A promising future for intranets and social media

“Make communications more exciting” is how I would summarize the sentiment of all who participated in the two Melcrum workshops on intranets and social media that I co-presented in London last week and in Manchester the week before.

Indeed, that was the first answer to the question “Why are you here?” that my co-presenter Dave Wallace and I asked our group in London last week. Although many different answers emerged from all the participants, that first answer really does capture the essence of what everyone was looking to gain from our one-day workshop “Enhancing your Intranet with New Technology: How to Make the Most of Social Media.”

Both workshops comprised groups of communicators who work for a wide range of different organization types. Big global corporations. Non profits. Public services. Different industries, from banking to pharmaceuticals to mainstream media; from energy to telecommunications. All with a common need and desire – to learn about social media, how it relates to traditional intranets and how to enable employees to more easily find, use and share information.

Dave and I decided the approach we’d take for the workshops would be one of explaining the traditional and the new and looking at how the two can gel, specifically from the communication point of view. So Dave led the first segment – creating an effective intranet and getting the fundamentals right – while I did the second: how to make the most of social media.

In this way, we set the foundational scene concerning intranets and how they are currently deployed in many organizations, and then examined how social media can be part of an intranet strategy that would get close to the first answer to the question we asked at the start of the workshops.

In the London workshop, our starting point in asking everyone to describe one thing about their own intranet they liked and disliked produced some great answers. None really surprising:

This roughly translates into issues that are all too common in many organizations:

  • The intranet is big, unmanageable and out of date
  • Disconnect between content and what employees are looking for
  • Technology driving the agenda
  • Lack of appreciation about how the intranet fits as a strategic tool
  • The intranet acts as a mirror for organizations often reflecting the political structure rather than a useful structure

When we began the larger segment on social media, it was pleasing to note that everyone had a good general awareness of blogs and podcasting. Few of them read blogs, though, and only two wrote one (personal). Few understood what RSS can do. Some listen to podcasts, although none from a business point of view (which reflects the severe lack of worthwhile business podcasting in the UK in particular).

It was also good to not hear the control word (as in “how do we control…?”), unlike Niall Cook’s experience in February when he presented on social media to a group of intranet (IT) managers.

The really interesting part began when we moved along from the broad presentation and definitions of blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS and so forth, and into deeper discussion about how such tools can work inside organizations as part of a communication strategy where the intranet is the foundation.

We asked: What if you could…

  • Provide employees with the means to self-connect information
  • Enable employees to apply conversational descriptions to information
  • Connect formal taxonomies with informal folksonomies
  • Give the organization the means to map trends and more effectively plan infrastructure development, based largely on employee-driven needs

This was a terrific way to introduce the concept of tagging. Given that public examples of what companies generally are doing internally in this area are so few and far between, we illustrated the concept by going online to look at del.icio.us and Digg as different but related examples of how people organize things that interest them, bookmarking and sharing that information in unstructured and informal ways. We looked at Tech Memeorandum as an example of how computers can do this rather than people.

You could see the light bulbs going on as everyone began to see how such a concept could address that first answer to our first question.

(Now there are some tremendous examples where you can see precisely what some companies are doing with social media, courtesy of Shel Holtz last week – McDonalds, Disney ABC Cable Networks Group and Siemens.)

It also set the scene nicely for a practical exercise we asked the group to do as teams, about a fictional organization who wants to redesign its intranet and invest in a new technology platform. The group’s task was to produce an outline work plan for such a redesign and how social media can be part of the plan.

In their team presentations, we saw some great thinking and ideas illustrating that the group clearly understand the facts, ideas and concepts addressed and discussed throughout the day that connect intranets and social media in order to address communication needs.

If our two workshops are any indicator, then the future is bright indeed.

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