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FCW : April 30, 2016
of advantages, but it creates the risk that employees won’t have anywhere to go to get answers to their questions or refresh their knowledge base. My stu- dents and I also discussed communities of practice, which allow employees to ask questions of fellow experts who are not at the same location. Enter what Mergel calls the social intranet — a one-stop shop where agency employees can go to find or request information in a number of different ways to help them do their jobs. A social intranet consists of wikis, places for people to ask ques- tions or solicit collaboration, publicly available conversation threads, cen- tral places for blogs and opportunities for people to create profiles and (in a professional context) “friend” one another. Those elements all appear at one web page to which an employee can link. The different features work in different ways. Wikis, for example, allow a group of employees to add knowledge to a text that is then accessible to the whole organization — and everyone can edit and add to it. Other employees can subscribe to the updates. Blogs, on the other hand, allow individuals to provide project updates, comment on indus- try developments or introduce new issues more transparently than blast email updates can manage. The relative transparency of employees with the same interests contributing to various discussions helps the rest of the organization understand who works on what and who holds knowledge that might be useful for future projects. Even though employees might not be part of their colleagues’ discussions in other parts of the organization, knowledge becomes discoverable across organi- zational boundaries. It can be tagged with the names of employees consid- ered the original knowledge experts, whom others can then contact. Most intranet collaboration plat- forms do not require an approval chain to publish, which lowers the bar- riers to quick sharing. And although the personal profiles and “friending” often start by providing occasions for social conversations, the intention is for an intranet to be a gateway to knowledge sharing. Mergel quotes a manager as saying, “The social feeds into the professional.” Right now, however, social intranets are hardly spreading like wildfire in the U.S. government. Mergel was able to write about just four exam- ples, including one in Canada and one at NASA that is apparently semi- dormant. She doesn’t say whether this sample came from a larger uni- verse, but I suspect that because she includes a Canadian example and one that was semi-dormant, there aren’t other ones out there. The other U.S. examples she discusses are the State Department’s Corridor initiative and the intelligence community’s I-space. How can government encourage the creation and employees’ use of social intranets? Surprise: It’s not mainly about the technology. Instead, it’s about managing the tools to make them a taken-for-granted part of an organization’s life. Mergel said top managers must not only endorse the platforms but actually use them. Without continu- ous support from top managers who visibly participate and care about the platform, she wrote, use drops off and before long, the platform is seen as a secondary communica- tion channel rather than a primary channel for sanctioned knowledge exchanges. She recommends using a phased approach to abandon siloed knowl- edge-sharing practices and replace them with social intranet components for sharing and retrieval. For exam- ple, agencies could start by requir- ing employees to find meetings and appointments on the social intranet rather than using external software to populate their calendars. The agencies she examined teach new employees about their social intranets during orientation and provide training to existing employees. At one agency, managers recommend active partici- pants in the social intranet for employ- ee awards. The fact that social intranets are spreading slowly despite the enthusi- asm in government for social media suggests that they might not be worth the effort at many agencies. Unfor- tunately, Mergel’s report does not give agencies guidelines for deciding whether they should create a social intranet. I would suggest that the key question is how many problems are being created by the old systems of offices and email. In the intelligence community, for example, there is now a need for near- constant collaboration across agency boundaries, which means the old sys- tems are likely to be insufficient. At the State Department, frequent reas- signments mean co-workers are an increasingly insufficient source of information. Agencies should evaluate their own situations to decide whether an intranet is worth the effort. There is no doubt that knowledge sharing is crucial; the trick is identi- fying the areas where it cannot rea- sonably continue to be done by 20th- century means. n Steve Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. His blog can be found at fcw.com/thelectern. April 30, 2016 FCW.COM 33 0430fcw_032-033.indd 33 4/5/16 2:20 PM
April 15, 2016
May 15, 2016