In science and engineering, signal-to-noise is a measure that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. The term is also commonly used to describe a ratio of things that are useful (signal) to less useful (noise).
In intranets, it’s a useful analogy to describe the relationship between work-in-progress (WIP) type content such online collaboration & discussions (noise) and more formal content such as policies, procedures, work instructions, templates and forms (signal).
Signal V Noise - which is more valuable?
While online collaboration and the social possibilities offered by modern-day intranets are getting a lot of attention these days, it’s important not to forget the value that well structured and ‘qualified’ (ie. reviewed and approved) content provides to organisations.
In fact, according to the latest research data from the Worldwide Intranet Challenge (WIC)*, this qualified content is more important to the overall value of an intranet than unqualified and informal work-in-progress (WIP) type content.
The following chart shows the correlation of each WIC survey question with the overall value of the intranet. Questions at the top of the chart (eg. Mobile Access, Speed) have the weakest correlation to value while those at the bottom of the chart (eg. Time, Interactivity) have the strongest.
The arrows show the strength of the relationship between the ‘signal’ type content versus the ‘noise’ type content.
So what the chart is showing is that those questions related to collaboration and discussion (the noise), while important, are less critical to the overall value of an intranet than work instructions, policies and procedures, online forms and business applications (the signal).
When you think about it, this makes sense. The purpose of most collaboration or discussion is to either:
Solve problems, or
Discuss new ideas or innovations
The output from these discussions and collaboration should be new or updated processes along with supporting content such as templates, lists and/or applications.
For example, let’s say a bank wants to introduce a new way to process personal loan applications. This idea may firstly be initiated and then debated & discussed through various online channels. A project site may then be set up on the intranet to implement the chosen solution. All this collaborative activity taking place is important but should ultimately result in new or updated businesses processes along with supporting content (eg. a new application or form).
The ‘signal’ and the ‘noise’ - the missing link
The following diagram shows the relationship between the different intranet content types.
It is important to note in this diagram the ‘content curation’ aspect. This is where ‘the noise’ type content is translated into the more meaningful, re-usable and findable ‘signal’ type content.
In many organisations, this function is often overlooked. This means that staff must wade through historical online discussions or conversations (the noise) to find that valuable nugget of information they need, instead of being able to find it easily in a well structured list of procedures (or other structured content).
It’s not that different to how email is used at the moment - that is, employees needing to search through past emails to find valuable information instead of it being available in a well indexed list of organisational wide content types.
What does it all mean?
What the above research suggests is that organisations need to:
Clearly distinguish between the ‘signal’ and the ‘noise’ type content. These content types should be treated differently. ‘Noise’ type content will have less governance and should be branded in a way that staff recognise that the content is not ‘qualified’ - that is, it hasn’t been reviewed or ‘officially’ approved for widespread use within the organisation.
‘Signal’ type content on the other hand will have a greater level of governance (eg. sign-offs and approvals) and should also be clearly branded so that staff understand that this type of content is the ‘official’ and 'approved for use' within an organisation.
Recognise that the purpose of ‘signal’ and ‘noise’ content shouldn’t be confused. In other words, collaboration spaces, such as team sites and project sites, should NOT be the place where procedures, policies, forms and reference documents such as case studies are found. This will confuse employees and has the potential for an organisation to end up with hundreds of mini intranet sites - ie. places where staff go to find the ‘official’ way of doing things. There should only be one place for ‘qualified’ content (ie. the intranet) but there can be many collaboration spaces.
Recognise the need for a ‘content curation’ activity to take place. Just as ‘big data’ has created the need for a Data Miner to analyse, interpret and understand this data, so too does collaborative content require the need for a ‘Content Miner’ to review collaborative content and convert it into the more useful and findable ‘signal’ type content.
* The WIC is a web based survey that allows intranet end users to provide feedback about their own intranet. This feedback is then compared with other participating organisations. Over 45,000 intranet end users from more than 160 organisations have completed the WIC so far.