The reports are in again -- intranets are not dead -- which is always a relief to hear. Part of the rumors of its potential demise stem from the many shapes and forms that intranets can take, which includes the rise of the social intranet over the past five years. Even this term means many things to many people and does not necessarily mean all elements are built on the same platform. On the other hand, some organizations try to build a full intranet out of a social collaboration platform such as Jive, which does not necessarily work very well.
Social Collaboration Hasn't Killed Publishing
While intranets, as part of a wider digital workplace ecosystem, can mean different things to different organizations, even the most advanced and mature intranets include the simple requirement to publish information in a one to many mode: things like restaurant menus, the way to book meeting rooms, etc. While throwing this into a social community or workspace with the appropriate tags may work, there is a reason why plain old web pages work so well for text heavy content -- they keep the presentation of the information simple, clean and easy to digest. Web pages also provide plenty of easy to parse and index contextual content for search engines, above and beyond any meta tags.
User generated content is often involved in social collaboration. I had users who were easily creating html pages with text and graphics within an EMC eRooms workspace eight to 10 years ago and SharePoint has had wikis since 2003. More modern tools allow users to upload audio or video content (if organizational culture approves) and build sophisticated enterprise versions of YouTube. Once again though, video is often better hosted on a web page with complimentary information such as links to versions in other languages, links to transcripts, etc. This useful meta-information might be difficult to add to a social community page if that is the only place you can upload video.
Video is becoming an ever more important medium for internal communications. My organization has a full studio with lighting rigs, green screens and an awesome lady who is the video studio manager and production expert. Another professional services organization across the street has an internal YouTube equivalent, but is quite happy uploading iPhone quality content without much post production. In the end neither the restaurant menu, nor the room booking details lend themselves well to video.
How to Achieve a Blended Approach?
What we're left with is a potential need for good ol' fashioned textual content and rich media, like video, and adding in the enablement for social collaboration. There are a number of approaches to achieve this well balanced intranet. You could try and find your Tolkien-esque intranet "ring of power" (as in "one ring to rule them all"), or you can use different products, loosely or tightly integrated via a portal (or three ...).
For each of these approaches, you could go with a single vendor, multiple vendors, proprietary or open source. If, for example, you're an IBM shop you might use the Web Content Management that comes with the WebSphere portal to manage and publish simple text content, with an integrated installation of IBM Connections for social collaboration.
It often seems like every intranet in the world is built on some version of Microsoft SharePoint. While this may be an illusion, there are a lot of SharePoint intranets out there, some of which have benefitted from considerable enhancement. In one of my previous roles we had an intranet built around MediaWiki, MovableType blogs, eRooms, Exalead search engine, all pulled together with a home built CMS for portal and WCM -- and it worked very nicely.
There has been some real innovation in intranet platforms from smaller companies. At the risk of being shouted at by vendors for not mentioning every product out there, I will note a couple.
ThoughtFarmer is a long favorite of mine. A Canadian company, it provides an out of the box social intranet on a Microsoft technology stack, either on premises or in the cloud. Its aim is to allow organizations from 50 to 5000 people to communicate, collaborate, engage and integrate.
ThoughtFarmer takes a wiki based, simple content management approach and has many facilities to make working with textual content super easy, but it's no slouch with graphics and embedding video in a page, etc.
Jostle is a younger company than ThoughtFarmer, mentioned recently in these pages. Jostle describe itself as a cloud based turnkey intranet that will help you build a more vibrant workplace. A big focus of Jostle's value proposition is a patented technology that allows content to be delivered to specific teams, roles or locations. Jostle can scale larger than ThoughtFarmer -- its site suggests you call to discuss enterprise pricing for up to 100,000 users!
Both of these platforms can be integrated with other software platforms to provide an even richer experience.
To return to my opening point: not only is the intranet not dead, but platforms that make publishing web pages of fairly static text heavy content are not dead either. Content should never be allowed to become stale no matter in what format it's published. It should be relevant, useful, findable and digestible whether it comes as words on a screen, a downloadable audio "podcast" or a video to watch.
In our rush to follow trends, remember not everything needs to be a video with an attached commenting section. Select the right media to best convey the particular content and associated message, and the technologies that allow people to create, edit and publish that content as quickly and easily as possible. To me that means at least one corner of your digital workplace intranet consists of good old fashioned web pages, but what do you think ? Please provide your thoughts in the comments section below.