Intranets have been around in one form or another for years. And while how we have used them has changed greatly, how we get people to use them continues to be an ongoing challenge.

In the early days of the Intranet -- which was not that long ago -- it was all about making formal information resources such as corporate news, policies, process descriptions and instructions available to employees via a web browser. The biggest challenge besides breaking the webmaster bottleneck was making employees actually visit the intranet to read the information that was published there. Low adoption and usage rates could partly be blamed on computer illiteracy, but also on things such bad integration with the rest of the work environment.

While WCM systems helped to break the webmaster bottleneck, the challenge in making an intranet adopted and used by employees is still much valid for many of today's intranets. It is obviously not enough to ensure that the information employees need is there and that it is accessible and easy to find. It is also necessary to make it an environment that is seamlessly integrated with the other parts of the work environment and where it is possible to have the kinds of conversations that make it easier for employees to perform their jobs.

Using Social Features to Drive Adoption and Usage

Around the turn of the millennium, one approach that was used to increase the adoption and usage rates of intranets was to add more interactive and social features such as buy and sell, bulletin boards, discussion forums, comments to news, instant messaging and chat rooms. The basic idea was that if employees went to the intranet to communicate and build community by sharing their opinions about whatever the subject or by offering to sell their items to any of their colleagues, they might also get used to using the intranet for more work related things as well.

Occasionally it worked, at least for some time. Sooner or later a question would pop up in employees’ heads: Why would I share my opinions about personal interests or offer to sell my stuff only to my colleagues -- especially if there are better forums available on the web?

Furthermore, the social features which were used to drive the adoption and usage of intranets were also located in an environment dominated with static and strictly organized corporate information. The intranet was not the place where people actually worked; even knowledge workers who were sitting by their computers all day long rather worked in their email inbox and on their desktop, sometimes against a file server. The discussions taking place in discussion forums and instant messages were completely disconnected from their main work environments and there were no ways to connect them. Simple things like referring from a discussion forum thread to a document stored on a file server were either problematic or not possible at all. There were problems with access rights and broken links as files were renamed, moved, deleted or simply replaced by another file as the valid version.

Will The Social Intranet Become a Productivity Drain?

Today, when social features such as blogs, forums, comments and micro-blogging are introduced on an intranet, I often hear fears expressed -- typically from those who are responsible for the intranet -- that employees might do a lot of private stuff on the intranet. They fear that increased intranet usage due to the introduction of social features might actually decrease productivity rather than the other way around.

My answer is that it won’t happen. Because why would it? When at work, most people want to work. Besides, they have plenty of other and better places where they can do their private stuff.

People might very well do private stuff during office hours, but they usually don't want to do it in their work environment. They prefer to do it elsewhere, such as on the web, in places which are better suited for whatever their purpose and where their personal opinions or interests are not mixed up with their work.

The rare few who will do private stuff in their digital work environment will either do it in separate forums or be kindly asked by their colleagues to go somewhere else. The majority are there to work and don’t want to be distracted by something that is entirely irrelevant to their work.

Employees Need a Virtual Place Where They Can Talk About Work

In my experience the key to increasing adoption of an intranet is to create places where employees can talk about their work with each other. It must be possible to integrate these conversations with their work elsewhere. If they need to discuss something that is described in a document, they need to be able to provide a link to it, or even embed the relevant information into the conversation. If they need to discuss something that is located in their ERP system, they need to be able to link to the specific screen that displays the relevant information or even embed the information into the conversation, and vice versa (the conversation needs to be embedded on the ERP screen).

People want and need to talk with each other for various reasons. This is definitely true at work where they so often depend on each other to be able to perform their jobs. When at work, they want to talk about work and things that make them feel part of the work community. If there are no places in their work environment where they can talk about work and where the conversations can be integrated with the other parts of their work environment, then they will go somewhere else to talk. Or worse, they won’t talk with each other at all.

So forget about making corporate news the center of attraction on your intranet to drive adoption and usage rates. Instead, make the intranet a place where employees can talk about their work.

[Editor's note: You may be interested in The Rise of Intranet 2.0: The Social Intranet.]