Social intranets: Engagement, happiness and productivity

Social intranets have been widely noted as the ‘next big thing’ in intranets, but many practioners, including us, have noted the obvious difficulty in reporting why social should be so central to our plans. Without tangible, believable return on investment numbers, it’s hard to justify why your intranet should go social. A gut feel, and a glutton of 2012 trend posts are rarely enough to convince CIOs and CFOs of the investment.

In their whitepaper entitled “Social Intranets and Employee Engagement: An HR solution to meaningful morale building”, the ThoughtFarmer team comprising Chris McGrath and Ephraim Freed start to build the case. The causal link between employee engagement and productivity has been well researched but McGrath and Freed do a fine job to demonstrate the impact that a social intranet would have on an enterprise. By driving engagement, they argue, a social intranet impacts productivity and a company’s bottom line beyond the simple process efficiency gain.

Creation then curation

A social intranet creates knowledge liquidity and allows the enterprise to realise the value of it’s employee assets. Trust is the important enabler — trust that it is safe to share, that knowledge will not be exploited and that credit will be appropriately given. ThoughtFarmer’s Gordon Ross says that in simply providing a social intranet, senior leadership is making it explicitly clear that they trust their employees.

Whilst we are in complete agreement that trust must be explicit for a social intranet to function, I don’t believe that simply creating a social intranet is demonstration enough. As we’ve argued on our post “5 tips for building trust on your intranet“, creating the right environment for sharing is an active process which requires leadership input and monitoring. Imagine a social intranet where the senior leaders, even your line manager are conspicuous by their absence? Does that demonstrate trust, does it show that opinions count or even that using the intranet is corporately acceptable? In order to build the trust needed for a viable social intranet, employees, line managers and Executives must be active, respectful participants.

Creation of a social intranet is the first step; curating the culture is next.

Measuring Success

There is an interesting quote in the whitepaper, often paraphrased, inferring that the number of comments generated on a thread within a social intranet is a reflection of the engagement level of a set of employees. It’s a tempting conclusion. Whilst it’s unlikely that disengaged employees would comment at all, it’s not sensible to conclude that articles generating lots of comments is reliable barometer of employee engagement. Large numbers of comments do demonstrate that there is a culture of openness and trust in employees but it’s the number of comments, combined with an analysis of the sentiment, that’s a better measure. Thirty happy comments irrefutably show thirty happy employees.

The ‘glow’ of learning and wellbeing

Andy Jankowski makes an important point in the ThoughtFarmer whitepaper about the importance of learning in employee happiness and wellbeing. He notes that learning something about your line manager, via a social intranet profile for example, can give people “a bit of a glow”. I’m sure that’s true but there’s another critical point about the role of social intranets as an enabler of employee openiness, rapport building, employee relationships and ultimately, value creation.

The rapport triangle derived from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, was well known to me when I worked in sales. It helps describe the feeling that you get on better with people that you know, and that understanding that person, drives the value of your communications which, in turn, helps get things done. It is openness, sharing of views, experiences and feelings that pushes intra-personal relations through the rapport levels and allows you to reach mutual trust. Social intranets facilitate this: employee profiles, ideation, serendipitous sharing, tagging or just simple commenting on news articles, help drive openness, improves trust and productivity.

(You might be wondering why this was taught to me in sales. In short, careful deliberate questioning of a buyer can subtly lead them to be more open that they might otherwise wish. In turn, dropping of my personal views or feelings into conversation reciprocate the openess which drives our relationship up the rapport triangle and hopefully, into a greater possibility of a sale. Watch out for this technique when a salesman asks you how you feel about their product!)

The glow of learning is more likely a glow of a growing mutual trust.


This is a thought-provoking and persuasive paper on a burning topic amongst intranet professionals. In explicitly connecting social intranets with employee engagement and productivity, Chris and Ephraim start to build the ROI case showing CIOs and CFOs social intranets are not a fad, but another rung on the intranet evolution ladder. If you’ve got ‘add social’ on your 2012 wishlist, take time out to read – it’s a great thirty minute investment!

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  1. Martin White

    Why is it that all discussions about social intranets and the adoption of social media assume that the organisation has employees that all speak and write the same language fluently? There is never a consideration of the problems that employees have when coping with responding in what might be a second or third language using a keyboard optimised for their mother tongue.

    Even English presents problems. . In the USA if you are asked to slate a meeting you know that you will need to set a date and perhaps the attendees and agenda. In the UK if you asked me to slate a meeting I’d ask you which meeting you wanted me to criticise. How can the same word have totally different meanings? The US usage is derived from a French word meaning ‘to splinter’, which is what slate does when it is mined. The UK social usage is derived from an Old Norse word ‘sletta’ meaning ‘to slap’.

    I was at a meeting recently when a global company told me that English was used in all their offices around the world. I happen to have visited their office in Kuwait, where everyone was speaking and writing in Arabic on Arabic-language keyboards. There was just one English keyboard connected up to an old Dell PC and used only for communications with Head Office.

    QED – which is of course in Latin

    • @DigitalJonathan

      Thanks for your comments Martin. The original ThoughtFarmer whitepaper primary focus was not on the culture to make social intranets work, but more on the value of them in dollar and emotional terms. Langauge was not mentioned by them and not by me on this occasion.

      I don’t disagree with your point though. In our post on Social Intranets and Silos, we make the same point that social intranets are far from a silver-bullet solution. For many reasons, including language, age and communication style, social intranets may generate their own silos.

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