stephan Schillerwein is director of research at Swiss-based consulting company Infocentric Research AG. He’s an experienced information management professional who specializes in intranets, social media, enterprise search and collaboration. He’s co-author of four books on the topic and a frequent speaker at European events. You can follow him on Twitter @intranetmatters or e-mail him at


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