Do we have to choose between intranets and enterprise social networks (ESNs)?  Before we can tackle that question, let's take a brief look at Intranets and ESNs as they are being used today.

The Decline of Intranets ...

Intranets' popularity appears to have declined. This is due to many reasons, but I think a big one is that they just aren't engaging.  When Intranets first emerged, their main purpose was to provide a place for organizations to post content and data that they thought users wanted to see. IT handled the main administrative duties, which meant a user or department had to sometimes jump through hoops to get content published.  

Over the years, companies added collaboration abilities and self-service features to their intranets in the hopes of increasing use and engagement. However -- as with the implementation of many document and content management systems -- lack of planning, governance and user training caused projects to either outright fail, or resulted in the underuse of the platform.

An excess of content contributed to the decline. Overwhelmed users couldn't find what they were looking for. Lack of an effective taxonomy, governance and search strategy could all be blamed.

Mark Jones, founder of Collaboris, says that users tend to scan information, zeroing in on what's essential to do their jobs, and suggests that intranet content should be kept simple.

Your colleagues can be seen as an audience -- giving them the information they’re looking for in a concise and clear manner should be the focus of all your work as an administrator."

Organizations should deliver targeted content to their employees, by giving them the information they need, when they need it. Based on experience, I think this is an excellent idea. An implementation I worked on turned the intranet home page into basically a dashboard that users could customize to suit their needs. It also included personalized areas that showed information that related to the employee herself or her job function.

... and Rise of ESNs

With the decline of intranets came the rise of enterprise social networks. Companies relinquished their fears of social networks to implement some form of collaborative social tools in their organization.

According to Jones:

If there’s one way to make your Intranet engaging, it’s to make it social. There’s a raft of Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) out there which replicate the theory behind Facebook and apply it to the workplace." 

As Jones stated, there's a lot of enterprise social networks for businesses to choose from. The key (as with all software selections) is to evaluate and choose the one that's the best fit for your organization. Some things to keep in mind are the size of the organization, geographical proximity of the employees and mobile needs.

Do I Have to Choose?

So -- do you stick with your Intranet, or ditch it altogether in lieu of an enterprise social network? There's a place for both, as long as they are intertwined in such a way that the experience of using them is user-friendly and seamless.  

Document and content management platforms like SharePoint do certain things really well, but fall short when it comes to social tools. Granted, SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online (part of Microsoft's Office 365 offering) have added many social features that earlier versions didn't have. Microsoft's Yammer acquisition indicated an understanding of SharePoint's shortcomings in social functionality.

Another argument for keeping both is that enterprise social networks don't have the best document management capabilities. Can you store documents in them? Certainly. But is it the best place to store them?  Probably not, especially if you want features like versioning, metadata and check in/out.

Enterprise social networks can bridge the gaps between traditional, informational intranets and the desire to quickly discover and collaborate with colleagues. As always, it's up to each individual organization to decide whether they’ll choose one over the other, or utilize both.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Joe Shlabotnik