Tags – the DNA of working transparently

Does your social intranet offer proper tagging or is it just a facade?

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Of the many tags that have been attributed to my profile on IBM Connections, our internal collaboration platform, one of my favourites is “tag-o-phile”.

We all structure information differently. We think differently. And the way we think and structure information may very well depend on the moment and the context. Just look at these three examples from a training session in Japan where we asked teams to create a logical structure of 15 foodstuffs.

One way of organizing foodstuffs Another way to organize foodstuffs Yet another way to organize foodstuffsWhich team is right?

I’d say “they all are, in their own way. But the top two teams would have a hard time in the kitchen of the bottom team.”

I have written more about this in a blog post a few years back, Folders is where knowledge goes to hide, but I’ll focus here on a specific aspect of tags which often is overlooked – tags can be applied to anything.

Tags can be applied to anything. Only files can be put in folders.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it brings big benefits to users who have a good social intranet (or Enterprise Social Network, ESN, if you prefer). Searching for the tag “collaboration” will produce all kinds of content and people that have been assigned that tag; People, Files, Blogs, Forum discussions, Wikis, Pictures, Ideas, Communities. Instead of just finding either files in folders or people in the corporate directory, you find all of the above and can filter either by type of content or on people or you can refine your search with additional tags, irrespective of type of content. This way you get a much fuller picture of the breadth of content and knowledge available on any tagged topic.

But, for tags and tagging to reach the full potential, there are a few conditions:

  • Tagging has to be transparent – If tags are not visible to others than the people who assigned them in the first place, they are of little value
  • Tagging has to be flexible – To be useful, taxonomies should be used to establish a minimum level of tagging, not to control which tags may be used. Taxonomies can never capture the richness of characteristics and contexts relevant to all users and they hardly ever keep up with development and changing priorities
  • Tagging has to be widespread – As with so many other aspects of collaboration, it’s a matter of the more, the merrier. The more people tag, the more different tags will be used, giving a wider view on topics and people. But also, the more people tag, the more will re-use the same tag for content or people, improving the differentiation between tagged items

Does your social intranet offer proper tagging or is it just a facade?

Tags 101:

Simply put, tags are nothing more than “Characteristics – to me – of someone or something – expressed in single or few words”. If many people agree on a characteristic of someone or something, that characteristic will show up stronger and the “someone or something” will rate higher on that characteristic than others with fewer instances of the same tag. If person A has been tagged with “collaboration” 25 times and person B only “10”, we assume that person A has more expertise or experience on the topic of collaboration. Or, possibly, a greater and more tag-happy network.

In many ways, tags applied by people can be seen as a supplement to the machine algorithms used in standard search engines. You search for a tag and then filter on additional tags to refine your search results.

Tags vs #Hashtags

So what’s the difference? #Hashtags are used within conversations (be they in text or in images), helping to identify conversations on the same topic. Often, they are part of the message, usually a status update. Tags, as discussed in this post, are “labels”, used to characterize less fluid content or profiles in an online environment. The conceptual alternative to #hashtags would be discussion threads. The conceptual alternative to tags would be folders (but which only works with uploaded files, as described above).

So what’s so great about social intranets?

If there is one thing almost all intranets have in common, it is that people complain about them. The appreciation of traditional intranets generally is somewhere on a scale between neutral and abysmal.

If you ask employees who have access to social intranets, they would rather be somewhere on the scale between neutral and extatic (at least on occasions).

Communalities of most traditional intranets are:

  • Information is spread down- or outwards in the organization
  • Content is created by a cadre of communication professionals
  • The editors constantly debate structure and editor access
  • Users have difficulties to find their way in the structure
  • And just as much difficultyto find stuff when searching
  • Much of the content is out of date
  • An ever-present question for the company is “How do we make people use the intranet?”. (The response usually is to make it the default start page for all browser installations)

So what about social intranets?

  • Content is spread in all directions by the people who know the topics, not by the people who know how to write about them
  • The creators of collaborative content don’t care too much about the big structure. Only about the substance. And everybody have access to create content (but not everywhere, though)
  • Structure is secondary, since content is found through searching, and by association with similar content and with people you trust
  • Search works much better since it is based not only on search engine “mechanics” but is boosted by peer recommendations and social bookmarks
  • Social intranets apply “Content Darwinism”. Almost all presentation is based on “recency of updating”. Hot topics and communities therefore float to the surface while inactive communities and stuff people aren’t interested in slowly sinks to the bottom. (It can still be found through searching for it though)
  • As the intranet is seen as valuable and relevant, people will want to use it. There is no more need to make them go there.

Of course, it cannot be ALL social. The most powerful tool is blending the traditional with social. The communications folks may give some screen real estate away, but increased exposure of what remains is likely to compensate with a healthy margin for the lost real estate.

But, won’t the staff waste valuable time socializing via the intranet? No way! I’m constantly amazed by how the same kind of features result in such different uses on each side of the firewall. Or would you consider it a waste if:

  • people find experts to help them solve problems fast and with proven solutions
  • instead of re-inventing the wheel for the umpteenth time, people find documents from others that they can adapt to their current needs
  • employees band together in communities to share and build common knowledge on topics of professional and corporate value
  • knowledge is unlocked from employees hard drives, brains and desk drawers, shared and made available for the common good of the company… and for the future – an aspect to take into account in these days of retiring babyboomers and shortening average tenure
  • and – much needed in many a company – the ability of employees to network and communicate in all directions bridge geographic and organizational boundaries helping to overcome the frequent suboptimization stemming from organizational protectionism.
  • the criss-crossing of networks and communication generates chance meetings of people with other people or with unexpected information, a well known, proven and sought for environment for creativity and invention.

For me, it is very simple: the ability of implementing social intranets is the possibility for companies and organizations to show that “Our Employees are our Most Valuable Resource” weren’t just empty words.