Photo by J D Hancock

In the various intranet and social technology conferences I have spoken at this year, I have been surprised by the limited scope and mandate of intranet manager and Enterprise Social Network (ESN) community manager roles in some organisations. In many cases, the role these managers have been assigned is focused on content, engagement and system management, but not organisational improvement or change. To an extent, this is because companies still struggle to understand the value proposition of connective platforms, and therefore fall back on basic proxy measures that social media folk were tracking 5 years ago or more. But as intranets and ESNs develop into the base for a wider digital workplace, I think there is a missed opportunity here, and a more interesting role to be defined, given how close social platform managers are to the real heartbeat of the organisation.

The need for organisational reform – the ‘why’ of digital transformation – seems to be quite widely accepted among even traditional firms today, but they sometimes lack the courage and imagination to tackle what seems like a complicated challenge that cuts across silos, hierarchy and individual business goals. Instead of coming together to re-imagine and re-design the organisation for the future, many organisations are retreating into the domain of self-help, cultural interventions and ‘change starts with me’ approaches that make people feel warm and cosy, but which don’t really address the real problems they face. Or they cling to the hope that putting post-it notes on a wall = agile, which means they are SAFe. This is cargo cult thinking, something we as humans are very prone to.

The reality is that without starting to change the fabric of the organisation and the way it coordinates work, only marginal improvement is possible. Structural problems are unlikely to be solved by attending a workshop about new behaviours or joining a discussion circle. But nor will they be solved by tilting at windmills, like Don Quixote.

As Buckminster Fuller famously said:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

So, instead of just locking horns with the old ways of organising work, and trying to change deeply ingrained ways of working, it can be more productive to identify emerging new practice, structures, culture and ways of working and try to spread them and build on them. In every organisation we have worked with, you get the sense that there is a future firm trying to emerge from underneath the formal structures. Sometimes informal work coordination structures and networks are becoming stronger and more useful than the formal structures above them, emerging future leaders are already working in a connected and open way, or perhaps small teams are producing innovative new products or services, over there in the corner. The question is how can collaboration champions help connect this good practice and help take it mainstream?

All new organisational operating models that are working well tend to have one thing in common: they focus on creating lateral connections between people and teams, in contrast to the divided silos and departments created by hierarchy. Horizontal platforms and networks are better at coordinating work than vertical reporting lines. Ultimately, in my view, this will lead to much of what we regard today as management being replaced by platforms that provide access to technology, services and algorithms.

ESNs and social intranets are probably the earliest geological layers of connected business-as-a-platform structures that exist today. Therefore, we can think of them as a foundation for the emergence of the future firm. That also means we should have more ambitious goals for these systems than just encouraging employees to comment on a CEO’s ghost-written blog post or announcement, and we should tap into the skills, connections and knowledge that intranet managers and ESN community managers have developed.

Some Practical Suggestions to Level Up

Intranets 1.0 were about broadcasting corporate communications, and were mostly run by internal communications departments that grew up on one-way communication and control of the message. Intranets 2.0 were about content plus community, and gradually evolved into social intranets that were more balanced between ‘official’ corporate and user-generated content. But even social intranets suffer from the fact that they are often spaces for conversation, but not so much for work. Work content often exists somewhere else, in Word and Powerpoint files, or perhaps older systems of record; but the intranet is just a place to share and talk about it. That is perhaps the most important thing that needs to change for intranets and ESNs to be more compelling.

Of course, every system is different in terms of focus or stage of maturity, so there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation, but here are some practical suggestions based on our experience. Lawrence Lock Lee recently wrote about six stages of digital workplace maturity, which is a useful way to organise them:

Platform adoption

This requires a solid adoption strategy based on analysis of user needs and goals, plus good content to communicate the benefits, and maybe a dose of psychological nudging and networked influence to get people playing along. Adoption strategy needs to start from an analysis of user needs and experience, and create a clear case that they can achieve their goals or improve their work by becoming an active collaborator on the platform. 

User Engagement

In the early days, intranet managers addressed this challenge by creating great content, and that is still a useful starting point for engaging people; but even the most interesting organisation might find it hard to compete with social media for engaging content.

In our experience, a better approach to engagement is to give employees a voice and seek their input into how to improve the experience of work. Run regular discussions or surveys about what the organisation can do better to support their works and perhaps invite them to report broken or outdated processes that can be improved.

Connecting

People need to find their networks, communities and connections to make the collaboration experience useful to them, and this is an area where community management is particularly useful. But it is also a system design question. The best online systems encourage serendipity and happy collisions based on shared interests, location or work topics that might cut across team membership. To accelerate this process, we recommend using the networked influence of digital guides or ‘change agents’.

Connecting is not just about individuals, but also different communities and functions within the organisation. This is why we encourage organisations to convene a digital coordination group that can being together leading digital stakeholders to ensure the user experience is as seamless and connected as possible, and to avoid major functions like communications, marketing, IT and HR all doing their own thing on the platform, rather than acting together. Such a coordination network, working as part of the platform, can also help ensure a more connected digital strategy more broadly for the organisation.

Sharing

Where people lack confidence to share and discuss online, techniques like working out loud can be helpful in providing an on-ramp. Another useful technique is to encourage senior people to share ideas and content that are slightly raw and un-polished, to demonstrate to the organisation that anyone can contribute and reduce fear of embarrassment in front of their peers. Thinking out loud should be encouraged, and it is important to cultivate a sense of safety and respect that means people do not snipe, snark or shut down discussions as often happens on anonymous public internet channels.

There is also a technology and user experience angle to sharing. Where people’s work content lies outside the platform, it is hard to take that extra step to share it for others to see. Ideally, sharing should be a by-product of work – for example, in a wiki, colleagues receive updates when you add or edit a page, or in a modern chat tool like Slack, a notification from a connected work system might pop up in a team channel. This encourages work sharing and means people do not have to take an extra step to let colleagues know what they are working on.

Solving

This is where the rubber hits the road. Now we are connected and sharing, the priority should be work relevance and purpose to avoid a future of sharing kitten pics and cupcakes. Employees need to be able to solve work problems using the platform. First, this might need some systems integration to enable work to take place natively in the digital workplace, rather than in older systems of record, and ideally people should have  access to a range of work-related apps in addition to the base platform.

This is where the emerging model of the digital workplace as ‘connected platform plus a diverse set of apps’ is playing out. No longer do we need IT departments to mandate the one way to perform a particular task, and provide one tool to do so. People are different and will have different ways of getting their work done, and so the digital workplace should be able to facilitate different approaches.

Perhaps the most useful thing platform managers can do for this stage is to create a digital workplace learning community where people can find out about new ways of working, learn new tools and also share their own practices, tips, tricks and hacks in much the same way that players of online games fill their forums with obsessive discussions about the best tools or techniques to play better. By analysing and understanding the use cases that people are fulfilling on the platform, we can provide workflows and guidance on how to get their work done more efficiently within a social context, and develop learning content that can help others do the same.

Innovating

Innovation often comes from connections and coincidences, and so a good starting point is to identify pockets of innovative behaviours, shine a light on what they are doing and help them connect with others who could contribute. We think of this as mapping the nascent future firm, which we do by identifying new or emerging digital capabilities and mapping them so the whole organisation has a better idea of what it knows and what it can do. Often, the sources of new practice are within informal structures or so-called ‘shadow IT’ rather than central departments. This builds on our ESN data insights practice to create dynamic maps of connections and capabilities.

The other innovation challenge that these platforms are ideally suited to address is innovating around the organisation itself – tweaking processes, structures and practices to become more agile and responsive. We do this through a distributed discussion of what needs to change, and by inviting ideas (big or small) about potential change actions that can move the organisation in the right direction. Ideally, this involves every team or unit having an agile backlog of improvements that they can try out when time allows to always be refining the way they work.

A seventh stage of maturity?

Beyond innovating on the platform, I think there might be an additional stage of service development. Once people have solved problems or tried out new solutions, they should be able to embody these in online services that others can come along and use, rather than have to re-invent the wheel. The closest example in intranet land is the workflow form designer for processes such as holiday booking or purchasing requests. But instead of online forms submitted to a bureaucratic offline process, imagine instead an app that does the whole thing from start to finish online and automatically. This is how an engagement platform can gradually grow into becoming a work platform, and one that can coordinate value creation better than hierarchical management. This would turn the whole organisation – potentially – into service designers or developers, with the support of designers and coders, which is a truly exciting prospect.

Looking back at Lawrence’s maturity stages, I suspect that many intranet managers and ESN owners are still stuck in the first half of the list, and feel their mandate is to keep things ticking along and increase ‘engagement’. But in reality, they have access one of the most powerful tools for change in their organisation, and one that will be at the heart of the future firm. If they step up and create higher order value for the organisation by moving from engagement to work fulfilment, they can advance their own careers as well as the interests of the organisation, and I very much doubt anybody is going to get disciplined for organisational improvement.

The experience, connections and networking skills that successful community managers and intranet leaders have developed over time could be very important to the process of digital transformation, and starting from the existing communities and networks could ensure a more grounded, distributed approach that is more likely to sustain in comparison to centralised, top-down initiatives.

>> If you are looking for quick solutions to your ESN or Intranet challenges, please get in touch or take a look at our Enterprise Social Solutions section to find out more about how we could help.

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