By 2016, 50 percent of large organizations will have internal Facebook-like social networks, and that 30 percent of these will be considered as essential as email and telephones are today. (Gartner Research)

Social networking sites are increasingly becoming the primary means of communication among people outside of their workplace. It should therefore come as no surprise that organizations are increasingly considering the option of deploying similar solutions internally to improve communication and collaboration among their employees. But the biggest hurdle senior management faces is in pinning down the ROI of a paradigm shift from emails, phones and traditional “secure” knowledge repositories to social intranets and real time collaboration platforms.

The problem is – most of them are looking for answers in the wrong place.

To understand the significance of the value a move to social intranets can deliver, lets first understand what is fundamentally wrong with the ‘corporate intranet’ as it exists today.  Intranets evolved as private networks within organizations that served as a platform to disseminate information internally. The early versions of intranets were a mash up of the rapidly developing internet technologies and the buzz surrounding knowledge management in the late ‘90s.

As the world transitioned from a post-industrial economy to the knowledge economy in the late 1900’s-2000s, the focus shifted from codified knowledge to innovation and speed. Intranets evolved as gateways to the various knowledge repositories spread across the company. Knowledge continued to be siloed in various departments but now there was a mechanism providing a means to “check-out/check-in” information. As organizations grew large, with many of them having teams spread across continents, and as technologies grew more complex, people started to spend more time searching for stuff – be it technical information or people who might have the information they need. Intranets serve this purpose very nicely too – most of them have the entire Corporate Directory hosted with nice (and sometimes not so nice) photos to match.

Understandably the intranets too have gotten large and complex trying to fix the problem of accessing larger silos faster.  The IT managers end up worrying more about the technology powering their intranets than the root cause of why intranets are increasingly failing to meet the requirements of people who use them daily.

The departmental silos form an invisible firewall to information that resides with them. Content managers responsible for codifying and publishing information tend to work in a certain degree of isolation. The information published might fit some pre-determined template but over a period of time critical insights and nuggets of wisdom will be missed out. Templates, that internet equivalent of bureaucratic forms, can hardly be expected to keep pace with the blazing speed at which technology evolves. Knowledge that is ‘explicit’ often gets documented quite well and is, with some amount of frustration introduced by silos, accessible. What gets missed out is the implicit knowledge.

In his 1991 article “The Knowledge-Creating Company”, Ikujiro Nonaka expounded the notion of ‘tacit knowledge’ – the insights and intuitions that are difficult to capture and share. In today’s highly competitive marketplace where tectonic shifts are the norm, where technologies change almost overnight, competitors mushroom and multiply constantly and large companies become obsolete without warning – knowledge is the key to success. Companies that are able to respond quickly to customer demands, create new markets and develop new products will be the ones who dominate.

In this landscape, traditional knowledge management systems fall short. Social intranets step up to meet the challenge of unlocking the tacit knowledge in the organization. Through increased and infinitely faster collaboration they help to attack the problem of knowledge dissemination at its very root – the departmental silos. If implemented in the correct spirit with minimal governance and oversight, social intranets and collaboration platforms form an excellent means of connecting people together and providing an opportunity to innovate.  Because of the inherently visible nature of conversations and interactions a simple code of conduct is all that is usually required. Social forums are very effectively self-regulating with little or no tolerance for bad behaviour.

Which now brings us to the million-dollar (or in some case much more) question: How does one measure the ROI of investing in a move to the social intranet? The answer is – look beyond the obvious.

The real cost of maintaining status-quo is not in the cost of the expensive servers, the proprietary technology platforms, the time invested in publishing relevant and updated content (if at all) and then accessing it but it lies in the missed opportunities to innovate. To unleash the true potential of their employees, the leadership of organizations have to embrace innovation and empower them to connect and collaborate. Information should be unlocked and discussions encouraged. The top-down control structure has to give way to peer-reviewed content generation to constantly refresh and upgrade organizational intellectual capital.

With social intranets, organizations have a wonderful tool with which to actually become the “Knowledge-Creating company”, envisaged by Nonaka. It’s either that or to become obsolete.  The “New World of Work (NWOW)” as Microsoft and other companies call it is happening right now.

Are you on board?

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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