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Social Intranet Technologies, Part 1

I’ve been seeing a lot of interest in the concept of a Social Intranet lately.  The intranet is your company’s internal content network.  In many cases, it is nothing more than a series of links to other systems.  In more sophisticated intranets, companies publish corporate news and announcements, departments have their own pages to share information, and people can perform work-tasks in one place.

In the past, companies have asked about adding social capabilities to existing intranet systems.  This might include adding a blog or a wiki.  But now, more and more companies are interested in replacing their old intranet with a new “Social Intranet”.  In this multi-part blog post, I’m going to explain what technologies are involved in a social intranet and then look at how the major vendors are addressing this need.

There are lots of articles on the internet about the human social aspects of the intranet – how to get people to use it, what policies you need in place, etc.  I am not going to talk about those parts of the social intranet.  Instead I’m going to focus on the specific technologies used to build a social intranet.  So lets start with defining what types of technologies are needed in a social intranet.

When you step back a take a holistic approach to a social intranet, you will discover that a lot of different types of software are involved. Social Intranet Technologies

In the picture to the right, you can see the various technologies involved  in a typical social intranet.  Not every social intranet is going to require all these different technologies, but most of them will be required.  Lets start at the top of the circle and go clockwise to see how each technology contributes to a social intranet.

Portal is typically a unifying technology in the intranet.  This is the tool that can display all sorts of information to the user in a secure and personalized way.  If you have  a need to display corporate news alongside a blog or with a user’s activity stream, a portal is a good technology to use.

Content / document management is the system used to manage and publish formal content to the intranet.  By formal content, I mean content that must be controlled by selected groups within the company.  For example, corporate news is a type of content that typically is published by very few people.  Company policy documents are another type of formal content that appears on the intranet.  A content management system allows you to control publishing and formatting of these types of content.

Sometimes Document Management is separate from content management.  This is especially true when your company produces contracts or needs to comply with certain government regulations.  A document management system allows you to control who can create, modify and see documents on the intranet.

Search is something almost every intranet requires.  When we talk about a social intranet, our search system needs to be able to search across formal content, social content, profiles, blogs, files, etc.

App Integration usually means surfacing work applications on the intranet so you don’t have to log on to several different systems during the day.  Imagine that you needed to make some updates to product information in your company’s ERP system such as SAP.  With SAP integrated into the intranet, you could go to the products page, look up the product you wanted to change and make that change right there.  This integration is typically provided by a portal, but doesn’t have to be.

File Sharing is a way to replace your company’s Y-drive or S-Drive or W-drive, whatever you call that place in Windows Explorer you go to find files across the company.  In most companies I’ve been at, the “S-drive” is one big, huge list of files that may be organized by user or by department.  In most cases, it is impossible to find a file unless another person points you to a specific one.  In the social intranet, we want file sharing to be much easier.  It needs to be integrated with the search system.  I must be able to organize the files in a variety of ways – by user and by department, but also by a tag or by a project or by a community.

Mobile access is almost universally requested now. However, many companies still do not offer mobile access to the intranet.  Mobile can mean just accessing the intranet from the mobile browser on my phone or tablet, or it could mean a mobile application that provides notifications or allows me to upload photos, etc.

User Analytics is the system that collects data about what pages a user opens, how long they look at a page, etc.  It is important to understand where your users are going on the intranet so you can make it relevant and remove areas that are no longer needed.  User analytic systems are often put off until the last minute, but should be implemented right away on most intranets.

Activity Streams list the status of other users and can be used for notifications.  If you’ve used Facebook, the list of posts by your friends is the activity stream.  In the social intranet, the activity stream keeps you up-to-date on what your colleagues are doing.  It can also be used for corporate news or announcements.

Microblogging is often used to feed your activity stream.  Some people get confused by the terms microblogging vs blogging.  A microblog is simply a short entry of information while a blog is often a much longer post.  Twitter is an example of a microblog – you are limited to 140 characters at a time.  This article is a blog and is much longer than a tweet.

Some newer systems also integrate the activity stream with business applications.  For example, if another person adds a new prospect to your Salesforce system, that activity shows up in your activity stream.  From the stream, you can access that prospect record without having to log on to Salesforce.com.

Blogs are everywhere on the internet.  On the social intranet, companies want to have executives write blogs to share information with the rest of the company.  Many companies are encouraging other employees to write blog posts as a way of sharing knowledge throughout the organization.  Blogs are supposed to be less formal, so often times they are not maintained in the content management system described above.

Wiki is a tool that is used to capture and share knowledge in a more formal way than blogs, but in a less formal way than content management.  wikipedia.com is an example of an internet Wiki.  In a typical wiki, users are allowed to enter and modify content.  Other users can moderate the content and make corrections or add additional content.   We typically see wikis used by project teams to document projects or by corporate staff to document corporate history.

Profiles are one of the most important systems in a social intranet.  A profile system allows users to enter personal information about themselves – what are their interest, what expertise do they have, etc – and combine that with formal information that the company has, such as title, manager, phone, address, etc.  Having a robust profile system, allows employees to find others who share common interestes, work on similar projects, or have expertise in certain areas.

Single Sign On (SSO) is the mechanism that we use to eliminate the need to sign on to several systems to get your work done.  At a typical company, you have to sign in to your computer through Windows, then you might have to sign in to your email system, then sign in to the intranet, then sign in to SAP, etc.  In a social intranet there are so many tools that without SSO, you would spend a good part of your day just signing in.  Therefore, when you build a social intranet environment, it is important to implement a SSO system that can eliminate as many individual sign ons as possible.

Security is a pervasive set of systems in any intranet.  With a social intranet, you are providing access to new kinds of information and allowing a greater level of collaboration among individuals at the company and sometimes outside the company.  You must make sure that security systems are in place to prevent people from accessing information they may not be allowed to see and to prevent information from being shared externally that is not allowed.

To sum up, social intranets are complex ecosystems.  In the past, an intranet consisted of a content management system that generated a series of pages anyone in the company could read.  Now social intranets consist of many different types of systems that must be coordinated and presented in a way that makes sharing and collaboration effective and efficient.

In the next post in this series, I’ll take a look at some additional technologies that are often overlooked when discussing a social intranet, but can be key components in an overall solution.

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