Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Serendipitous discovery

We're planning an "intranet lunch" at The Team (I'm not scared to link there now, but watch this space), where we'll be inviting a few customers in to float some ideas we've had. I'll be able to share these ideas once they've been shared with the customers, but in the meantime I've been thinking about the ways in which intranets could be used.

For me, the most interesting function of an intranet is to serve as a medium for serendipitous discovery. In medium to large size companies, especially those which are growing (and yes this applies to The Team, too) information flow becomes an important problem to solve. Not only are more levels of management inserted between senior decision makers and those at the coal face, but it becomes harder for customer facing people to share knowledge between themselves as well.

In addition, as layers of management increase, it becomes even more important for customer facing people to be empowered to innovate, to respond to market conditions and customer demands rapidly and effectively. The chances of this happening increase rapidly when staff are aware of each others skills, problems, experience...and availability.

Senior management has to put tools in place to help this information flow around, and the humble intranet has an important role to play in this. It ain't just about recording information for reference (such as a directory), nor is it just about nourishing existing connections (such as the broadcasting of rules and regulations). It's an opportunity to evolve the way that people collaborate, innovate and succeed.

There are now dozens of existing social tools that can support this objective, and these tools are designed in such a way that they can be integrated into an intranet with virtually no effort. And they're free! Almost every company has people who blog, tweet and tag - they're already sharing stuff, and it's a valuable and quick win to integrate this activity into an intranet. In turn it makes the intranet a more interesting place to visit, increasing traffic, contributions and serendipitous discovery. It's like an un-vicious circle.

On first impression, Twitter in particular looks like a frivilous waste of time. I'd argue strongly against that...I've found it hugely valuable in my past and present jobs knowing what's going through the minds of my colleagues. An individual tweet might have very little value. But when you overlay the twitter streams of a select group of people, serendipitous discovery abounds!


cliff said...

Now, I know the cluetrain manifesto will say something along the lines of "you can't control the information that communities choose to put into cyber space" and I do recognise that this is the freedom that the net affords, but the trick is to ensure that the information that is flowing through the system is valuable information and not crud.

I gues that this is where good old fashioned leadership communication, face to face inspiring people and directing people towards a vision ensures that the right stuff gets focused on. It's also the role that conferences, team briefings and dare I say it, hard copy magazines can play (sorry luddite I am) in making the digital world the place where the valuable conversations take place.

Phil Whitehouse said...

Yep fair point - although I think (hope) that these challenges will be met inside companies using similar tools to those that exist outside - basically better search tools and a culture of publish / subscribe. Of course one can never be certain what important information has been missed, but the odds are improved considerably by using tools such as twitter and a finely turned RSS feed reader.

So maybe the model could be that the intranet is used for discovering relevant voices or feeds, and then the publish / subscribe model (rss reader) kicks in - then that's used for discovering information.

I'm definitely in agreement that the use of these tools is only part of the story. Effective management tools come in many packages! Even hard copy magazines have their place...!

A former boss of mine had the idea that random people should be booked into meetings by random people, just so different parts of the (very large) organisation could find out about each other. A bit extreme if you ask me, but it does serve to highlight the challenges of getting information flowing around a large company.