Social Intranets in the Public Sector

Mergel_IBM_SocialIntranet_GraphicSocial intranets are in-house social networking sites that use technologies – such as automated newsfeeds, wikis, chats, or blogs – to create engagement opportunities among employees. They also include the use of internal profile pages that help people identify expertise and interest (similar to Facebook or LinkedIn profiles), and are used in combination with other social Intranet tools such as online communities or newsfeeds. Employees can follow each others updates, automatically receive push information from newsfeeds or curated newsletters on specific topics, or collaboratively create knowledge.

In addition to external social media tools, other communication mechanisms are used inside organizations to communicate news, task-oriented information, or informal information among employees. Standard internal communication tools include:

  • E-mails to disseminate information among a limited number of recipients
  • Newsletters with aggregated information that a department deems important to share with all employees
  • Relatively static intranet pages
  • Listservs—electronic mailing lists used to distribute specific content to its subscribers
  • Physical face-to-face interactions in meetings, hallways, office spaces, or conference rooms

Social intranets support the creation of topical discussion threads that can be read across the whole organization. Discussions evolve among employees who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to know about each other’s expertise on a topic, and other employees who can passively listen to these discussions to absorb useful information for their own task environment. The connections employees create on the social intranet can be interpreted as articulated knowledge networks: Employees with similar interests connect to each other and thereby create networks through which they share knowledge.

Other than shared hard drives, email lists, or shared documents, social Intranets allow the whole organization to participate in knowledge creation and exchange activities. Sharing is not limited to a pre-defined group, team, or limited to a siloed departmental structure. Instead, employees can opt into topical newsfeeds and passively absorb the shared information.

In the U.S., the Department of Defense has created milSuite, allowing access for active military personnel and civilian contractors. Other social Intranet platforms include the Department of State’s Corridor connecting employees worldwide in embassies with the Washington, DC, operations. The Intelligence Community has created iSpace to break down intelligence sharing silos. NASA has launched a site called SpaceBook, that was never scaled up to the whole organization and only parts of social Intranet survived. Internationally, GCconnex is connecting the whole government of Canada to allow employees to collaborate on government-wide topics across geographically dispersed locations and in the The Netherlands, the online social networking site Pleio is used to share best practices across otherwise disconnected government entities. For a more comprehensive overview of the cases see IBM Center for the Business of Government’s Social Intranet report (Mergel 2016).

Benefits of social Intranets

Social intranets make communication patterns, networks, and the location of an organizational knowledge sources visible across organizational boundaries. Employees follow each other on internal social networking sites, knowledge network structures become visible to the rest of the organization. In contrast to working groups or e-mail lists, the relative publicness of employees with the same interests contributing to discussions helps the rest of the organization understand who works on what and who holds knowledge that might be useful for future projects. Especially in organizations with frequent and routine changes in roles (e.g., Foreign Service employees at State or military personnel at DOD), plenty of expertise exists that is not explicit in the current role of an employee. This visibility might lead to increased awareness and attention among employees, and it can be exploited for future projects or information needs.

Persistence. Social intranets help to trace communication streams and knowledge-creation activities (recorded and archived for future access). These communication streams are usually not recorded during meetings; instead they are hidden in e-mails or disappear from instant messenger platforms and videoconferences as soon as both parties log off. The information is available in an asymmetric format: not all parties interested in the information have to be online while the knowledge is created through online exchanges. Instead, the discussion threads are available on the front page of a user’s newsfeed in real-time, but they can be accessed at times convenient for each employee.

Discoverability of knowledge. Even though employees might not be part of their colleagues’ ongoing discussions about issues in other parts of the organization, knowledge is now discoverable across artificial organizational boundaries; it can be tagged with the names of employees considered the original knowledge experts, whom others can then contact. For example, employees who use blogs and microblogging tools on the intranet can create new connections, use comments from other employees as feedback for their projects, or ask for assistance in problem-solving activities.

Speed of search and read activities. Knowledge created in communications streams, newsfeeds, documents, or other types of content files such as videos or pictures is available in real-time to the whole organization and not limited to pre-defined audiences. Especially in government, most intranet collaboration platforms do not require an approval chain to publish, which lowers barriers to quick sharing.

Lowering geographic distance and communication barriers. Computer-mediated communication often leads to the loss of social cues. Communication and awareness drops off with geographic distance in organizations. While some organizational design elements, such as functional organizational units, are used to pool together all employees who work on similar tasks or topics, communication drops off as soon as employees are geographically separated. They won’t be aware of other employees with similar knowledge interests. Social intranets help to create a steady stream of knowledge and increase the awareness of publicly discussed topics. Instead of search and discovery, relevant information is pushed to employees.

Strengthening social ties, creating social capital, and social capitalization. The use of internal social networking and collaboration sites in the private sector has shown that employees are creating new connections with employees located in other parts of the organization, especially when they are not co-located or part of the same work teams. This leads to connections that can be reactivated in the future when additional knowledge needs occur. In addition, the problem of “connecting the dots” and pooling similar knowledge to create a more complete picture can evolve. Publishing information on social intranet platforms can potentially strengthen (or tarnish) employees’ “personal brand.” The curator of a popular and informative blog can increase his/her reputation and that can positively affect future career opportunities. Alternatively, a person who frequents these sites too often can become “that guy.”

Open communication. Employees who use external social networking sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, are more likely to update and share on internal social sites as well. Their experience with “openness” outside their professional lives has the potential to break up knowledge silos that exist in government.

Supporting three main knowledge management activities

Creating organizational knowledge. Government tends to codify organizational knowledge in handbooks, and knowledge reuse has to follow hierarchical standard operating procedures. Free-floating and informal knowledge-sharing activities outside of formal forms of knowledge-sharing, such as cables and memos, are rarely supported through technological means, especially in agencies that have to facilitate the transfer of highly confidential information. This leads to restrictive norms and procedures for information transport. As a result, the transfer of knowledge is highly restricted. The social intranet provides functionalities to internalize, but also externalize, knowledge by combining information sources from inside the organization, across organizational boundaries, and between organizational units.

Socializing organizational knowledge. Organizational knowledge needs to be available for two major purposes: (1) Ad-hoc decision making during crisis situations, and (2) supporting long-term policy-making activities. The multitudes of knowledge hubs through which informal and formal information exchanges happen across many layers of the social intranet create fluid discussions. Government organizations therefore need mechanisms to make knowledge “sticky,” that is, to identify important knowledge pieces that decision makers and knowledge experts pay attention to.

Using technology to share knowledge. Social intranets support the connections among employees, as well as their knowledge, skills and expertise, and internal reputation. Identifying these attributes online is seen as a core functionality to locate and connect expertise and experience. Traditional HR departments cannot deal with the complexity of this task; instead, in-house social networking sites now support these activities.

References:

Mergel, I. (2016): The Social Intranet: Insights on Managing and Sharing Knowledge Internally, IBM Center for the Business of Government, Report “Using Technology” Series, Washington, DC.

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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