Let’s dispense with the hype and marketing speak; an intranet is an internally focused, private website. And like all websites they’re meant to hand out information like a Pez dispenser. They are corporate brochureware and their time has come and gone.
There was a time when an intranet was the best possible solution for internal communication. Most companies have events, announcements, files, forms, presentations, workflows and general information that needs to be accessible to the employees or groups within the organization. This content is the stuff of the intranet.
It’s not that intranets aren't useful; it’s just that they’re obsolete. They are like Windows XP -- lots of people still use them, they can do a lot of useful things, but better technology has supplanted it. In this case, the intranet is heading toward extinction because of enterprise social networks and other social collaboration software.
The Intranet Replacements
Enterprise social networks and similar collaboration platforms have distinct advantages for disseminating corporate information. First, they allow employees to share useful information. Just because someone puts some content up on an intranet and sends a “look at this” email doesn't mean that busy employees will bother to look at it. Employees don’t purposefully ignore corporate communications; they just don’t get around to it.
Enterprise social networks allow other employees who have looked at the content and found it useful to share it with others, raising awareness of the content in ways the official company channels cannot. And let’s be honest, companies push out a lot of information to employees that is generally meaningless to them. Enterprise social networks’ sharing mechanisms along with the ability to follow people or groups that are of interest help curate information so that employees know that what they see is probably important to them.
The second advantage that enterprise social networks have over intranets is the ability to facilitate meaningful conversations around content. Social content is designed to link the online conversation to the content. In effect, the content becomes richer as employees discuss the content, often sharing additional information to supplement the original content.
The Key Differentiator
Intranet software vendors will be quick to point out that they have added many of these social features, including microblogging and activity streams, to their products. That’s true but a key difference still exists between enterprise social networks and intranets and it isn't features. It’s how they are used.
Intranets are still designed to be a one way communication -- company to employee. Enterprise social networks are meant to facilitate sharing and communication amongst everyone in the company. The corporate intranet assumes that the company wants to spew information to employees without response while the enterprise social network assumes that employees have valuable content to share with each other.
Ultimately, the goals and usefulness of an intranet can be achieved by the enterprise social network but not the other way around. That’s one of the reasons that many of the top intranet vendors have effectively become enterprise social network vendors. Intranets are disappearing, subsumed into the enterprise social network. It’s time to let them go extinct.
Editor's Note: Read more of Tom's thoughts on social business in How to Make Social Collaboration Features More Meaningful