We heard it all a decade ago: Intranets are the wave of the future. Intranets are a waste of resources. Intranets are valuable tools. Intranets need to be social. Intranets are dead.

The only thing that's true is that Intranets need to solve an actual problem. Many organizations wanted an Intranet to replicate a little of the Internet inside their organization. Very few asked why they needed one.

Intranets, as they were originally envisioned, have failed. They were designed to replace the announcement board in the break room. Every office has them. They house safety rules, HR announcements and order sheets to buy Girl Scout cookies from Steve’s daughter. Like announcement boards, people used Intranets when they needed something specific, but otherwise largely ignored them as they went about their business.

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.

ESNs are the future because they combine the static information organizations need with the dynamic interactions that help a person be a productive part of the organization.

Facebook for the Enterprise or Something that Works?

ESNs are not new. Ever since Facebook took off, the concept of Enterprise 2.0 has spurred companies to try and create a Facebook for the Enterprise. Even Facebook is entering the fray with its own enterprise version.

The problem is that the Facebook model doesn’t translate to the enterprise. People don’t simply interact with friends or colleagues. They work on projects with teams within and across departments. Help surfaces in random conversations before meetings, after meetings, in hallways, in elevators and in break rooms.

People stroll over to their teammates to see what they are doing. This question is typically motivated by the inquirer needing a break combined with a degree of curiosity. The conversation may serve as a break in the day or it may start a dialog that helps both people perform their jobs.

ESNs build that environment online. They include the static announcement boards common to Intranets, but also enable those conversations around the proverbial water cooler. Now those conversations can last for days and grow to encompass other participants who stop by later.

They talk about the construction across the street, the joy of a new marketing director coming on board, and the random details of next week’s conference. Teams share their work with each other, allowing them to pool resources, even if those resources are outside of the ESN and the people are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Build Something New

You cannot recreate random human interactions. The best anyone can do is build an environment that allows the kind of conversations you'd have face-to-face to occur online when face-to-face isn't feasible.

Intranets tried to create a central hub for an organization by building a bulletin board. They succeeded. Like any bulletin board, they were ignored unless someone needed a question answered about the company or their benefits.

ESNs try to move not just the information of an organization online, but the culture. ESNs become an extension of the culture of the organization in which they are deployed. Even failed ESNs represent the culture of the organization, reflecting a culture of poor collaboration or one resistant to change.

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.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  kohlmann.sascha