Experiencing dèjá vu?

If the title of this article sounds vaguely familiar, you would be right.

Laurence Hart's recent post, “Forget Intranets, Give Me an ESN,” deserved a rebuttal. And here it is.

Intranets Have Failed. Come Again?

The article dives straight in with this proposition: “Intranets, as they were originally envisioned, have failed.”

Generalizations aside, intranets were originally envisioned as internal, private versions of the Internet, or more specifically the World Wide Web, with internal web sites used for publishing information of all types and varieties.

Hart's suggestion that early intranets were nothing but glorified electronic notice boards may have been the case for some. But that doesn't spell complete failure. And intranets have not exactly stood still for the last 15 years.

Hart makes a leap forward to the more recent past and the introduction of social tools, writing,

Then came Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs). ESNs promised to bring the entire break room to people, regardless of where they worked. Comparing ESNs to an Intranet site is a little like comparing a wonderful room full of coffee and cookies with a corkboard on the wall -- they just can't compete.”

Again, a sweeping statement. Yes, ye olde “electronic break room” might have been a bit dark and dreary at times, but some organizations made good use of old fashioned tools, from bulletin boards to e-rooms, to blogs and wikis.

Which brings me to my favorite rant ....

Social. Where to Start?

One term that deserves to be retired is “social.” You've heard the rant before, so let's not belabor the point. But the industry in general and Hart's use of the term Enterprise Social Network (ESN) need to be straightened out.

An ESN cannot replace an Intranet, the clues are in the label:

  • Enterprise = within the organization
  • Social = to do with people
  • Network = a series of connections

To paraphrase Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride" -- I do not think those words mean what you think they mean.

My organization uses Microsoft SharePoint 2013 rich profiles. No other social functionality is connected to it yet, so I would say that we have an ESN. It's possible to publish a profile, discover other people’s profiles via search, connect with them and build up a personal internal network of connections.

What we don’t have is what Hart describes, a full-on enterprise social collaboration platform, of which the ESN is simply a component. Let's just call it a modern collaboration software platform (after all, how do you do anti-social collaboration?).

Hart asserts that such a software platform can handle the static information publishing needs of an intranet – and in this case, I agree. Some platforms, such as the latest version of the Jive platform, are stepping up to meet these needs. 

Moving On

Hart finishes with this,

Retire the Intranet moniker. It conjures up memories of static information dumps whose time has passed. Focus on using ESNs to extend organizational culture online, and bring employees in all locations into the cultural center of the organization.” 

Some intranets may have been static information dumps, but not all of them. The static information publishing  function, the social networking function, the collaboration functions, are all part of a modern intranet. The intranet, in turn, might be part of a larger Digital Workplace -- which includes mobile access to all these features, plus specific specialist business applications. 

So yes, it's come down to an argument about semantics. But language is how we convey concepts and ideas to each other, so it’s OK to quibble over the meaning of words, especially amongst friends. Words are powerful, and the meaning of them sometimes even more so.

So let's stop talking about ESNs. Let's talk about the all-encompassing digital workplace, and in a particular context the Intranet, that ever-evolving information management platform which (depending on your organization) might be a digital dumping ground or the center of your working life.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  @Tuncay