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Sharing Expertise Within Your Agency: A Users Guide

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Most of an organization’s collective wisdom is locked in people’s heads. So how do you make that expertise available to colleagues within a large organization? 

The long hallways of the State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom provide one answer. Over the decades, those corridors are where people from different offices and bureaus ran into each other, informally got business done and shared tips for being successful at different foreign posts. That’s where reputations were sometimes made, and unmade. 

But the State Department’s 15,000 foreign service officers and 55,000 other employees are spread across 265 missions around the globe. Not everyone can roam the corridors. At least that was the case until 2010, when State piloted the use of an electronic professional networking platform with tools akin to Facebook, Wikipedia, and Wordpress. This internal social media platform was -- not coincidentally -- named Corridor. As of 2014, the platform hosted more than 17,000 members and more than 800 professional and personal user groups.

This didn’t happen overnight. In fact, most intranet social platforms fail. In a new report for the IBM Center, social media researcher Dr. Ines Mergel, Syracuse University, explores the development and use of social intranets in government via a series of case studies and offers insights on how to succeed in managing and sharing knowledge internally via Web-based social platforms.

State Department’s Corridor 

Piloted in 2010 and formally launched in May 2011, Corridor was among the federal government’s pioneering efforts to adopt private sector professional networking tools in a large organization. According to one project staffer “The real key was to increase the ability for people to find each other” no matter where they were in the organization or the world.  “The core function was to build a robust kind of a LinkedIn-type profile, so that people would have a sense of what you could do, not just what was explicit in your job description.”

The platform evolved over time and now offers a range of features: a wiki, for collaborative text editing; a social network with blog-based communities; a news aggregator to provide topical information in one place; and a cross-departmental search engine connecting various internal databases and websites.

The real challenge wasn’t the technology; it was providing content and connections of value to busy people. The key was getting top-level people, such as ambassadors and deputy assistant secretaries, to use it in order to encourage others to join and use it as well. This included training and incentives, and introducing it in new employee orientations.

Its value to date? According to Mergel: “Corridor is often used as a ‘workaround’ for tasks that are too bureaucratic or obsolete to add value.” By sharing their workarounds, “people were able to do their job better with less friction and devote more time to the task at hand, not doing the kind of things that were frustrating.”

Other Cases   

Mergel also highlights several other social intranets in her report, with observations of NASA’s Spacebook effort; the platform i-Space, which serves the 16 agencies in the Intelligence Community; and the Government of Canada’s cross-agency platform GConnex.

Spacebook started as a small initiative in NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 2009. It involved the redesign of the existing intranet, adding some social features, such as user profiles, single sign-on, and a Craigslist-like equipment exchange sharing forum. There was also an expert locater system and other social features, but with the loss of its top-level champion, the system languished and never really took off.

In the case of the Intelligence Community, the need to “connect the dots” after the 9/11 terror attacks created an urgency to work across organizational boundaries. As a result, the 16 agencies in the Intelligence Community started to use Web 2.0 tools on a common intranet, adapting private sector social networking tools such as microblogging (similar to Twitter), profile pages (similar to Facebook), and wikis (similar to Wikipedia). Collectively, these tools are part of the i-Space social intranet. Leadership recognized the power of collaboration using these tools, so it created incentives and rewards for not only contributing to it, but also for using it to link relevant data previously viewed independently. One analyst remarked: “[It] really allowed the connection of the who with the what and the what with the who. . . . It’s an engine for interweaving our community in a way that was not possible before.”

In the last case study, the Government of Canada started in 2008 to create a Web 2.0 ecosystem of social media tools for use both externally and internally. Dubbed GCConnex, according to Mergel: “The GC2.0 Tools are the only existing option for online collaboration between all federal organizations inside the secure government of Canada firewall and are available in both French and English.” This includes a wiki-based collaborative workspace and knowledge sharing platform, and a professional networking platform. It has over 80,000 registered users and more than 10,800 blogs, and is growing by more than 2,000 users a month. With top leadership support, there are full-time engagement officers to help employees get started, and 250 grassroots ambassadors around the government who volunteer to help colleagues use the tools. The biggest user group -- 6,000 employees -- is involved in a governmentwide reform effort called Blueprint 2020.

Successfully Implementing Social Intranets 

Mergel offers three key insights based on her observations:

Active leadership participation is essential. Top agency leadership can’t just approve of a social intranet initiative, they have to “be active and observable” in using it so others in the organization see that their leaders value it as well. When Richard Boly was at the State Department, he was a visible champion of Corridor and other networking initiatives. 

Several technical considerations are key. Mergel says three technology-related design actions are needed to be successful. First is to “Practice radical transparency and openness during the design and implementation phases of the social intranet.” This means getting legal staff, public affairs, HR staff, and other potential stakeholders involved up front. Second is to recognize that “knowledge is not necessarily only created by authoritative sources or organizational roles responsible for providing formal knowledge products.” Allow informal knowledge creation to occur at all levels of the organization via comments, opinions, and blogs. And third, allow access to both external and internal knowledge sources (assuming the organization has in place appropriate cybersecurity safeguards). Opening the boundaries for search and discovery can enhance productivity, notes Mergel.

Successful implementation requires key management actions. Leaders need to invest in training, education, and feedback to make a social intranet initiative effective. There is a need for “gardening” content to ensure it is on target and of value. Mergel notes that “most enterprise social networking platforms fail,” in large part because they are not seen as part of how employees do their work. She says leaders need to articulate that it is “crucial to abandon siloed knowledge-sharing practices and replace them with social intranet components for sharing and retrieval.” Personal, day-to-day operating procedures and established communication styles must change.

Adopting the use of the social intranet as a new way of doing work may be a difficult shift, but it can be worth the pain. A 2012 study found that “knowledge workers’ productivity can be enhanced by 20 to 25 percent if they use social technologies to discover information.” So it is not just the “cool factor” or the Millennial workforce driving the use of social networks. Savvy government leaders can realize a big jump in productivity if they take the leap.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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