Inside Job: Social Media Tools Are Making Their Way into Corporate Intranets-And Redefining Internal Communication Research in the Process

Article excerpt

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New tools and processes offer a unique opportunity, but because they are new, they have no history to demonstrate their validity.

Social intranets--intranets that use social media tools--are growing, vibrant online communities that enable broad workplace collaboration, personalization and business intelligence integration. As social intranets penetrate corporate environments--one recent study from Prescient Digital Media found that social media tools (like blogs, wikis, status updates, comments and ranking) were in use on almost 90 percent of intranets--they are redefining internal communication. But more than that, they are enabling new forms of measurement to assess the inputs, outputs and outcomes of communication in different terms. Such research can provide rich and vivid pictures of the communities we as internal communicators serve--specifically, what knowledge people need and are looking for to do their jobs, and which communication vehicles people trust and prefer in the communication process. This is key to evaluating employee satisfaction with and engagement in the social intranet.

The measurement challenge

The goal for internal communication research in general is to understand:

1. Who most influences employee attitudes and behaviors in the organization.

2. What information is shared in the influence process.

3. How communicators can optimize that information sharing.

With this knowledge, communicators can plan and evaluate strategies for the organization's evolving internal communication platforms. Digital information is shared as a matter of daily routine, and internal research using this data is gaining momentum. Communicators can lead and direct this research for communication benchmarking, strategy development and evaluation.

When it comes to measuring the impact of social intranets, social media expert Shel Holtz, ABC, IABC Fellow, focuses on the effectiveness of asking questions and encouraging involvement in decision making. Tools like PollStream, he says, can provide rich sources of data, quickly and cost-effectively, that deliver user feedback from a broad cross-section of the community. (PollStream touts itself as a "leading provider of interactive engagement and community building solutions.") PollStream also enables qualitative testing referred to as ideation--the process by which employees can comment on specific aspects of the intranet content or process, add ideas, and rate preferences.

Many observers have suggested that this process could replace focus groups. It does have some obvious benefits over focus groups, like scalability, accessibility and immediacy. However, focus groups bring into play body language, a skilled interviewer and appreciative inquiry. Both are extremely valuable, and used for different reasons. New tools and processes offer a unique opportunity, but because they are new, they have no history to demonstrate their validity. Until there are consistent user practices, we will not have consistent metrics to quantify.

Socialtext offers another example of intranet data mining. Socialtext is a business-focused software application designed to simplify the sharing of expertise, ideas and corporate data. Its social intranet software features database-driven aggregating widgets such as Active Content and Active Members. These widgets provide what Socialtext calls "automatic breadcrumbs"--the data keep users apprised of updates on the topics and pages others use and share. The widgets track the number of messages attributed to each participant/user, which others can "follow," much like you might follow a person's tweets on Twitter. These widgets are intended to promote use of the intranet, but communication researchers could apply this data and assess the feedback's strategic value for their communication planning.

Low blogger participation at IBM (3 percent of employees), in combination with the results of an employee opinion survey, led Werner Geyer and Casey Dugan of the IBM Thomas J. …