5 min read

How SMBs Can Embrace The Social Intranet

Part data repository, part social media platform, software such as ThoughtFarmer turns businesses into thriving communities.
Richard Hamlin knew that if he built it they would come. That's why he took the time to research, purchase, and install a social intranet at Farm Bureau Bank, where he's the director of IT.

He also knew that they would come more quickly if the trip was easy, and that they would be more riveted by the destination if they could do some of the building themselves. So he selected ThoughtFarmer, a social intranet platform he describes as unintimidating and user-friendly. And he got the employees involved in generating content.

Hamlin isn't alone. Lots of companies are deploying social intranets. You need look no further than at ThoughtFarmer's customer base, which includes eHarmony, USDA, and Penn State University, to see how eclectic users are. For small and midsize companies, these social platforms present an opportunity to enhance productivity and promote community all at once.

According to analyst firm IDC, worldwide revenue for the social-platforms software market was more than $500 million in 2010, representing growth of 31.9%, and is expected to grow by a factor of nearly two billion by 2014. Moreover, results of IBM's 2011 CIO Survey revealed that 55% of CIOs plan to invest in collaboration and social networking over the next few years.

At Farm Bureau Bank in San Antonio, Texas, Hamlin was looking for a way to make the financial institution's 100-plus staffers feel more involved in their jobs and the workplace. "I wanted to tie all of us together and make everyone feel like part of a community," he said. "So far, it's been a huge success."

On one hand, ThoughtFarmer is a platform for structured knowledge exchange, with each department maintaining its own data repository. The accounting department stores expense reports, for example; HR posts job openings and W9s. Having all of this data available to employees company-wide has dramatically boosted Farm Bureau Bank's efficiency and productivity, Hamlin said.

On the other hand, the software's social media-type features provide a virtual town square of sorts, allowing employees to get to know their colleagues and find out what's happening in different departments both inside and outside the office. Staffers can visit the "Barnyard," a subsite of the intranet, to post items for sale at the online General Store (baby carriages, gently used furniture, bicycles, whatever); read the Employee Spotlight profiles; scan the company calendar to find out when and where the Farm Bureau softball team's next game is; and view photos taken at the company picnic.

To get staffers involved, Hamlin recruited "web masters," two people from each bank department to add and manage content, maintain the look and feel of their subsites, and come up with ideas for promoting the intranet. Each department keeps its "area" fresh and up-to-date with newsfeeds, tools, and employee profiles.

Another ThoughtFarmer user, called Continuum, is a Boston-based global design consultancy whose brainchildren include the Swiffer sweeper, Pampers, and the Reebok Pump. The company deployed ThoughtFarmer in 2010 to help connect its international staff of about 150 people. "A strong intranet, one that's part professional content and part social media, helps to bring people together," said Chris Michaud, COO of Continuum, in a case study published at ThoughtFarmer's website. "It helps to make the right connections across silos, across continents."

With five locations around the globe, Continuum is well acquainted with the challenge of unifying a distributed workforce. "ThoughtFarmer, which we call 'Orange' in-house, allows us to broadcast information that we all need to share," said Michaud in an interview. "It gives employees visibility into different areas of the organization; it builds community; and it allows people to share ideas, which ultimately leads to innovation. And innovation, after all, is what we're all about."

If you think about it, this "social media-zation" of businesses shouldn't come as a surprise, given what's been happening in the consumer space. We've seen shades of social media coloring company websites for a while now.

About three years ago, I did some writing for the intranet of a software development company where I worked. The social aspects weren't nearly as ripe as they are in, say, ThoughtFarmer, but some of the other elements were definitely there. We had data repositories, Employee Spotlights, and news from around the company. Granted, this was a big organization with deep pockets, and I doubt most smaller players were as far along the technology curve back then. Now that the tools have become intuitive and affordable enough for SMBs, they're jumping on the bandwagon too. And why not?

Here are some tips to keep in mind if you're an SMB looking to take a page from the playbook of Farm Bureau and Continuum:

1) Choose a social intranet package that's easy to use: You won't get buy-in from intimidated employees.

2) Use a social intranet that's customizable: Achieve continuity across your business by creating an intranet look-and-feel that aligns with that of your website, email, marketing materials, etc.

3) Engage users: Employers will be more invested in an intranet if they're given the opportunity to create and manage content, shape the user experience, and have a say in the direction the intranet takes.

If you thought social media was only for weekend networking warriors or late-night Farmville fans, you'll have to revise your thinking. Just don't expect to be planting your "virtual" strawberries or Tweeting about last weekend's pub crawl until you get home from work.

Michele P. Warren, a freelance writer and editor, has 15 years of experience covering technology and the channel. She spent 9 years at CRN and was formerly the managing editor of VARBusiness, Long Island Press, and Long Island Business News.

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