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The Power of Social Search

One of the most common and persistent pain points experienced by Intranet users is that they can’t find what they are looking for. While user interface and navigation functionality is important, it is search that is easily the fastest and most effective method of finding information. In this post we are going to look at the power of social search in an ESN.

Before talking about Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs), it’s worth quickly reviewing “old school” Intranets. Traditional Intranets store explicit knowledge, which is a Knowledge Management term meaning data that has been captured, typically in familiar formats like policies and manuals. They rely on the correct implementation of document content types and metadata tagging of documents to support good search results.

Enterprise Social Networks are very different. Although, or perhaps because, the content saved by users is inherently less structured and formal, ESNs are ideally suited for capturing tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is information which is hard to capture using traditional documentation process and therefore tends not to be captured. Missing out on tacit knowledge is a big concern for organizations, but it is also presents a significant opportunity for ESNs to help users and businesses alike. Let’s look at the types of data ESNs can capture.

More intuitive searching

One of the main features of most ESNs is a newsfeed, similar to Twitter, that displays items posted by the user and their colleagues. With every posting created in the ESN the user is slowly but surely capturing previously tacit information into the system, thereby making it explicit. The idea is not necessarily for the user to proactively monitor the news feed just in case something interesting happens (unlike Twitter), but to use the search feature to discover content and tags previously posted by colleagues – just like being able to access recordings of water cooler conversations from the past.

Apart from news feeds, ESNs also typically feature communities, (and virtual town halls), that transcend team and project boundaries to create areas where users can collaborate on topics of common interest. Capturing tacit information in either news feeds or communities facilitates collaboration and accelerates innovation.

ESNs also capture interactions. Users can interact with the content in ESN news feeds and communities by answering questions, posting comments and rating content; typically by “liking” or assigning a star rating to a post. It’s obviously beneficial to be able to review conversations where others have already answered your question, but ESN searches (particularly those based on SharePoint) add even more value by factoring interaction metrics into search, so that search results are ranked by relevance. In other words, it doesn’t just rate content based on how recently it was posted or whether it hits all the keywords, but also how popular the content is in terms of likes, ratings and how many clicks the content got in previous searches.

Breaking the ice

Finally, ESNs typically require the user to create and maintain a user profile that lists their skills, experience and interests. This generally reads as a kind of searchable ‘skills register’, where staff can demonstrate what they know. Next time an employee is stuck and doesn’t know how to do something, a quick search of the skills of their colleagues may well help them find someone who can quickly share their expertise. This not only avoids situations where individuals “reinvent the wheel”, solving problems that others have already dealt with, but also allows for recognition to be given to team members. While some individuals may feel apprehensive about sharing their knowledge – knowledge is of course power – having the opportunity to demonstrate their specialist skills is usually a positive experience for staff.

Furthermore, being able to quickly and easily find talent within the organisation is of great benefit as it keeps outsourcing costs down, provides employees with opportunities to gain experience which will benefit future projects, and adds to the social cohesion within the organisation. With ESN colleagues become more than just names in email addresses, but individuals with a face, a personality and interests. Social Search helps break the ice between colleagues, especially in larger organisations, and helps contribute to a more collaborative working environment.

A dynamic development in Knowledge Management

Knowledge Managers should not worry that ESNs are going to undermine formal information capture processes and procedures. This post has attempted to show how Social Networks in the workplace can actually extend and compliment more ‘traditional’ knowledge retention practices. Instead, information workers can really take the opportunity to capitalise on the search tools provided by ESNs that can return a wealth of previously tacit knowledge and information on skilled users in the organisation.

Social networking has become totally integrated into everyday life, and so its presence in the workplace is likely to be a given in the foreseeable future. It’s an exciting time for Knowledge Management, and ESN is a tool that can really boost capabilities.

Maximo Castagno

Maximo Castagno

Chief Product Officer. I’m a sociologist designing for humans since 1998.