Now THAT’s What I’m Talking About!

I put out a call for case studies a while back.  I was looking for examples of deep Enterprise 2.0 penetration —  where freeform social software platforms had become so widely and deeply used that they were no-longer-exceptional parts of the company’s technology infrastructure, and its culture.

Susan Scrupski
and Jerry Bowles, two of my fellow Enterprise Irregulars, came across one such example and directed it my way.        

I met yesterday with David Deal, Ray Velez, and Amy Vickers from Avenue A | Razorfish, a 1000 person, $190 million interactive services firm headquartered in Seattle.  AARF helps clients with digital marketing and advertising, with their customer-facing websites, and also with their Intranets and Extranets.  

What I found most interesting about the company was its own Intranet.  To hear David, Ray, and Amy tell it, the company’s traditional static Intranet —  the place where an employee would go to look up benefits information or peruse the latest press releases —  still exists, but has been marginalized by a suite of Enterprise 2.0 tools.  Ray fired up his laptop and showed me the company’s de facto homepage:

AARF"s E2.0 Intranet

Let’s look at this page one section at a time.  The leftmost area of the screen, which is consistent across all of AARF’s E2.0 Intranet pages, is devoted to navigation.  Underneath the search box are two sets of pointers to other pages.  The contents of the top box are imposed, the bottom emergent.  The top box has links to many of the usual suspects:  individuals’ pages, projects, and company information.  Underneath this is a tag cloud.  Employees can tag documents they upload and pages on the Intranet and Internet with helpful words and phrases.  The most popular of these tags show up in the box in alphabetical order, with font size indicating relative popularity.

The middle column consists of two boxes.  The top one is devoted to Internet content, the bottom one to AARF Intranet content.   What Internet content shows up?  AARF has built interfaces to the bookmarking site, the photo sharing site Flickr, and Digg, a site where members vote on the importance of news stories.  All three use tags, or something close.  

AARF employees have learned to add the tag ‘AARF’ when they come across a web page (using, a photo (Flickr), or a news story (Digg) that they think will be of interest to their colleagues.  Shortly after they add this tag, the bookmark (look at the top of the box), thumbnail of the photo (middle) or headline and description of the story (bottom) show up within the AARF E2.0 Intranet.  So AARF has found a fast and low-overhead way to let its employees share Internet content with each other.  It’s also free; these interfaces with, Flickr, and Digg require no fees and no permissions.  I find this simply brilliant.

The bottom box in the middle of the page shows most recent documents uploaded to and pages created on the company’s Intranet.  Since the E2.0 Intranet is essentially a wiki, anyone can create a new page.  AARF uses the free, open source MediaWiki wiki software.  This software is not WYSIWYG, so users need to be comfortable with the MediaWiki markup language.  

The rightmost section of the page shows the most recent blog posts.  At AARF, these include emails to group mailing lists, which are automatically posted to a bloglike page.

Obviously, this is a highly dynamic page where most content doesn’t stick around long.  Only the leftmost part of the page remains at all constant over time; the rest of it churns constantly.  In other words, it’s definitely not the place to go to find any specific piece of Intranet content.  So how popular and useful can it be?  

Highly popular, and highly useful.  I find that the sites I visit most often these days are ones that give me ‘the latest.’  They help me stay on top of (or at least feel like I’m staying on top of) the world, the blogosphere, and my personal network of people and content.  This page does the same thing at the company level for AARF employees.  It gives them ‘the latest’ about their work environment.  And it does so in a bottom-up and egalitarian fashion.  This page doesn’t contain the latest information that the company’s senior managers, or its IT staffers, think employees should know about; it contains the latest information that employees think employees should know about.

But what about navigating all the rest of AARF’s Intranet content?  Shouldn’t the home page help with that?  If that search box in the upper left works well enough, it does.  I believe the Googlers when they say "search is the navigation paradigm."  I bet that most people at AARF can quickly get where they want on the Intranet if they start at this page and type a few words into the box.

Other pages on the company’s E2.0 Intranet display the same smart mixture of standardized and freeform content, and other intelligent uses of new tools for wading through lots of content.  Here’s Ray’s personal page:

An AARF personal page

The content at the top is imported from the company’s directory.  All the stuff underneath he added himself.

Here’s a wiki page.  The graphic in the upper right shows other pages that link to it:

An AARF wiki page

And here’s the page employees use to upload documents.  They can add tags by clicking or typing:

AARF document upload page

AARF prides itself on its knowledge of how people actually consume and navigate through online content.  As I look at their own E2.0 Intranet, I think this pride might not be misplaced.  This Intranet passed a test I often use to assess technology penetration.  I asked David, Ray, and Amy what would happen if the E2.0 tools were shut down at AARF.  They looked at each other for a second, then all started laughing.  Test passed.

David had the only grey hair in the group, so I asked him if it was difficult for the more senior people at AARF to understand the E2.0 Intranet and contribute effectively to it.  His answer was intriguing.  He said that he had a nephew at college, and the only way he would consent to communicate with David was via Facebook — no email, no IM.  Because of this, AARF’s Intranet was not unfamiliar territory.  His anecdote provided more evidence that newbies think very differently about IT and collaboration, as I wrote earlier.  It also showed me that we oldsters can learn the new modes of collaboration if the incentives are in place.

AARF, of course, is an atypical company in many ways.  It’s full of people who slap together mashups in their spare time (like the one that lets AARF employees enter the addresses of lunch places near their Manhattan office so that they display on a Google Maps).  So its ‘empty quarter‘ of non-adopters is going to be comparatively quite small.  

Still, though, their E2.0 Intranet is a really nice piece of work.  I’m relieved that we finally have a clear case study of deep penetration of Enterprise 2.0 technologies across a sizable company.  And I’m optimistic that this example is a harbinger of things to come.