May 9, 2012

Social Intranets and Organizational Collaboration

“Intranet” is an outdated concept and word. Can it be rehabilitated with “Social” as its first name? There have been some excellent articles and posts recently that help articulate the evolution of enterprise Intranets especially as social collaboration factors are considered.

In a recent article entitled Why Social Networks Are Replacing Intranets (subscription required), Aragon Research makes the case that Social Business environments like Convo are increasingly being considered for corporate Intranets. We’ve definitely seen this trend among our users.

The fundamental logic is that social Intranets are about connecting people who are trying to get real work done. They connect people to people, not just people to content.

But simply adding an activity stream to the internal corporate portal does not make it more appealing (except for voyeurs) nor does it add additional value. At the heart of the trend toward Social Intranets is the interest in making collaborative capabilities more available throughout the enterprise.

What is Collaboration?
If an effective Social Intranet is about collaboration, it’s important to establish the kinds of collaboration you need, and what will be enabled by each potential socially competent platform.

In an article called Collaboration – If it Were That Easy We Would all Do It – Well, Carl Frappaolo talks about the different kinds of collaboration. Based on the model in that article, with a slight modification, we can assume five kinds of collaboration, described below.

1. Communication and coordination. The most basic form of collaboration is simply providing unstructured electronic messaging infrastructure, usually in the form of email.  Of course, collaboration often devolves to using email as its primary environment, though Frappaolo didn’t include this as a collaboration type, presumably because it was so primitive.

Any platform that enables this kind of interaction can – and will – call itself a “collaboration environment”. This includes apps like email but also including earlier stage social environments such as Chatter. According to this grouping, they may be technically correct, but communication-oriented tools only scratch the surface.

2. Communities of practice/interest. People that share an interest and presumably a need for knowledge in a particular area come together to share ideas, insights questions and information. These environments offer a different kind of collaboration than email because the content is persistent, shared and capable of being commented on.

Here platforms such as Google Groups or wikis or even online bulletin board can call themselves collaboration environments but, again, there is much lacking in from the broader collaboration perspective. Note, many of these apps don’t even integrate the communications capabilities of the former type.

3. Content collaboration. Beyond a static content repository, this environment enables sharing and commenting on content, and can include content editing. Here too email is often used, but you are then constantly managing messages and their attachments, and correlating them to content versions.

In this context, tools like Box and many other file sharing platforms can refer to themselves as collaboration environments, because they offer the ability to comment on content.

However, a significant limitation to file sharing as collaboration, even if discussions are enabled, is that they lack the first building block: a dynamic communication environment that makes the collaboration more immediate and responsive.

4. Project collaboration is really the culmination of each of the previous three forms. When communication, community and content are integrated, the result is a very robust shared workspace that can enable a wide variety of distributed project teams. (Note: Frappaolo has a related type he calls “goal-based collaboration, which I combined into this type).

Basecamp is a good example of this, where your project teams can share files, to-do lists, and discussions relevant to the project context, though the communication model not particularly social, dynamic or real-time.

5. Process collaboration. Collaboration here is in support of a business process, such as sales, employee performance reviews, or reporting. Most current pundits agree that here is where the ultimate payoff of social Intranets will lie, when the improved connection and collaboration models can be applied to improving business performance.

(This perspective skirts the other obvious, but less measurable benefit of social software, the qualitative side of making an organization more human, more connected, and in the process improving employee engagement and satisfaction.)

The current approach to process collaboration among social platforms can be seen in Chatter and Yammer, which merely provide notification of events within process-oriented platforms such as or SAP.

The Evolution of Organization Collaboration
The next generation of social collaboration brings the collaboration environment to the process platform, and enables higher-bandwidth sharing – embodied in the other four collaboration types – to business processes.

Convo offers this higher-value integration right now, right out of the box, for many process-oriented platforms. This is why we call Convo the evolution of social business, because it’s moving social collaboration to new levels of relevance and value. More to come on this topic in the next few posts.

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