The Intranet is Dead! Long live the Human Centred Intranet!


I’ve been trying to dig into the Digital Workplace intranet meme a little more.

For some context, at the beginning of the year Jane McConnell noted:

I’ve tested the term “digital workplace”  at two intranet conferences recently, one in Stockholm and one in Paris, and with several of my clients. The term has had an impact on management decisions in two recent client cases.

However, McConnell also reflects on the fact that the phrase itself isn’t new and points to the use of the “digital workplace” back in 2000 and 2001. I actually found an even earlier reference, from HP back in 1997, who described its aim as:

to facilitate information sharing and to bring information closer to people

…by putting printers in offices. πŸ™‚

I’m also reminded of Negroponte’s book, Being Digital – published in 1995. He wrote the following in a preview piece in Wired magazine about the future digital society he imagined:

I do believe that being digital is positive. It can flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people in ways beyond not knowing whether you are a dog. In fact, there is a parallel, which I failed to describe in the book, between open and closed systems and open and closed societies. In the same way that proprietary systems were the downfall of once great companies like Data General, Wang, and Prime, overly hierarchical and status-conscious societies will erode. The nation-state may go away. And the world benefits when people are able to compete with imagination rather than rank.

Taking on board some comments from Twitter about this I can fully appreciate the need to coin simple phrases that intranet managers can use to influence and get the attention of their internal sponsors. But lets be clear: the digital workplace isn’t coming, it was already here from the moment the first desktop PC clone appeared in offices. Think about the impact of the humble spreadsheet.

In another blast from the past, consider Davenport’s insightful 1994 HBR article, Saving IT’s Soul: Human-Centered Information Management. I wrote this reflection on Enterprise 2.0 and Davenport in 1997 and summarised the following from Davenport’s original article:

  • Focus on broad information types;
  • Emphasize information use and sharing;
  • Assume transience of solutions;
  • Assume multiple meanings of terms;
  • Continue until desired behaviour is achieved enterprisewide;
  • Build point-specific structures;
  • Assume compliance is gained over time through influence; and
  • Let individuals design their own information environments.

Not only does this advice still hold true today, but we finally have the tools to do it. Yet this was written over a decade and a half ago!

We could go back even further of course… Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart, etc.

Clay Shirky on the other hand first started talking about ‘social software’ in 2002.

So where does this leave the Digital Workplace? I just can’t help feeling that the intranet community – and I mean those who are currently focused on the narrow domain of publishing or communicating digital information to staff – are at a tipping point. I hope as many as possible make the right choice and engage with current perspectives, rather than holding on to the past remade.

In any case, the Human Centred Intranet doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it?

Image Credit: Flip Clock 5.05 CC NC-ND

The Myth of Self-Service 2.0

With self-service, the transaction costs of managing information appear to have fallen. But the real costs have not gone away. In fact, they’ve risen as they shifted from lower-cost administrative staff to professionals β€” hidden in the salaries of professional staff who start early, stay late and spend weekends checking email, searching, answering questions on discussion boards and organizing documents. Though it only takes a few minutes here and there, self-service information management consumes a significant portion of our personal and professional lives. Anyone with a slightly complex problem booking a flight on-line, seeking computer tech support, comparative shopping or using different software to participate in discussion forums, find an expert, or document an insight understands how much time this consumes.

Self-service has another consequence. It takes professionals’ attention away from their real job, which is to use information to think.

You might be surprised, but I don’t believe that self-service is the answer to everything. l’ve actually written a few things in the past about this point of view (see my articles page: ‘Beyond HR Self-Service’ and ‘Empower customers with self-service, not automation’).

What’s surprising here is that Richard McDermott is effectively describing in his article a knowledge management approach that is a decade or more old. But its one that is still very much applicable, even in an era of social software and big data. Web 2.0 and social software should not automatically mean self-service – that’s entirely the wrong perspective.

Hat tip to Jack.

The 2010 Social Business Software Power Map


From my colleague, Dion Hinchcliffe:

“The Social Business Power Map, presented above, is an attempt to identify the major social media trends, how they can be mapped generally along consumer/enterprise axes, and where they are in terms of their overall maturity level today”

Dion provides a more detailed breakdown of each technology in his post and also makes this comment about social networks, which he places in the mature state:

“Social networking is now expected to surpass the top used application online, Internet search, in the near future. There is little likelihood that social networking will be disrupted in the near term though certainly most businesses have not yet adopted them internally and many current block their use from inside the firewall. Unfortunately, the number of businesses blocking access to social networks is going up, not down as they continue to get a handle on managing the perceived risks of social networking. See my discussions on CoIT and how workers are increasingly using their own IT to route around excessive control of their channels of communication.”

From Boxes and Arrows: Designing for Strong, Weak and Temporary ties

Our social web tools must start to understand the strength of ties, that we have stronger relationships with some people than with others. And with this knowledge they need to adapt.

There are three kinds of relationship ties:

  • Strong ties: People we care deeply about.
  • Weak ties: People we are loosely connected to, like friends of friends.
  • Temporary ties: People we don’t know, and interact with temporarily.

A great Boxes and Arrows article on the need design social apps to reflect the different needs of strong, weak and temporary relationship ties.

The focus here is on public Web applications, so I suspect some minor refinements might be needs if you were building an application being used within an organisation or some other network, where the trust dynamics are different. For example, inside an organisation roles and position in the hierarchy provides an additional trust structure to use (although bear in mind, it does not necessarily embody social capital based trust).

At some point this would probably also be a good model to add to the Project 8 materials, to provide more depth to the user experience principles we put forward.

What we need is open innovation for social good, not social media

I really haven’t a chance to fully reflect on the Social Innovation Camp experience (yeah, that was back at the beginning of March!) other than a resolution that if I get to take part next time, I’ll be picking a team and rolling up my sleeves so I can dive in and really contribute something substantial. I did end up helping out one project with a bit of emergency ‘wire-storming’ (i.e. collaborative wireframing, under time pressure using Balsamiq Mockups), but even just with my super user skills (as opposed to being a real hard core geek) I’ve realised that I could probably still have helped out more with actually developing a working prototype. This is based on the fact that what I saw at SI Camp was that rather than coding from the ground up, I saw the teams that were able to deliver working prototypes accelerate the development process by using tools like DrupalDjangoMediaWiki, and Pligg.

In this respect, while good ideas are important, I think the real benefit of the SI Camp approach is about testing those ideas in practice. In fact, allowing people to have the opportunity to play with an idea (rather than simply thinking or planning it) is an important step in the design process. This doesn’t mean that the prototyping process was entirely perfect or that we saw enough iterations of each idea this time around at SI Camp, however I’m confident this will improve with experience. In the end, my biggest take away from the event at this point was that the design process itself – rather than the social innovation ideas that came from it – has great value.

I actually think it would be interesting to now take the SI Camp concept and apply it in a more targeted way, to solve a specific need. Right now I’m reading the UK’s NESTA report on their open innovation approach, called the Corporate Connect programme. This isn’t restricted to the non-profit or government sector, although their open innovation ideas can perhaps surprisingly be applied equally to both the commercial and non-commercial sectors.

Two case studies in the NESTA report stand out:

Cancer Research UK ran an open innovation competition to crowd source ideas for new fund raising ventures, where the winning ideas themselves received seed funding from the charity to get started; and
Tesco (a UK supermarket chain) organised a ‘T-Jam’ to bring customers and external software developers together to design new online shopping applications.

I know you are probably thinking, what’s the link between Social Innovation Camp and these ideas? Well, both these ideas used Web 2.0 approaches as part of an innovation process that either created a social innovation (Cancer Research UK) or encouraged the use of a public good (Tesco’s shopping API – T-Jam, just like GovHack). Social good takes many different forms, but what has changed is the tools and techniques we have at hand to help those new ideas emerge. 

While on the topic of creating ‘social good’, this brings me to the Digital Citizens event I attended last night, about Social Media for Social Good. Personally, and while I wouldn’t criticise the event overall or the calibre of their panel (who had great experiences to share), I left feeling that I wanted more breadth in the discussion about creating social good beyond using social media for communication. It was of course primarily a digital agency and PR crowd at this event, so to an extent this was to be expected.


However, as someone from the non-profit sector commented to the organisers as they passed around a collection bucket, they don’t want donations… they want to tap more effectively into the ideas and experiences of the people in the room. This doesn’t change the fact that social media is affecting how the non-profit sector engages with the media, its supporters and the people they assist or support (and @KaraLee_‘s experiences with Headspace is a good example of how to do it right). But I think there is scope, as ‘digital citizens’ exploring this world that is emerging, to look beyond Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube.

To quote the NESTA report:

Open innovation represents – in part at least – a re-invention of the organisational models that we have come to take for granted. In a networked world where knowledge is becoming like water, it is no longer possible to ring-fence what we know or have invented and to create new value through internal means alone. Rather our networks and partnerships are increasingly becoming the key to value creation, above and beyond our inventive ability as organisations. 

Perhaps a better topic to discuss might be open innovation for social good?