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Last November Thierry Breton, chief executive of international technology group Atos, caused a sensation after he announced plans to ban internal email within three years, describing it as a 'pollutant' and claiming that just 15 per cent is actually worthwhile.

The French boss of Atos, which employs 74,000 staff across 42 countries, calculated that his managers spent 15 to 20 hours a week checking and answering internal emails which he categorised as 'an instrument to shirk responsibility'.

A range of new tools including social networks, instant messaging, micro blogging and document sharing will replace the company's internal email system by 2014.

The plan has been described as both brave and stupid, and critics claim it will be quietly ditched when the loss of email impedes the ability of ATOS employees to do their job. But Breton, who stopped using internal email six years ago, is resolute. 'Every year we hire roughly 10,000 new employees, most of them are below the age of 30, and they don't use internal email anymore. They are using a lot of different tools,' he told BBC News.

And it seems that his view is gaining momentum as employers wake up to the potential for a new communications infrastructurethat could totally transform the meaning of employee engagement and relations with staff and even of the culture of doing business itself.

Breton, who wants Atos to be a front runner in the technology race, clearly sees the potential of the new social intranet, which replaces the current noticeboardstyle intranet, and promises a whole host of new business capabilities.

It is a system that can better connect employees via Facebook style profile pages and expertise search functions; enable better and broader organisational collaboration across projects, functions and/or departments; generate content creation, sharing and review; and, of course, offer a wealth of blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS features and more that can keep today's employee up-to-date with company news.

'We have a generation of Facebook employees who want the same experience in-house,' says Richard Coope, head of digital at Radley Yeldar. 'The corporate intranet is static - it has no understanding of how busy people are and has a moralistic one-way dialogue.

'Now there's this move towards social intranets, which allow for conversation and collaboration, for idea generation, openness, and mutual respect. They're about speed, efficiency and resilience. They enable companies to tap into innovation and put ideas into practice.'

Alan Cooper, new business director at Freestyle Interactive, has noted a related development: today's employees want to share. 'Across big and small companies, we are seeing an appreciation of the benefits of team working and collaboration. Social intranets are happening because of the instinct of people to work together across project teams and departments,' he says.

Nor is this just a grassroots development. Some leaders are also seeing the opportunities. Georg Ell, general manager, EMEA, at enterprise social networking company Yammer, cites several examples. Vodacom, for instance, has been trialling Yam Jams, otherwise known as online interactive discussions. ' Yam Jams are an opportunity for executives to publish the fact that they'll be on Yammer on a particular date and time to enter into discussion and answer questions,' says Ell. The chief executive of Vodacom enjoyed the process so much, that he is now aiming to do one every month.

Nor is Yammer alone in getting in on the leadership-engagement act. Market research agency Opinion Matters has created CommSight, a service which enables executives to make an online presentation while getting real-time feedback and comments from employees. 'All too often these things end up being one way communication only,' says managing director Karen Brooks. 'But a key benefit [of CommSight] is that in having got peoples' attention we also get insight by enabling them to feed back their knowledge, information and opinions.'

Go to YouTube and Giam Swiegers, chief executive of Deloitte Australia, can be found extolling the virtues of enterprise social networking. Every 48 hours, he scans everyconversation on Yammer. 'It gives him total line of sight and complete transparency in business,' says Coope. But that's not the only advantage, according to Swiegers. He particularly praises internal social networking for enabling him to get on an equal level with employees to discuss concerns and exchange ideas. He cites an example in which he received a 'very bold challenge' from a first year analyst who disagreed with a view Swiegers had presented on Yammer.

Their public debate had the effect, says Swiegers, of not only 'flattening the organisation' but also putting a discussion into the open that might otherwise have been held behind his back in the pub.

The thought of such public forums might unnerve many a leader, but, as Swiegers, says: 'If you can't take it, don't get involved.'

Top-down: Leadership engagement

And perhaps that's one of the chief problems with social intranets. While some leaders may well embrace a totally transparent communication that ignores hierarchy, for others it remains a step too far - especially if they think that negative comments might affect a company's reputation.

Internal communications manager Christine Crofts has worked for two FTSE 100 financial services companies. She has been involved in developing a business case for a Facebook style 'all-singing-all-dancing platform' - including developing the governance framework, meeting compliance requirements and gaining executive buy-in. She has also helped shape the internal social media strategy - defining the core objectives and purpose of the tool and proposing a framework for measuring success. More recently, she joined an organisation with an established microblogging tool and is working to create a strategy and measurement framework.Crofts says she constantly encounters two obstacles: concerns around reputational risk and employees not using the tools. 'Most executives still fear what employees might say in the tool and what impact it could have if it got outside the organisation,' she says.

'There has to be trust and the right culture of communications. Yet at the same time - you need to expect that sometimes people will over step the mark. How you respond to that and prepare for it is key.'

Mark Morrell, a consultant in intranet management and former intranet manager at BT, agrees, adding that there is still a real fear of the unknown. 'Social intranets are often stopped in their tracks by legal or risk departments who say it's too risky. Then there's cultural and administrative strangulation: companies put so many steps into putting the process in place that they stop it from happening,' he says.

For instance, Morrell could only get sign-off on BT's social intranet by agreeing to a first set of terms and conditions that stretched to 15 pages. 'The reality was that we didn't have any problems. So the next terms and conditions were much shorter, and more balanced in terms of laying out benefits as well as risks. But you have to be willing to compromise,' he says.

And bottom-up: Employee adoption

Even where a company has the leadership support to implement a social intranet, it then faces a critical job to also ensure employee adoption. 'On the usage side - one of the biggest risks is how to get people to use the tool. Just because you build it does not mean they will flock to it,' says Crofts. 'I don't know of an organisation that has implemented a social media tool that hasn't initially just been used by the IT geeks.'

Mark Stephens, director of digital at Merchant Cantos, agrees. 'Getting adopting is fiendishly hard. You can often apply the 90-9-1 principle to social intranets: 90 per cent won't use it; nine per cent will have some involvement and just one per cent will really engage. And that's a failure.'

'Your average employee is very busy and can't initially see the value of taking the time to proactively share their thoughts,knowledge and expertise - when they have a lot to do,' adds Crofts. 'Look at it this way: would you actively search a tool like this for other people's questions to answer?'

But Crofts says technology is improving all the time. The ability to integrate feeds from communities and discussions into the places where employees are already working (for example, intranet home pages)will, she says, 'make it easier to expose people to relevant information from these tools'.

Stephens also thinks that by making a social intranet a by-product of working life, for example by aligning it to business processes, there's a better chance of success. 'Make sure it adds value,' he says.

He also thinks the ability to reach everyone is vital: 'Are you engaging with all employees or just the head office? If your company has lots of people who happen to work down a mine in Brazil and who communicate by mobile phone, how are you going to engage with them? Are you going to ensure your social intranet supports mobile?'

Stephens cites the example of a large retailer who wanted to get its employees to use its social intranet. Many worked on the shop floor and, as a result, would have to access the platform from home. The retailer decided to award points based on employees' level of contribution. The points go towards its charity donations. 'Using ways to incentivise people to engage has real possibility,' he says.

An evolving landscape

There is a sense of work and technology still in progress, which is reinforced by the fact that many companies are still in the trial or pilot phase of using these tools. According to a recent study by Prescient Digital Media, 61 per cent of companies have at least one form of internal social media, ranging from blogs, wikis, discussion, instant messaging or social networking, in place. But just ten per cent have a 'true social intranet' with multiple social media tools integrated into the home page and most content consumption, available to most, if not all, employees.'There is widespread adoption but an awful lot of companies are experimenting - doing a little bit of social networking, like providing a facility to post comments,' says Sam Marshall, director at ClearBox Consulting. 'But it's not yet a standard part of doing business.'

A typical example is that of IPF Holdings, a subsidiary of International Personal Finance which provides unsecured cash loans in emerging markets, which has been running a test of Yammer for the past six months.

'We learned from surveys that people wanted to have the opportunity to give feedback and provide comment,' explains Alison Lee, the company's senior manager - group digital corporate affairs. 'Yammer might be the answer. It has the Facebook element that people are used to and that they like. And it provides another channel for bringing people together, which is what we want. We hope it'll improve engagement and productivity.'

A revolution in waiting?

There may still be a sense of a waiting game when it comes to social intranets. And with many companies still just dipping their toes there remain challenges to overcome.

But among the bolder companies, there are a few that are lighting the way to social intranet success. Deloitte, CapGemini, HSBC, RBS, O2 and Deutsche Post DHL are just a few of the names on a growing list of companies starting to experience the benefits of social intranets.

And the consensus seems to be that these tools have the power to truly transform business culture. 'I have no doubt that social tools will revolutionise the way communication flows within a business,' says Crofts.

CommSight's Brooks adds: 'If individuals and commerce continue to embrace this, and take on board their responsibility in this process, social intranets will become the blood flow in the body of businesses and organisations.'

And for all the concerns that an employee might say something untoward that damages a company's reputation, most agree that a good social intranet could enhance reputation. 'It's about telling a consistent story,' says Coope. 'When the internal and the external matches up, the brand lives. When there's a rhetoric gap, there are problems. By adopting a socialmedia mindset - getting closer to customers and employees - companies can connect the internal and external. That's when social tools can help develop reputation.'

The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed a significant decline in public trust in chief executives over the past year but a dramatic rise in employee credibility. Employers that use social intranets well could gain an important reputational advantage in this landscape. 'Employees are key ambassadors in their company or organisation, within their industry sector and when socialising with friends, family and strangers outside of work,' says Brooks.

'Well informed employees who have access to information and get involved in debates and contemplation of issues surrounding their sector will be able to present a well-informed case when asked.' As for immediate changes, while Atos might be eliminating work emails, other companies predict email will continue to play an important, if reduced role, in internal communications. Consultancy CapGemini, which employs 115,000 employees across 40 countries, may not be planning to ban internal emails but it has slashed usage by 30 per cent since implementing Yammer.

Challenges there may be, but the promise of freedom from some of the distractions and constraints of never-ending emails may be enough for many companies and end-users to embrace the social intranet revolution.