Intranets: Too Big to Fail?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

As contradictory as it sounds, some intranets, social platforms, knowledge exchanges and internal communities run the risk of being too successful. They're in danger of reaching a stage in their development where their size, success and growth can cause complacency.

Weighing the Risks
This problem could be summed up with the economic theory 'too big to fail' as popularized in a book of the same name by Andrew Ross Sorkin. He charted the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent collapse of Lehman Brothers.

The problem was whether or not to let some of the failing banks and financial institutions go to the wall. Many of them had become so big and interconnected with each other that policy makers feared they would bring everything else down around them.

Some argued it was a risk worth taking: artificially protecting banks from collapse had caused a massive imbalance in the economy and that problem needed correcting. Indeed, as history has showed us, by allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse, the rest of the economy was left relatively unscathed.

The parallel between the economic crisis and company intranets might be an overly dramatic one, but the fact is some intranets are at risk of becoming too big. Their large size can produce a false sense of security that can jeopardize the health of the company they are meant to support. Furthermore, the situation can worsen if no one is responsible for justifying the intranet's purpose against wider business goals.

Hence I would argue that in today’s economic climate, the risk of complacency is one of the biggest problems many intranet managers face. Indeed, their recent history could serve as a useful reminder of when they had to win hard fought arguments to justify their purpose.

Those battles were often a necessary step of how prove the intranet’s business worth. Perhaps we need to air similar arguments today.

Focus on Innovation
But without repeating history, those debates need to be updated and should focus on innovation. The imperative of how companies and organizations manage to stay ahead of their competition is one of most important challenges they face. However, an incumbent intranet that is too large and inflexible will mean encouraging more innovation will be much harder.

Instead, intranet managers and company executives need to be mindful that their intranets and knowledge networks must be flexible enough in order to cope with the company’s evolving business strategy.

Of course, this is tricky to get right. On one hand, a business needs a solid and stable technology platform that allows all aspects of how it operates to be as efficient as possible; whilst on the other hand, it needs access to a flexible set of tools and services that can meet the everyday challenges of the market.

The answer includes encouraging a more adaptable approach of how commonplace tools are incorporated into everyday working practices.

For example, myriad social tools including ideas exchanges, online communities, people directories, and so on, could be used more creatively than just deploying them by default across an entire platform for everyone’s use without any specific problem in mind. Instead, by allowing employees to pick and choose how they use and integrate tools and solutions in their work (and even better, let them hack out their own ideas themselves sometimes even without official sanction) can provide a more spontaneous way of answering the many challenges companies face right now.

How Much Change?
But taking on such an ad-hoc approach does of course carry its own risks. One problem is how much change should be permissible, especially if what gets developed starts to undermine the efficacy of the entire intranet. However, by giving employees more access to a wider set of tools and techniques can speed up answering niche problems and foster research and development that a big network would typically struggle to respond to.

Perhaps this is counter to what we think of an intranet. However, rather than always trying to artificially hold a network together at all costs, maybe it is just as fruitful to encourage more experimentation at its edges too. These things need not be mutually exclusive — but rather should benefit one another — making the overall intranet even stronger.

Michael Schrage, Harvard Business columnist on innovation, argues this could be a better approach considering the wider challenges faced around innovation: "Initiators and intrapreneurs aren't just using social media to make their efforts more transparent and accessible, they’re using these platforms to improvise and organize new ways to get the job done… to create new 'just-in-time' processes (and programs) that the C-suite and other senior managers had never envisioned.'

Could this be what the intranet might gradually evolve into? Likewise, isn't it time to do away with one single intranet and instead encourage more networks, tools and platforms to spring up, that are more efficient at responding to growth and innovation?

In the same sense, the role of the intranet manager, governance team and executive could change and follow suit: on one hand, they could help frame the boundaries of permissible experimentation, whilst on the other hand, help centralize successful examples of experimentation and innovation for others in the company to benefit from.

Of course, all of this will take considerable leadership and commitment. But surely that’s a risk well worth taking to ensure that nothing ever gets too big to fail?

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