Friday 12 June 2009

Intranets and social computing - first mover disadvantage?

As you may know, in the past I worked at Ernst & Young in their Centre for Business Knowledge, the group who are responsible for the “KWeb” intranet. Outside of the top tier accounting firms (who have always understood they are involved in knowledge work), I’ve yet to find any large organisations with such a cohesive or advanced intranet, so I like to track public case studies and articles about Ernst & Young’s intranet and knowledge management program to see how it is progressing since I left in 2004.

Anyway, I was interested to read on the Intranet Benchmarking Forum’s blog that they had recently attended a leadership conference to provide a briefing on:

the latest trends amongst advance intranets and to parlay that information into a strategic roadmap for a next-generation intranet.
Alas, we don’t hear much about the audience’s reaction to these trends. I wonder how well E&Y’s intranet does benchmark against those trends, because there wasn’t really a lot there that struck me as new. I must admit this actually irritates me slightly - and I’ll apologies if there is a touch of arrogance here - but it really is time that the intranet industry takes a long hard look at itself and admits that its not really a case that some organisations are facing a set of new trends, they are really just catching up with innovation in other organisations that’s been taking place over the last decade or more.

Lets look at this apparently emerging issue about the “conflict between the desire to open up will be tempered by risk management and control”, as by its very nature the KWeb intranet is an open system that runs primarily on user-generated content. While I worked there, E&Y had hundreds of unmoderated, unfiltered discussion forums and thousands of project team databases. I don’t recall any major incidents, although I do remember some of the conversations about e-commerce getting quite heated! The only moderation processes that did exist was for the minority of ‘highly filtered’ knowledgebases, like PowerPacks - however, this moderation was for content quality.

Fast forwarding to the present day, this is only appearing to be a trend now in other less progressive organisations as Web-based collaboration tools (like SharePoint) have started to muscle into the traditional intranet space (e.g. static pages of content pushed at users to eagerly consume).

But its not a trend pointing to the future, its an indicator that you are lagging behind in how you imagine what an intranet should be. On the other hand I suspect Ernst & Young and those like it aren't lacking vision, but they may be struggling to take advantage of new Web 2.0 inspired enterprise technologies because of what’s in place already.

Another former employer, CSC, is a large organisation and presents another interesting case study from this point of view. They have a well established extranet, rather than an intranet, with a portal as a primary front end to multiple Web-based systems and sub-sites. However, while they are in the process of adopting social computing tools they face the challenge of integrating them into that existing Web 1.0-style extranet infrastructure.

I've seen similar situations in other large organisations I've worked with, particulary those that already valued collaboration and that had already deployed first generation Web-based collaboration tools.

From this I think there are in fact two key positions to understand:
  1. Progressive, early adopter organisations may now be at a disadvantage at a technology level, because they have lots of expensive legacy infrastructure to deal with - however, the culture is much better prepared to adopt a social computing-based intranet, so you can use that to your advantage. Luckily social computing can help make that transition in a cost effective way.
  2. Laggard organisations (and smaller organisations that never had access to enterprise groupware in the first place) have a temporary advantage to get ahead of the original early adopters if they can get past the cultural and business political issues that stop them from introducing new collaboration and social computing-based intranets. Its a lot harder to bootstrap culture change, but with a bit of effort you can fly under the radar at the technology level with social computing if you try. But fundamentally, you have to reinvent what the intranet means to your organisation in order to move forward.
So, what’s your organisation - an original early adopter or are a laggard?

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  1. Ben E6:28 pm

    James, have you seen the C3 ( pilot at CSC?
    I haven't delved too deep yet, but is built on Jive Clearspace. I'll let you know if I find anything special!

  2. Yes, I knew that Jive had been rolled out but didn't want to speak out of turn if that wasn't public knowledge yet! :-) Its a good product.

  3. Ben E6:46 pm

    Yep, about a zillion times slicker than the "current" portal :-)
    From what I understand it's what EMC use internally as well.


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