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4 Guiding Principles for Blending Social and Traditional Intranets

4 Guiding Principles for Blending Social and Traditional Intranets

Blending Top-Down and Bottom-Up

How should how traditional intranet and social intranet approaches co-exist? Many organisations have invested heavily in highly structured and well governed intranets, but they also struggle to get regular, widespread content contributions. A social approach offers the promise of higher engagement levels and more dynamic content, but such tools are often introduced in tension with the existing intranet. This leads to concerns that there will be a loss of content control, or a loss of structure as topics get duplicated on different systems. Both of these ultimately threaten to degrade the user experience.

Citizens and consumers

This tension arises because it forces organisations to reconcile two different world views: the Employee as Citizen vs. Consumer.

The “Employee as Citizen” view is commonly ascribed to executives who see their role as setting strategy and direction. An inevitable consequence of strategy is that employees need to know things top-down to do their job, and it is important that they get clear, consistent messages about what’s going on. Traditional intranets support this approach and promote content on the basis of perceived importance by leadership.

The “Employee as Consumer” view positions the employee as a partner to the organisation. As knowledge workers, it is the individual who is best-placed to decide what they need to know and what they should communicate. This is similar to a free-market economy where consumer power dictates how things are shaped. Much of the internet social media activity is styled around this – allowing everyone to decide what is important. Additionally, the facilitation of micro-supply and micro-demand for niche information serves a long tail need for specialists that is rarely met by an intranet when content is architected top-down.

 Potential Drawbacks of Social Intranets

Despite the internet success of social media on the internet, when applied to the intranet context there are potential drawbacks:

  • Choice is not always desirable as it leads to inefficiency , duplication and indecision
  • Information overload has a direct cost to the organisation in employee productivity: socially-driven surfing is not alwasy the most efficient

Four guiding principles

The challenge then, is to access the benefits of a social intranet without the drawbacks and without undermining the benefits of the more controlled, traditional intranet. Four guiding principles can help you do this:

  1.  Design your intranet around communities. When intranet sub-sites are structured around what the information has in common (e.g. everything about pensions) or what the provider has in common (e.g. everything from HR) then it becomes hard to augment it with information produced bottom-up and organically. Instead sub-sites should be structured around communities of people (e.g. everyone who works in HR or everyone in the Manchester office).
  2. Let the community decide what adds value but provide manageable frameworks. The community will be best-placed to decide what it needs to know and the tools to use, but within that there should still be direction from that community’s leader to preserve navigation and make high-value content prominent (content curation).
  3. Blend content on the community from all levels. The community can be seen as an audience. Content should mix top-down and bottom-up so long as the origin is clearly marked, just as the BBC Website mixes authoritative journalism with reader comments.  Mark Morrell has blogged about how this is done at BT How users can tell it is social media content
  4. Use appropriate governance for each content type. Governance doesn’t have to mean control; it means making an explicit decision that some areas (e.g discussion forums) will generally be unedited, whereas others will continue to be tightly controlled (e.g. financial results). The same applies to IT; the fluidity of social media means that not everything needs to be industrial-strength initially, so long as users know this up-front.

See also:


Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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