icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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What lies ahead for corporate intranets

About the future for knowledge management and data sharing

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). What lies ahead for corporate intranets. About the future for knowledge management and data sharing. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.3 (March).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). What lies ahead for corporate intranets. About the future for knowledge management and data sharing. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.3 (March).

London, 27 May 2018 - According to Cisco recent figures almost 90% of business infrastructure is hosted in the Cloud. That means that an unprecedented level of corporate data - that include of course all sorts of personal information related to individuals and their interactions - is not only accessible anytime from everywhere with extraordinary savings in terms of data processing at the expenses of data confidentiality and integrity, but also that machine learning algorithms use them. We are creating by inferences virtual realities in which people are assumed or presumed to be and to behave in totally fictitious worlds. Nothing is more representative of such disconnected nature of our new, cloud based, mediated computer environments such as the corporate intranets.

What was seen as a technological affordable dream in the early 1990s, the possibility of telecommuting, is today the obvious new normal: even when employees and collaborators or suppliers are not fully aware of it, they are teleworking. Only a minority of the working population is going to use resources managed on the physical premises of their employers. Does this mean that the intranet has triumphed as a technological, cultural and organisational solution over other possible ways to stay in touch with your teams and collaborate with your colleagues? Actually, it has not. In this article I sum up some reflections on the subject, from a drafted feasibility study for the revision of corporate data architectures.

There is no need for an intranet

It may seem unrealistic to get rid of the intranet but this is something that in some way has actually already happened in a number of highly reputed knowledge and consultancy organisations starting with McKinsey and Bain. In fact, these organisations have outsourced their IT operations and their knowledge and research processes, mainly to teams based in India and in other Asian countries.

What has become of the concept of learning organisation then? Corporations and Governments alike have just shrunk and squeezed their data management processes thanks to more efficient and more intelligent technologies. We still hear the music of data sharing and open data and there are constantly pompous declarations of intents and marvellous perspective of improvement of healthcare, policy making, policing and crime reduction and so on and so forth thanks to sharing data and AI etc etc. But everybody can easily see that there is plenty of platforms and applications that support specific tasks and processes oriented collaboration in the market. The “software as a service” offerings satisfy the requirements of the majority of projects and service level agreements with a short life time.

That is not to say you should see how to replace your intranet with crowdsourcing and data mining platforms tomorrow. But a wisely designed implementation of search and intelligence technologies can be more effective and helpful than hundreds of Sharepoint micro-sites sharing actually nothing else than…. the dream to share people data, silos and expertise.

Is the intranets for the strangers that want to steal your lunch?

And here it comes the second reason why the intranet idea has come to age.

Anybody else feeling that pathetic sense of solitude when they log into their corporate intranet and instead of shared wisdom and friendly summaries of best practices they see deserted pages, spared discussions threads and unrelated, not pertinent comments on whatsoever?

Communities of experts are possibly the saddest example of the socially and culturally unsustainable idea that was at the beginnings of the intranet era: I refer to the examples of intranets and extranets of professional and trade organisations but also to the thousands of users groups, discussion groups, platform forum etc etc , where it seems that only retired people or newly employed individuals and freelance suppliers, or people who are, in general, quite extrovert and open but yet not very familiar with their own networks, are willing to ask and answer questions or share experiences. And yet, many executives and consultants still have to come to term with the evidence that the online community does not actually exist, beyond some marginal and atypical usages. Of course there is still the fascination of the concept all around us and the impact of the number of accounts created as intranet or extranet users is still relevant for presentations to shareholders, as it was a sign of vitality.

Once again, we have seen flourishing something very different from what the early adopters of the technology had designed and hoped for: social media, where there are third parties playing new forms of remunerated intermediation, have created an environment for people to be enough motivated, nudged, entertained or rewarded for sharing contents with each others with always changing and very mildly structured formats for a peculiar scope.

There is always an element of emotional or personal engagement, but as I have considered in the article about the trends in media studies and the challenges of datafication (icm2re 6.8), it is hard to see through the threads of the intranets and say that a consistent social environment, nurturing a corporate culture, actually exists at all. Indeed, we might have imagined it, designed, prototyped and even experienced it at an early stage but such computer mediated environment has now gone in many many cases, exposing the cemetery of what was supposed to be a productive and enriching virtual dimension of the organisation.

The tidy knowledge repositories or the carefully designed learning objects created, shared or managed by “community experts” have become the sarsen stones of the digitised, virtualised, abstract version of the corporate culture idea. There is nobody in but advertisers, scammers, spammers, strangers…. Perhaps we can conclude this lament saying that the same idea of corporate culture or learning organisation has in some ways evaporated, leaving data structures open to new types of opportunities, risks and challenges.

The illusionary instant right answers

What about the intranet as a delivery platform for outsourced or specialised call centres? Well, the question shoot another question: who needs interactions with colleagues and iterative questions and answers when data mining or artificial intelligence avatars can pop up on your screen and instantly give you in one single window the information you need to resolve complaints, close deals, refuse credit, give credentials and so on in a matter of seconds instead of minutes, hours or weeks?

The growth of contextual search / information retrieval products has been amazing for the last twenty years. The whole of the market (not just Microsoft with Office 365) has successfully rebranded many previous solutions as artificial intelligence or big data products. That has been at the expenses of all the human based information, Q&A, enquiries services powered with the previous generation of the same search technology.

In sum, it looks like we are leaving behind the ASK-A and the live reference services and put machine learning algorithms in charge of the process of extracting ideas and generating answers. These will come instantly from hundreds or thousands repositories of factual data produced by different sources. I have commented about the design, engineering and governance of IoT and relationships in other icm2re articles and I will not return here on my mixture of craft attitude, ingenuity and skepticism I have on AI developments.

The point is that we all tend to be overconfident while we look at these changes in the industry and see human filters - usually discretionary, inefficient and unpredictable - as unnecessary compared with the inventiveness of our new tools and systems. Most of the times the automation of digging and sorting, weighting and picking, cross-referencing and matching - all the basic operations that produce intelligence - is judged good enough by both data engineers and end users.

The only way to slow down the gallop of such trend and put more assurance on its way is to look at it from the perspective of the cyber security risks. And that - talking about corporate culture and the creation of new knowledge we would expect from an intranet infrastructure - is indeed a terribly depressive thing to say, I know.

The great security conundrum

Since I am an “anomalous” consultant when it comes to information security (I do not have the pedigree of formal qualifications that many young experts colleagues usually offer to large organisation) I usually avoid speaking out my mind or asking embarrassing questions about multi-level security models, identity and authentication management, data integrity and so on and so forth. In fact, the reactive answer to such questions most of the times consists in quoting a certain product and a specific standard or qualification addressing a particular technicality. What can we say more? Information security is the realm for the believer whilst I am a Christian atheist?

Search the audit log? Go for the fast iteration of the successful super-secure small scale intranet on a global scale? Search all the available sources from your smartphone? Everybody can seize the day when it comes to information security, just shooting the silver bullet of the new fascinating technicality.

Almost ten years ago, a short term volunteering job as an "Intranet facilitator" at the Citizen Advice Bureau of the Royal Court of Justice (RCJ) gave me the chance to learn about possible security issues caused by Sharepoint: analysing the vulnerabilities aspects of the Microsoft most sold server platform, against the backdrop of the organisation’s business and cultural priorities, were also useful in that, I could investigate a new approach to Intranet developments and orientate further research pathways about information management requirements (that was, by the way, the ultimate goal of a personal plan for the achievement of Chartership with CILIP at a time in which, sponsored by the late Bob McKee, there were ongoing talks for rethinking the whole of the professional qualifications available on information management with a possible merger between CILIP and the BCS, so that expertise and case studies that could motivate the integration between the two organisations and fields of expertise were seen with particular favour - but this is a different story and should be told at another time).

The technicalities I had the opportunity to assess in that occasion were related to the existence of bugs and missing features within Sharepoint Information Services (that was basically the first "free" release of Sharepoint relying on the .Net Framework v. 1.1), including some serious problems that caused the intranet project with the RCJ Advice Bureau to be decommissioned.

With later version of Sharepoint, including the latest Sharepoint 2016, those architectural issues have been surely addressed but not substantially sorted. On the contrary, the level of resources required to apply security patches or adopting other fixing solutions at organisational and content level has raised very well beyond the average possibilities of the standard small business or small charity or public organisations that cannot afford full time software programmers or the external support from Microsoft certified partners to work on their intranet on a permanent basis.

Undoubtedly, a number of third parties have sprung up during the last fifteen years around Sharepoint, Office365 and other subsequent Microsoft products for cloud based computing and networking: freelance consultants and small companies do have the expertise required to address the innumerable technical issues that sooner or later challenge any implementation of these solutions. The Sharepoint communities around the world count in now hundreds of people with different sets of skills and specialisations, including the ones needed to tackle the authentication problems or the risks associated with IDs management.

But in any case, especially for the small organisations and the large ones facing re-engineering projects, it is worth considering the redesign the whole of their intranet workflows and contents around that principle of "keep it simple Sharepoint” that was at the heart of my basic project almost ten years ago. That consisted in focussing on the permissions levels on one end (architecture and access) and on the rules for naming files on the other (contents production and workflows).

Conclusions

There are implicit organisational models embedded in any technology of collaboration or intranet platform. The turning point for the intranets of the future is whether or not the business users are willing to plan time for a serious consideration of such invisible hand cuffs and skeletons and not to leave them any longer to the sole discretion of information security experts and software developers.

Look at the whole thing from the perspective of an auditor if this can help to be more audacious and inquisitive, do not take the platform’s settings for granted or immutable.

There are many circumstances in which the following suggestions apply no matter what the technical experts say:

Few months ago a contact on social media pointed my attention towards an article publicising the decision of a company to offer yoga and pilates classes to their employees. I would never lower my eyebrow on this type of announcements: HR departments need to stay relevant and visible, physical exercise and wellbeing experiences can surely grab media attention and increase employees’ engagement for a variety of purposes etc etc. But besides its instrumental function, the idea of engaging people through something that improves their fitness whilst they experience a physical proximity is a quite powerful one. It could be a good starting point also to review your data architecture, to rethink or redesign your intranet.

Mens sana in corpore sano, says the latin proverb. Also the healthy intranet for your organisation starts in people mind.