Life is messy. The world of work is messy. Platforms are messy.
Despite this, we try and categorise everything. Ambiguity is bad, order and structure are good.
Interesting then, and hardly surprising, that companies often have lofty ambitions to categorise their information.
Every company wants to be more efficient, of course they do, creating what Bill Gates called in his 1990's book (Business @ the Speed of Thought) 'a world-class digital nervous system...so that information can easily flow through their companies for maximum and constant learning”.
Fast forward 20 years. How far have we come?
Well, take a look outside the company walls and we see a ton of innovation in every shape and form - we have Uber reimagining the taxi industry, AirBnB giving us an alternative to hotels, Netflix instead of cable, Spotify replacing our music collections...the list is inexhaustable.
How are businesses getting on? Have they created the digital nervous system that Bill envisioned above?
Not really. What's the closest thing we've come to?
The company intranet. Oh dear.
Despite grand intentions, intranets often fail miserably. Unrealistic expectations. Lack of strategy and direction. A shortage of people with the right skills. Zero engagement and 'taking it serious' at the top which trickles down throughout the organisation. Poor tech (I put this last as paradoxically its the least important - some of the best intranets I've seen have been built on the oldest tech).
Intranets are also commandeered by communications departments who are not custodians of information for the business. The intranet is a means to delivering a news article, a new campaign, an emerging strategy. This results in a lot of 'vanity pages' that serve no-one except the ego of the leader whose mug-shot adorns the page.
So back to Bill's point, is this digital nervous system implausible? Will companies ever crack this nut? Yes, I believe they can. Moreover, the way to do this already exists - the enterprise social network. What follows are 8 of the main arguments for how social networks beat intranets as tools for sharing knowledge, expertise and helping us communicate as people in our organisations.
1. social networks are people-centric. We forget that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn have only been around a few years. Their existence has brought into being a whole new level of peer to peer interaction. I have witnessed how this transforms a business when it happens on the inside, its hugely powerful. The social network humanises the business.
2. social networks help you filter out the signal from the noise. You will never make sense of everything on the internet, as you will never make sense of everything in your organisation. Choose your followers well and they help you filter the good stuff from the chaff.
3. social networks create community. Unlike the typical file repository you find on an intranet, members of the community help each other in solving problems. A huge amount of time and effort goes into creating structured hierarchies for finding information, often leading to an information cul-de-sac for the person looking, who quickly gives up. Much simpler for that person to ask the community 'can anyone help with this?' and get an up-to-date response.
4. social networks are a truer reflection of life. They are spontaneous, unpredictable, frantic. In real life people resort to asking other people anyway when they need help - the real knowledge of the company lives in people's heads. Social networks create a place for people to ask for stuff and get answers. Not in search of the holy grail of documents.
5. social networks have energy. The network can build momentum and create talking points at lightening speed. Because it's a network of people and their ideas - and ideas can travel at an unbelievable pace.
6. social networks do not have hierarchy. An individual's worth is judged on his or her contribution to the network, regardless of whether that person is a production operative or senior vice president. The most followed person is not the most senior. The most followed is he or she who serves the network most.
7. social networks have an inherent sense of trust. Trust is implicit in all interactions. The network is very quick to disenfranchise the person who it can't trust. See a great example of this in Don Tapscott's TED talk 'Four principals for the open world' (minute 14:35) where he talks about how birds repel work in unison to repel enemies.
8. social networks are substance over style. The interface is relatively simple. No time is spent creating vanity pages. It's all about communicating.
We feel the urge to compartmentalise knowledge, to put it in boxes, in virtual filing cabinets. This desire misses something blindingly obvious = People. In any organisation every person has a heap of knowledge locked away which will never be labelled, categorised and stored away. Ask that person a question though, and most will be only too happy to help. The social network provides the means of doing this but is boundless with regards to geography, language, even time.
Yes they can be messy, and no not everything is neatly labelled and categorised - but when set up properly the benefits are staggering.
Hi there. I'm Gerard Richardson, a social business consultant with over 10 years experience working across large multi-nationals in digital communications, both internal and external facing. This site is called thenetworked.org and is my blog / scrapbook / live journal all about the power of social networks for business. Welcome aboard!