If there is one thing that became pointedly clear when I spoke at the J. Boye intranet conference, it's that we are all experiencing different aspects of what it means to become a world-class corporate (social) intranet.
The typical shelf life of an intranet implementation averages about 18 months. You can easily extend this timeline when you add on the complexities of social layers. So, if you feel that your company has been struggling with not only the correct strategy but also the implementation tactics of a social intranet, don't feel bad. You are not alone.
And, if the attendees of the intranet track are any indication, you are most certainly in good company.
So what makes the social intranet your company's holy grail or holy mess? Is it because your company struggles with engaging multiple demographics? Is it because you're global, but you focus too much on local? Do you lack the infrastructure to support a social intranet? Do you simply not have the manpower or resources?
These are all issues that I hear about frequently, and to be honest, there is no tried and true answer. You can talk with peers who struggle with similar quandaries, but learning by example can only take you so far. At some point, the direction and actions you take must be tailored to your company's specific needs and goals.
Avoid the holy mess
It may seem like you've heard this before, but I cannot say it enough: To make your social intranet an attainable goal, start by asking yourself a very basic question—What is the purpose of your intranet?
Don't make your intranet social because you want to join the social business bandwagon. Make sure you have the right people, content and tools in place first. Do you want your intranet to be content-based for communications and/or HR transactions? Do you want it to be completely social? Do you want something that is a hybrid of the two? The only wrong move here is to make the wrong decision for your business needs.
One of my most memorable conversations from the J. Boye conference was with someone who questioned the deployment of a completely social intranet. The question was, "How do you balance social technologies with key business objectives and messaging?" Or put another way: "How do you balance social apps like Yammer with important (static) content such as company policies and forms?"
Don't confuse social with being sexy. Yes, your intranet should evolve, but no one ever said that an intranet that focuses primarily on content while also having a slick interface isn't sexy. A social intranet that doesn't have the infrastructure or resources to support it is not sexy.
Until your business is ready to jump into the social intranet pool, keep your site a value-driven destination for your employees by sticking with what works. Content is key. If your content works, then follow this favorite saying of mine: If it doesn't suck, then don't muck.
An intranet that fully embraces social technologies is, in essence, a virtual water cooler. I have not yet seen a company making its core intranet 100 percent social, but I have heard rumbles of some companies considering this.
A social intranet could be anywhere from entirely collaborative sharing to employee-generated content on wikis and/or microblogs. Admittedly, a lot of information managers would be hard-pressed to convince senior leadership to convert to a completely social intranet without sharing some business advantages or ROI. On the flip side, if you're a company that is just now transitioning your intranet from a static document repository, a completely social intranet just might be the solution you need.
A hybrid intranet is one that adds social layers to a pre-existing infrastructure. Personally, I think this is the most rewarding social experience for an employee. It combines all the communications and transactions that an employee needs in order to learn, plan and do their work. This is probably the most complicated, and a resource and time consuming approach, but the long term payoff is a more enriching and value-driven intranet for both the company and the employee.
Think about a day in the life of the average employee: publishing and sharing content in real time, easily finding and executing on key business objectives, supporting and recognizing ideas from peers, instantly communicating with global colleagues—a hybrid intranet is the effective virtualization of all these things.
Attain the holy grail
So when it gets down to the nuts and bolts, how do you do it? Again there is no simple answer. Finding and implementing a holy grail of an intranet site is an attainable goal, but there are four cornerstones with which you must start:
Who is your intranet for if not for the people? If your intranet isn't useful to the employees who are supposed to use it, then you will definitely find yourself in a holy mess. Design your intranet based on the work and life of your employees—assess how your employees use technology both in their lives and their jobs so that you can make both more productive, social and simplified. Calibrate your intranet knowing that how your organization is viewed by your employees varies not only by global and technological needs, but also by demographic ones.
Your content is the meat and potatoes of your site. It's the stuff that really counts. How do you nurture a healthy flow of content? You need to know what people want and make it available to them. That means encouraging people to cough up the content and ensuring the right information bubbles to the top.
Your intranet has to support the things your employees do every day; it has to be a site that allows them to learn, plan and do. Human processes are often overlooked in favor of technical development. The best intranets help employees achieve key business objectives while also enabling them to do their jobs more efficiently, and introducing them to global colleagues with whom they might need.
If your project kicks off with the purchase of software licenses, expect to waste time adapting your problem to fit the solution. Any project team that puts the technology cart before the business horse is asking for trouble.
Your intranet must solve a communication problem, and it needs more than a platform. Ensure high tech does not replace high touch. Tools are not the story—tools are vehicles for delivering the story.
Elizabeth Lupfer is Senior Manager, Employee Experience and Web Technology at Verizon. She is a writer and keynote speaker through her blog, The Social Workplace, where this article originally ran.