Hiding from the gaze of the social intranet

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Every week ThoughtFarmer calls customers to discuss the practical matters of running an intranet: the good, bad, and the ugly. We do these calls in the hope that we can learn lessons on how to make our product better and more valuable.

I had one such call earlier today with a professional services firm who talked about the evolution of the use of ThoughtFarmer at their company. Like all of the calls we have with customers, it was rich with insights into the real world problems and day-to-day challenges faced in organizations trying to be more communicative, collaborative, and productive.

The firm I spoke with this morning started their intranet journey with us a couple of years ago when they replaced a stale intranet powered by SharePoint 2007. Their SharePoint intranet was a place to store content, a document repository of sorts, but there wasn’t much conversation and it certainly wasn’t a collaborative environment; it was difficult to use and wasn’t providing much value to the company’s project teams.

They evaluated several products and chose ThoughtFarmer to provide staff with an environment where everyone in the organization could contribute, collaborate around projects, and hopefully have their intranet become a knowledge hub for the company.

After the roll-out of ThoughtFarmer, the economy took a nose dive and they lost staff due to lay-offs and a lack of project work. As they lost projects and staff, the professional services firm’s focus on utilization and working billable hours increased. As anyone who’s ever worked as a consultant knows, time is money. Working on billable work is what drives the bottom line in knowledge-worker consultancies.

This shift towards focusing on productivity and staff’s billable utilization had an impact on how the intranet was used. People were not spending as much time with the intranet, not sharing the types of project success stories and communicating with each other on non-related project work, as “no-one wanted to be seen on the intranet.” With all of the activity stream information, status updates, and social visibility features on the intranet, people became concerned that using the tool would be a sign of non-billable work, a sign that they were playing around on the intranet and not doing their “real job.” The ability for their work to be observed and tracked by senior management and executives was scaring employees from using the intranet in the way they’d originally intended. They were afraid to “work in public” on the intranet.

People doing real work
What real work looks like

As a result, news items or team blog posts that were to be posted or interesting content that people wanted to share was now being sent to the intranet coordinator to post to the site, even though everyone had permissions to do so in the “anyone can edit anything” environment they’d created. The reason: the intranet coordinator was seen as a safe person who wouldn’t get in trouble posting content to the site, because that was their job. They were allowed to be on the intranet, after all.

The purpose of their hard times intranet shifted from a collaborative space to a communications space. Official company news items published internally are still read heavily, so too is the CEO’s blog published through the ThoughtFarmer blogging features. “Everyone wants to hear what he has to say,” said my interviewee. But the communications was less of a many-to-many model of Intranet 2.0 and more of a few-to-many broadcast model, a more classic centralized intranet model of communications.

Their business development and sales efforts appear to be working and they are optimistic that their financial recovery is well underway. The future of the intranet will again be more collaborative, as project teams take on new work and again have the challenges of making tacit knowledge explicit and engaging staff geographically distributed across the country and time zones. And we’re happy that while they weren’t able to realize their vision of collaboration during their hard times, the intranet was able to shift its focus and provide value as a communication platform when it was required. It adapted to their business needs and managed to help the company communicate in the way they saw fit.

What’s interesting about all of this publicly viewable work, about the social visibility that intranets like ThoughtFarmer affords, is what it says about the social norms of the workplace and the definitions of what constitutes “real work” and what’s not. And how that changes dramatically when there’s a lot on the line, like in the midst of an economic downturn when jobs are being lost and uncertainty and fear rule.

What opportunities were lost due to people keeping their heads down and hiding from the intranet? What could they have done differently during hard times to better connect people in the organization to stimulate business development efforts? How could forging those connections through the intranet have helped?

I wonder how many other companies struggle with convincing employees that their intranet is a legitimate place to get work done, a credible source of value and productivity within the four walls of the organization. Are the consumer-like design patterns of activity streams and status updates that make social intranets appear like Twitter and Facebook undermining the credibility of the tool, or is there something else at play here?

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  1. John Hyde

    Thank you for articulating some of the issues I struggle with as a new-to-the-game “knowledge-worker consultant.” I will also admit thinking many times in the past as I saw who was posting blogs on the company intranet, “Don’t these people have real work to do? How do they (and their managers) justify the time they spend writing blogs when they could be contributing to the company’s bottom line?” I don’t have the answers, but I do know, as your blog suggests, that it’s much easier to spend time on “soft” work when the company is doing well. Btw, an employee working at one of my clients pointed me to this blog. I appreciate how you probe and look below the obvious. Your questions at the end about Twitter and Facebook are provocative. Nice work.

  2. Patrick L

    Thank you for a very interesting article on the subject. I do think there is a tendency to put blogging and commenting into the more general “surfing” category. But if you were to measure the S/N ration in e-mails you would probably find that blogging and sharing information and knowledge via an intranet is way more productive. The trick is probably how to convey that message and transform it to culture.

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