ViewPoint: Is the Social workplace too touchy feely?

“Can our intranet be more like Facebook?”

Indeed. Nearly a billion users can’t be wrong, can they? The last few years has seen a big interest in the development of so called ‘social intranets’ or the social workplace. And with Microsoft’s takeover of social workplace and collaboration platform, Yammer, it’s been getting plenty of attention lately.

But what is it? And what’s the point of it all? Lots of questions being asked of the social workplace and everyone is looking for some decent answers. Do senior management see it as too ‘touchy feely’ and not useful for business?

Many intranets were developed to have a top down vertical flow of information and content. Stuff got published and workers were meant to read it. With the massive growth of social media, there is a whole swath of sharing, liking, following, commenting, tweeting, discussing and so on. What organisations have started to look at more recently is how they can bring social media type activities onto their intranets.

Blogs were a starting point and have had mixed success. Discussion boards too are another. Commenting on articles is also in there. SharePoint 2010 and other systems allow tagging and rating. Basically it’s about giving employees the means to express their views and provide more of two way conversation with senior managers and their colleagues. Collaboration, sharing knowledge, working on projects, etc., are also part of it.

There are many great examples of how this works very well (see links at the end).

But it is not for every organisation. Not only does it depend hugely on the culture but also the support of senior management and key leaders within an organisation. The effort to build the various tools and put the correct governance in place can also not be underestimated. It takes time and plenty of resources to get a social workplace up and running.

A key factor in all this social workplace stuff is trust. Trust in people not to write something stupid or offensive. Trust from senior managers that they will respond positively to criticism and demand something is removed just because it is critical. These are tricky balancing acts and require intranet managers with conviction and very, very clear policies, guidelines and governance.

Our own intranet in Aviva has very active and open discussion boards. Yes we have clear guidelines for usage but instead of one person being a constant moderator, we have found that people themselves moderate their colleagues which helps balance things out. What it does do is allow employees to ask questions, give feedback and be critical of aspects of our business. Many people come on and debate and discuss the issues in an intelligent way.

One of the early examples of this was when after our annual results were announced which were considered to be good but the share price dropped. Comments were made in our main forum about it. Before long, a very senior manager explained on the forum how the market was responding to our results and why. This was appreciated by staff and we not have many examples of this sort of response.

The first time I presented the discussion boards to team leaders and managers, I could hear the sharp intake of breath as they saw their teams being completely distracted by all this social stuff which they felt would affect their work. They wanted to know could we track people to see how long they were using the boards. I said no, we don’t and won’t do that. They’re adults, I said. Treat them as such and they’ll be responsible. And that’s how it’s been. We have had the odd issue on the boards but nothing major. A ‘3 strike and you’re off the boards’ rule was introduced and that has been successful. We also have an option for anyone to report dodgy content.

It is understandable for managers and companies to be concerned as to how they provide a social workplace but that is where good governance comes win along with clear guidelines for how people can use it.

But ultimately, you can have all the fancy Facebook like tools or a Yammer/SharePoint implementation but it does boil down to a trustful relationship between employees and senior management. If that is not there, then forget the social workplace, touchy feely or not.


The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work (book by Paul Miller)

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