Thursday, November 15, 2007

Facebook as your Intranet?

At the cmf2007 conference last week, there were some great sessions and conversations about intranets including James Robertson's presentation of the 2007 Intranet Innovation Awards . There were also many interesting discussions about Facebook inspired by BJ Fogg's insightful keynote on persuasive technology (this guy knows his Facebook - he teaches a college course on it at Stanford). The two topics merged with the provocative assertion: "Facebook will be your next intranet." The idea has been clattering around in my head all week and then I read this news that Serena is starting to use Facebook as their Intranet on Toby Ward's Intranet Blog. I am sure that Toby's article was what got the whole conversation going but I didn't know it at the time. Apparently, the CEO of Serena is a huge Facebook user and has designated Friday as a day when employees should spend an hour exploring and interacting on Facebook.

What fascinates me about this idea is that most Intranets fail as social collaboration tools because they cannot capture the energy and passion that seems to form spontaneously on the web. At least that is my theory. And my theory goes on to assert that people do not invest their personal energy on their corporate intranet because they don't own it. While people do not own Facebook, there is a tacit agreement that a user's Facebook profile belongs to the user. The user can always access it and edit it and he is free to do with it what he wants. A corporate intranet cannot provide this assurance. When the employee leaves the company all the creativity, personality and knowledge invested in the corporate intranet are lost to him. A user has a right to feel like he owns his personality, friendships and ideas.

Because people are not owned by their employers, they interact in a community that transcends corporate boundaries. This is why internal instant message system are never as popular as AIM, YIM, and MSN Messenger. This is also why email crushed those internal messaging systems that companies used to use. You need to communicate (professionally and socially) with people outside of the firewall as much as you do inside the firewall. If your network is entirely contained by your company. Stop reading this blog post immediately and go out and meet some people.

Internal communities of practice fail because the population is not large enough to support them. If you ever took an ecology course, this is similar to Island Biogeography. Just as species cannot survive in small, isolated pockets, neither than communities of interest. You need a population that is big enough to allow healthy turnover and new ideas. If you are interested in a topic, you would do better to join a large open community than to try to start one with the three people in your company that share your interest. It used to be that the physical proximity provided by and office made intra-office communities more viable. Now, with the Internet, location is less of an issue. Being co-workers is an arbitrary requirement to community building that often stands in the way.

So, back to Facebook. The biggest argument against Facebook as the corporate intranet is information security. Much of the information that employees work with needs to stay within the company. Furthermore, there is a fear that allowing employees to be visible makes them vulnerable to being stolen by other companies. If your company is such a bad place to work that the only thing retaining employees is that no one knows about them to hire them away, you have bigger problems than your Intranet. Ideally, employees from other companies would see your employees on Facebook and all the fun they are having and want to come and work for you. Even if they do not come to work for you, they might be inspired to provide feedback or information that will be of some value.

Facebook would be a poor place for people to collaborate on company projects and other strategic stuff. However, how much of this information actually needs to be private? Does a company holiday calendar need to be private? Probably not. An interesting exercise would be to go though your Intranet and identify all the content that could be out in the open or at least minimally protected. While you are at it, you should identify information on your intranet that nobody needs to see. Now I am getting into Bob Boiko's talk "Leading with Information". That deserves another post.

Facebook's "Network" feature supports workplace networks. This allows a user to take their profile (that he owns) and use it within a closed community. The same profile can, at the same time, be used in external communities. When the employee leaves the company, he just leaves the network. All the other aspects of his profile stay with him.

I guess it all depends on what you hope to achieve in your intranet. If you want to provide tools to facilitate specific workplace functions and information, then a closed intranet makes the most sense. If you are trying to create communities and build social and professional connections, you can't beat the Internet.