What is a social intranet? The definitive explanation.


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First, what is an intranet?

Definition: An internal website that helps employees get stuff done.

See our full blog post defining “intranet” for a detailed explanation and a fun bit of controversy in the comments.

Next, what is “social”?

“Social” may be the most overused word in technology today. I think you’d find, though, that the average businessperson would struggle to define “social software” and “social media”, resorting to feeble references to Twitter and Facebook.

Social is really just about people interacting with each other. “Social software” is software that enables users to interact with each other. “Social media” is content (“media”) published by a bunch of people who can interact with each other and the content. An “ice cream social” is a party where people interact with each other while eating ice cream. (Given the choice, I’d pick an ice cream social over any other kind of social, any day.)

Definition of “social intranet”

So, to the point of this post. The definitive explanation of a “social intranet”:

An intranet where all employees can author content and connect easily

It takes two things to make an intranet social:

  1. Authorship: The ability for everyone to create content
  2. Connections: The ability to see the people behind the content and to connect with them in some meaningful way

Traditional intranets have very narrow authorship, restricted to a small handful with official “editor” permission. Traditional intranets also lack connections. Content is basically anonymous and shows no social context, no connection between pages and specific people.

A social intranet allows all employees to author rich content, connects every piece of content to a specific, living and breathing person, and helps people connect with each other. On a social intranet the “people layer” permeates the entire site and makes every page more personal and more human.

Origin of the term “social intranet”

I’m proud to say that I coined the term “social intranet” back in early 2009. Well, it might have been Darren (our CEO). Or maybe we both cried out the term in unison during a moment of epiphany in a meeting. We can’t quite remember which one of us it was, except that we both erupted in enthusiasm when we realized we had captured the term that explained what ThoughtFarmer was (and is). I suppose we should have recorded the event and ran to the trademark office. In any event, we’re pleased the term has taken off.

Not about specific tech tools

We’ve seen some interesting definitions of “social intranet”, some that are too complex and others that define the term based on the specific software tools that have thus far been popular on social intranets (such as blogs, wikis, activity streams, etc.).

Those definitions can be helpful, but limit themselves with reliance on specific technology and formats. Just because you don’t have a blog on your intranet doesn’t mean it’s not social. And the specific tools available next year may not be on this year’s list.

Who knows what new enterprise technology will be common on the intranet of the future? We’re not sure. But we’re pretty sure wide authorship and the formation of connections will be at the core. What really matters is that social intranets humanize the workplace and give every employee a face and a voice.


Join The Discussion

  1. James Dellow

    People, Places, Things… Connections, *Accessibility* (from different places – desktop widget, smartphones, etc), Authorship. In some respects, if we boil it back further, its about supporting social objects – something fileshares and traditional intranets never did. It would also be nice to talk about the purpose of a social intranet too, particularly with your point about humanising the workplace. That’s one reason why I’ve also been using (along with ‘social intranet’) phrases like social workplace. But that brings me back to Davenport’s simple call for human-centred information systems, which I think gives a broader perspective on to defining social intranets and the context for why we need them to exist – see http://chieftech.com.au/the-intranet-is-dead-long-live-the-human-cent

  2. Richard Dennison

    Leaving aside the word ‘intranet’ and what that may or may not mean 🙂 … I would agree that the basic building blocks for a social intranet are the ability for everyone to connect and to co-create/author/publish. I would also throw in a ‘supportive culture’ … otherwise, you just have a load of expensive social functionality which no one uses.

  3. Richard Dennison

    As a mini-addendum to the above … if I was going to define a simple set of objectives for the social functionality on an intranet, they would be something like this:

    – expose in the network who people are and what they are interested in/working on/thinking about
    – provide a way to search (and discover) through the above
    – offer a simple mechanism to connect people together in networks
    – automatically expose the activities of individuals to those in their networks through activity streams.

    (… actually, they could also be objectives for a simple knowledge management strategy!)

  4. Chris McGrath

    James, you’re right, we need to talk more about the purpose of social intranets. I believe the chief purpose of a social intranet is employee engagement, as Gallup describes: http://www.gallup.com/consulting/52/employee-engagement.aspx. Will blog more about this at a later date.

    Richard, thanks for that list of objectives. When I read it, it feels more like microblogging. I think microblogging is useful and important, but limited. What do you think is the key difference (or differences) between a microblogging platform and a social intranet?

    • Richard Dennison

      Microblogging is an important component of a social intranet – it offers near real-time, public conversations. I think microblogging can be the lifeblood pumping through a social intranet – giving it character and life. However, I didn’t mean the objectives above to just be about microblogging – the ‘exposure’ of people’s stuff could be via profile pages/social directories; the ‘connection’ via social networking-type functionality; the ‘activity feeds’ could include all the stuff my connections are up to in the on-line space (e.g. uploading new docs into doc mgt system; posting a blog post; ‘tweeting’; updating profile details; uploading podcasts; commenting on other people’s stuff; etc.).

  5. Tim

    The simpler the “definition,” the better. This was a nice attempt to define something and too much picking at it and refining it will diminish it. If everyone can contribute to an internal set of conversations, and get and give feedback, it’s a social intranet, IMO. That’s what I read here, FWIW.

  6. Chris McGrath

    Thanks Tim. I like simple definitions too. Just need to be sure that they’re not so simple that they can be applied to email, too.

  7. John Tropea

    Your two definitions work really well together

    “An internal website that helps employees get stuff done by being enabled to author content and connect easily”

    For me traditional intranets don’t do either of these…

    Yes I want the Intranet for information like company news, forms, business unit profile pages, portal, hot links, but I also want it to be an enabler to do work. At the moment the “doing work” part is evolving in social software platforms, which is not the intranet as they lack the top-down communication and information part. This is where I think Thoughtfarmer is unique. Anyway whether it’s the intranet or not what’s important is online free-form tools for people to get work done (authorship and connection) as you say…an evolution from email, MS Office and ERP’s, but also a friend of them. I call it a shift from private by default to public by default. And a shift from personal computing to social computing.

    II think it needs to enable sense-making. I need to connect to people to ask questions, find things, re-frame things in my context, share my experiences…not only get answers to exception handling but also do something about exception handling by collaborating on online documents that are the practice that complement the procedures.

    cont… in next comment

  8. John Tropea

    If most work nowadays is non-routine and ad-hoc (and like always we need to connect to people that know stuff) then enabling tools to make this happen is what’s now being served.

    Tom Davenport illustrated this nicely, and Oscar Berg spoke about it insightfully

    So whether the backdrop is an Intranet, a CMS or simply a standalone collaboration software, as you say we need to connect to people to get things done.

    And look what we get for free – knowledge sharing and retention as work is observable (ie. information objects that are always being re-mixed), employee engagement (desire to connect, become known more than a job title would let you know, sense of belonging and ownership, sense of impact and making a difference, less frustration as we can connect beyond silos, build relationships, find tasks we like……) And if this goes on and reaches a tipping point I think we may shift in organisational design in an official way..why, cause we are legitimizing the informal organisation…but the formal and informal part of the organisation become visible and official.

  9. Marie Wallace

    Nice summary Chris! Catches all the points simply laid out. I am just going propose one additional thing required for a successful Social Intranet… Make it the lucky number 3 🙂

    3. Analysis: To derive insight from these social interactions and knowledge exchanges in order to drive concrete measurable value to individual employees and to the business as a whole.

  10. luke

    I’d pick up on Richards point about ‘supportive culture’. For something to be social it has to foster or support society(s).

    Societies form where people maintain relationships. These could be ‘friendships’ and take the form of conversation by giving everyone ‘a voice and a face’. Or, relationships could also take the form of allies – relationships founded on actions of support or sharing and not necessarily through conversations.

    e.g.. Following lists in twitter, subscribing to RSS feeds, using other peoples delicious bookmarks are all ‘social’ but rely on a culture of openness rather than a personal relationship with a face and voice.

  11. Chris McGrath

    Marie, I think that needs a separate blog post — “what makes a *successful* social intranet?” That’s another big question, as there are definitely unsuccessful social intranets out there that still meet the criteria I outlined.

    Luke, good point. Your comment makes me think of another idea that was percolating but didn’t make it to my post: connections can be either implicit or explicit. Following, friending, subscribing is an explicit connection. An implicit connection might be two people who comment on the same post or edit the same page. Both qualify as connections; both are social.

    • luke

      I’d say Amazon is a social e-store. It makes implicit connections between your browsing preferences and those of others.
      It encourages you to purchase items that ‘people like you’ have been interested in and nudges you with social proof like ratings and reviews.

  12. EphraimJF

    Marie, Luke & Richard: If Chris was defining a “successful social intranet” then I think “supportive culture” and “analysis” might need to be parts of the core definition. But for “social intranet” those two concepts go beyond the basic definition.

    A social intranet where all employees can author content and connect easily is, by nature, quite open. The value an organization and employees get out of that social intranet relies very much on the culture surrounding it. But that’s an issue of value, not of basic definition.

    • luke

      I don’t entirely agree. Yes – the act of support would be an indicator of success. But the mechanisms to provide support should be provided by the platform

      You can’t add a discussion forum onto your intranet and call it a social intranet. The platform has to do more than just allow everyone to contribute – it has to allow everyone to help everyone else add and derive value.

      • Richard Dennison

        I agree with Luke … I think an intranet is more than a set of objective functions – having social functionality doesn’t in my view make your intranet ‘social’ … I think the ‘secret’ ingredient (i.e. culture) is integral to any definiton of a social intranet.

  13. Chris McGrath

    @richard i agree that the right culture is necessary to make a *successful* social intranet. i don’t agree that the right culture is necessary to *have* a social intranet. indeed, my company sells social intranet software. it’s social intranet software before anyone buys it, and it’s social intranet software whether or not anyone uses it.

    to compare: maybe you buy a video phone. it’s a video phone because it has the capacity to show video of the person with whom you’re speaking. and it’s still a video phone even if no one calls you.

    defining the term “social intranet” is not the same as providing the answer to the question, “is your intranet social?” that’s an important question. but it’s for another post (one that you’ve provided great material for!).

  14. Richard Dennison

    Chris – I’m almost persuaded 🙂 … however, if you were going to define a ‘party’ for example, a room with some music playing and some bowls of crisps might describe the ‘infrastructure’ required for a party, but without people it’s just an empty room with music playing and some bowls of crisps! It feels to me that a social intranet is similar … the ‘infrastructure’ is vital but without people it’s just functionality. As you say, you don’t sell ‘social intranets’ but social intranet ‘software’ – there’s all the world of difference between these two things … or maybe we’re just dancing on the head of a pin now! 🙂

  15. Chris McGrath

    To continue your metaphor: is a social intranet a party, or is it a nightclub? I’d suppose it depends who’s asking, and why.

    I’m in the business of selling nightclubs. Intranet managers are the DJs. And everyone knows a nightclub with a lousy DJ is a bore.

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