The rise of private social networks – and leveraging them for online research

Do you still use your company intranet? While websites have become more interactive and social media savvy, the company intranet now feels rather old-school, almost prehistoric. If you are looking for more efficient internal communications then developing a Facebook style social network in-house, has many advantages over the old standard intranet.

When NationalField set up an internal network for running the Obama presidential election campaign in 2008 a new way of working had been established. NationalField now boasts an enviable client list of blue chips exploring the benefits of a private social network. Many high tech organisations, have also documented their use of internal networks, particularly multinationals, such as Nikon, Dell and Symantec.

But it’s not just the corporate giants that are joining the party. IT companies like SalesForce (with its Chatter platform) and Yammer are offering entry level networks for free and paid for versions with extra functionality. It would appear that it’s only a matter of time before having a private social network becomes the norm.

The benefits of internal networks

The walled garden. Organisations large and small are always fearful of their staff being loose cannons on public social networks. There has been a litany of #twitterfails, career suicides and PR disasters prompted by individuals making inappropriate statements on social media sites. A private social network acts as a relatively safe walled garden. While members may be judged by their peers, at least they can get involved without the added concern that their opinions are being made in the public domain.

Increased productivity. There are increasing levels of dissatisfaction among CEOs about the amount time wasted on internal emails. Some such as Thierry Breton, CEO of information technology services giant, Atos, are now looking to a mixture of instant messaging and internal networks as an alternative communication tool.

Improved efficiency. Private networks can more effectively locate people and resources. In setting up project teams, for example, they can be used to search and find key employees, flatten hierarchies by removing the usual reporting lines from the process, and so allow the formation of virtual teams to set up and operate quickly.

Corporate information centre. These social networks can also replace many of the functions that used to be provided by intranets. News and information can be housed and updated in one area – internal newsletters, press releases, employee news and company announcements can be made without internal email. Corporate strategy can be made clear to all so everyone can the same vision. Equally the network can act as an internal library for housing training materials, tutorials, guidelines, marketing material and product information.

Generating and nurturing ideas. Private networks are not just top-down instruments to improve efficiency and drive corporate strategy. And this is where it gets a lot more interesting for market research specialists. They can also play a key role in the creative side of the business - stimulating idea generation and nurturing collaboration among employees. Not only can ideas be shared, developed and acted upon – it also provides a bonding experience for employees across different departments and markets. Much has been made recently about the increased use of co-creation – and how organisations have worked with customers to build upon their ideas and help to develop new products. Many employees also feel they have a voice that needs to heard when it comes to new ideas so the internal social network is an ideal way to harness them and provide reward and recognition for the most deserving cases.

Online research opportunities

Leveraging online communities for the purpose of research is not an entirely new concept for our industry. We have become more skilled in getting members engaged in online discussion groups and forums. And these techniques, coupled with video and other online prompt material, can play a greater role in researching new ideas and stimulating co-creation for product development. Online qualitative techniques which we already use for online communities, can be easily be adapted for use among staff within an internal social media platform.

As with community panels, if the network becomes large enough, then research conducted within it can also be more quantitative in nature. For companies conducting big employee surveys, this may be an issue that is both an opportunity and a threat. Organisations which set up private social networks have all they need to run their own employee engagement surveys and collate feedback. They also have the added advantages of an online community, in that they can top-up and ask additional questions to sub-groups when they want and how they want. New corporate initiatives can be tested and measured to see how they impact on benchmarked norms.

I am interested to see if internal networks become the new normal over next 10 years and whether they are generally used as a tool to cut costs, or to encourage creativity and genuinely drive innovation. If it’s the latter then we need to ensure that research can play its part in adding value to the creative process.




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