Beware Red Herrings Intranet vs ESN is a Sham

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Should I replace my intranet with an Enterprise Social Network?

Internal communications departments have debated this question, as have ESN teams and intranet teams. Maybe they saw higher adoption and engagement on their ESN platform, or read success stories from their peers. Or maybe their tired intranet publishing platform is in desperate need of replacing.

Oscar Berg nailed it when he wrote that choosing between an intranet and ESN is the wrong question to ask -- it displays technology-centric thinking. Instead of thinking about platforms, the starting point needs to focus on organizational and user needs.

It might seem like common sense that you need to work out objectives before evaluating platforms, technologies and toolsets. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen -- ask anybody who has had a decision to implement SharePoint signed and sealed before knowing what SharePoint will be used for.

The Crossover Between Intranets and ESNs

Even if you know what you want to achieve, it's far from straightforward working out whether an intranet or an ESN best meets your need. The ESN versus intranet question is a red herring because of the blurring lines between what the two do.

There are some generally accepted characteristics and differences. An intranet will have the ability to publish web content, and some kind of central control and ownership over elements of the publishing, for example on the homepage.

Meanwhile an ESN will offer social tools accessible to a far greater population of users. Employees can usually follow each other, use tools to post and share content, respond to other posts and get access to views which surface contributions.

But how many newer intranets do you know which integrate to a certain degree with ESN features? And how many ESNs do you know where a blogging template is used to disseminate centrally approved content or that have more “traditional” pages of content?

What’s an Intranet Again?

How you define the constituent features of an intranet varies from organization to organization, from intranet team to intranet team and even from user to user.

Andrew Wright’s article on defining an intranet clearly shows that the professional intranet community consider social tools part of the intranet mix. Over three quarters regard discussion groups and wikis / blogs as being part of an intranet, and over half regard microblogging being part of the equation.

Publishing and Networking Merge

The crossover between intranets and ESNs is also evident in the choices of intranet software available. Off-the-shelf offerings like Interact, Intranet Connections and ThoughtFarmer all offer the capabilities of intranets and social, rolled into one package.

We’ve also seen social network software providers with web content management capabilities, so their product can replicate the functions of a more traditional intranet. Platforms like Jive and Chatter have the ability to publish pages of content, and some large enterprises use those packages as a combined social collaboration and intranet platform.

Yammer offers some limited publishing capabilities, although its ability to be an “intranet” is also about its potential integration (or frustrating lack of it, depending on your viewpoint) with other Microsoft products.

Of course some of the functionality that has been bolted-on is sometimes not as well-developed or is limited in features. As platforms evolve, they often bear the blueprint of their origins so adding web content pages does not make it capable of meeting the needs of an enterprise intranet. However some deployed Jive-based intranets include homepages featuring more corporate than user-generated content.

Are Traditional Intranet Features Done?

Another implication of the question “Should I replace my intranet with an Enterprise Social Network” is that organizations do not need some of the key features associated with an intranet which are not associated with an ESN.

Modern intranets do many things. But the more “traditional” features that people often question the value of are:

  • Corporate communications, particularly news
  • Operational-level content
  • Navigation (as opposed to search)

The debate about the value of corporate communications is probably for another article, but I’d argue that employees need some operational-level information and they need to be able to find that information quickly. It may not be particularly interesting or sexy, but it is useful, particularly in larger organizations.

Here are just a few use cases which demonstrate where operational content is either essential or useful:

  • Simon wants to find out everything he needs to do in order to qualify for paternity leave
  • The HR contact center wants to reduce the number of telephone calls it receives about questions such as "what do I need to do to qualify for paternity leave"
  • Anjli wants to see the latest quarterly figures
  • Scott from the call center wants to look up some mainstream product information to help answer a customer query over the telephone
  • Sarah in accounts wants to see what is on the canteen menu

There's also a place for a good task-based, user-centered navigation. Users want structure and they want to be able to find things, and search doesn't always deliver the goods.

Couldn't You Use an ESN to Do That?

Of course if you do need the sort of “operational-level content” that is needed you don’t necessarily need an intranet. You could use a platform which is regarded as an ESN.

You can certainly deliver corporate communications. That could be a CEO blog. There could be an “all company” feed based on posts which have an internal communications hashtag. You could deliver operational content with pages or files. The navigation might be a bit harder, although it could perhaps be achieved on some platforms with a bit of customization.

There's no right answer to the ESN or intranet question. There’s crossover between what the platforms can do and more convergence is likely. Most organizations probably need social tools and networking, as well as the ability to post content about your organization and its processes.

Intranet? ESN? Intranet and ESN integration? Digital workplace? The question of which is best is a red herring. Depends on what you need, what you’ve got and where you want to go. 

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