Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Social tools for Internal Communications


Last week, Melcrum pulled together an interesting group of internal communications people from major European companies and organisations in Amsterdam for a discussion about the impact of social tools. David Ferrabee from Hill and Knowlton chaired the day, and I was tasked with leading the morning’s discussion of the possibilities and barriers for the adoption of social tools within internal communications.
My introductory presentation looked at the impact so-called Web 2.0 is having on a variety of markets, and then looked at the role of social tools inside the firewall within large organisations
I started from the premise that contemporary knowledge workers are not widgets on the conveyor belt of contemporary business, so we need to move away from the factory model of thinking about knowledge sharing and move towards a model of supporting individual needs and capabilities. In the old world, IT has done a poor job of understanding basic human behaviours and internal communications has continued to believe that its role is to act a as vehicle for transporting ‘the message’ from the centre to the periphery. Both of these are misconceptions that we need to leave behind in the new world of social networking an social tools. Traditional internal brand communications is looking very tired, and the shiny newsletter with the bouffant-haired smiling face sharing the corporate ‘message’ is producing diminishing returns in many cases. In its place, we are seeing the beginnings of a new approach where internal comms people stimulate, but don’t try to completely control, the conversation within their organisation from a networked perspective
Part of this is about the need for informal communications to help knowledge workers become more effective and afford them greater peripheral awareness of what is going on around them and above them. We need to make people less dependent upon email and sequential task processing and instead cultivate more autonomous behaviours, where individuals use their social networks to filter useful information and then carve out the time and the space in which to collaborate around actionable information and signals
In my view, one of the most underused resources that can help large group uncover and act on emerging issues and hot topics is the area of attention metadata in enterprise networks. Based on the assumption that the most scarce resource we have is our time and attention, companies could do a lot more with the attention metadata that social tools expose, which provides a good indication of where people are choosing to invest their attention and what subjects interest them. This brings us to one of the main objectives of enterprise social tools, which is to create a social reading and writing network that can enable what Stowe Boyd calls network productivity. This is something that long-time bloggers take for granted, but which is still quite revolutionary to people working in the lonely silos that an email+documents methodology creates. We call it social filtering. It has become almost a cliche that in networks of bloggers, useful information begins to find you rather than the other way around. I subscribe to 300+ individual feeds/sources on a daily basis, and this network of bloggers, writers, companies, academics and publications is my primary social filter for actionable market intelligence. If something important happens in my field in the morning, I can pretty much rely on the fact that I will have multiple analyses and thought-pieces about its implications by the afternoon. This is what we mean when we talk about social newsreading
From my 300+ sources, I may skim read 1000+ items every day, of which I might bookmark 10; if something really newsworthy is going on then I might write one blog post or internal analysis based on one or more of these signals. That means that as an individual, I am rigorously filtering my information inputs by amplifying the signals of 10 stories and perhaps adding my own insight and analysis to one key development in any given day. Imagine for a moment that a significant proportion of 5000 person knowledge organisation do this every day. The resulting social signals about what is important would be incredibly useful to the organisation as a whole, and would provide a far greater return for the overall investment of time and attention than unconnected reading and research. Creating this kind of flow for signals, information and insight is one of the key objectives of a social knowledge sharing strategy. KM people used to talk about the knowledge pyramid where a wide base of information is filtered to a middle tier of knowledge and then further refined into the ‘point’ of insight. Social tools give us the potential to do this in a networked environment
For me, as I have mentioned before, this is moving us towards actionable collective intelligence for perhaps the first time; and I find that very exciting indeed
Use cases for enterprise social toolsSo: where to begin? Well, starting with concrete business use cases is the Headshift way, so I shared some of those that we have come across recently in areas such as

  • informal knowledge sharing for teams and groups
  • business social networking
  • networked innovation using social tools
  • distributed learning communities
  • collaboration beyond the firewall
  • internal communications
  • re-inventing the intranet

In order to show how we have addressed some of these use cases, I delved into a specific case study that touches on internal communications, re-inventing the intranet and networked innovation from our work with the R&M marketing team inside BP. Since this project is now mature enough to deserve its own case file, I won’t go into the details here, but suffice to say that we were able to reinvigorate an intranet project using a modified Confluence wiki installation and some related work with Google maps mashups and blogging.
Talking to the group, who came from companies as diverse as Nokia, IKEA, Deutsche Bank and the local government in Helsinki, we also came up with a range of other specific use cases

  • generating human-scale communication, rather management jargon
  • reducing dependency on email and meetings
  • accelerating project research and brainstorming
  • integrating and developing corporate culture
  • real-time mass collaboration, like IBM’s JAMs
  • open innovation processes (e.g. reviving the IKEA suggestion box tradition)
  • stimulating business social networking
  • humanising procurement processes
  • cross-silo networking building
  • replacing newsletters with two-way conversational blogs
  • supporting sales teams and customer research
  • better peripheral awareness

Implementation ChallengesWhilst social tools often have a benefit on their own, it is sometimes useful to think about how they fit together and what different and complementary roles they can play within the social stack. We see enterprise social tools fitting together as part of what we call the ‘social stack’ (see diagram)

  • an underlying system governing flow using RSS to connect things together
  • a system of weak signals (primarily bookmarking and tagging) on top that enables people to pull out items that are worthy of greater attention
  • a network of connected conversations (usually in blogs) about this material to further filter relevant information and knowledge
  • wiki-based group collab
    where this insight can be refactored, organised and used for specific purposes
  • personal tools that allow individuals to organise their information and that can provide a personalised window onto the wider world of corporate information

But the conceptual framework is the easy bit. Overcoming barriers, intertia and backward IT operational infrastructure is the hard bit. We had a good crowd at the Amsterdam event, so I asked them what they found to be the most obvious implementation challenges, and they came up with some good answers

  • time pressures
  • trust issues
  • interoperability challenges
  • management culture issues
  • legal risks of written content (e.g. in financial or legal services)
  • the MySpace generation will be change agents, but they will not change management until/unless they become management

They also came up with some useful questions for people like us involved in advancing this kind of work within large companies

  • How do we engage early adopters?
  • How do we sell to partners without resorting to hype?
  • How do we integrate with other tools currently in use?
  • How can we develop in a way that is flexible enough to assimilate future changes?
  • How can we embrace hostile customer groups in external communications (e.g. retail banking or markets where users ‘mod’ products, for example by unlocking iPhones)
  • How can we overcome the attitude of some senior people that ‘my assistant will blog for me’
  • Where do we find the time to do this and how can we help people recover time from email and other less productive activities to do so?
  • How can we find the right balance between leadership and trusting people to get on with it?
  • Will this lead to a loss of personal contact?
  • Will it be an uncontrolled environment?

I think these are excellent questions, and I hope that my colleagues in Headshift and other enterprise social software consulting companies bear them in mind next time they are sitting around a table with internal communications people in large companies. It is far too easy for evangelists to dismiss people who “don’t get it” or gloss over legitimate reasons for organisational inertia or nervousness when dealing with new ways of working. Taking a collaborative approach to thinking and working through these issues is tough, it takes time and it can be frustrating, but it i the only way to create sustainable change and bring people with you on the journey, in my opinion
Finally, a big thanks to everyone at the Amsterdam conference who contributed ideas, insight and experience to this piece.

2 Responses to Social tools for Internal Communications

  1. By Lee White on October 8, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks for this! It is like a check list for a proposal I need to make for my boss. I an about to submit a proposal/justification for embedding E2.0 competency into an internal Project Management / Business Process Improvement group.
    I have been making a couple of stabs at some ideas on my blog, but this does a much better job of looking at the big picture.

  2. By Matt Moore on October 9, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Lee – I agree that people have legitimate concerns over the uses of these technologies. The critical part seems to be to get them to engage with them once. Just once. To find that point where they can actually engage and see the value for themselves. That may be different for every organisation. I’d be interested in examples of those contact points you’ve actually seen working in organisations.