When the Internet came along, optimism was at an all-time high. We thought we would solve all the problems of the world, possibilities were endless.

And granted, we solved many. We work much better today because of the innovations of the last 20 years. The scope of these improvements has been massive. However, one major problem still looms -- collaboration in the workplace. Seems like a no-brainer doesn't it? Everyone is connected, so it should be easy to work in unison, splitting tasks and having every specialist do their own thing.

"Should" is the keyword here.

A big factor is and always will be human nature. Even with the most sophisticated tools available, some people will resist rethinking their routines. Others will still protect information, try to sandbag work to keep themselves relevant, and so on.

This is a problem, but also a defeatist outlook. Set people up for greatness, design around their work, and if the culture is right, good things will follow.

It's About the Way Work Gets Done

Choosing between an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) and an intranet is irrelevant if you don't look inward first. Some options require you to work in a very specific way in order to be efficient. While a small 20 person company might be up for adapting their approach to suit a platform, it's near impossible once you cross the 200 employee mark. For that reason, it's crucial to assess the way your company works before you even look at a collaboration platform.

Do you work in a network of smaller teams, or is there a lot of communication between offices and departments? Does your business require a more structured approach to knowledge sharing, or is it more about keeping in touch with one another and sharing status updates? These simple questions will dramatically reduce the list of suitable software.

ESN vs. Intranet, the Fight That Never Was

Intranets have been around for a while (as technology goes). Traditionally, they include a clear sitemap, an established structure. They act as that single source of information, an efficient way of pushing information to all employees at once. Their selling point was having one trusted source of content, with everything organized in a specific way.

ESNs emerged more recently. Every employee has a voice on this platform, and everyone acts as a valued content producer and publisher. However, this model relies on discovery of information. Activity streams and search tools are necessary for this type of option, which makes searching for information a little more difficult. ESNs truly shine when it comes to conversation and expertise location. Since everyone has a profile, employees can quickly and easily assess who does what, where they are and if they are available for a project.

Portals are older still. They provide a unified point of access to all the different applications employees need to do their jobs, from HR to sales. They act as the gateway, the link to the systems that manage our data and processes. Sometimes they’re folded into the intranet, other times they’re distinct and apart. They connect to and aggregate information from every nook and cranny of the business, whether it's stored in file systems, applications or databases.

Publications have announced the age of ESNs, or the age of social at work. This created a strange and overhyped fight between intranets and ESNs, as if a clear winner would emerge over the years. As we covered above, these options fit two very different scenarios. Some companies would never be able to work with intranets, and others with ESNs, simply because it doesn't fit their way of working. Others see the concepts as distinct or blending together, as an intranet portal that incorporates social tools.

The Age of Collaboration

Collaboration defines the information age. All of these software options -- portals included -- are trying to help us work better together. Companies need a simple and cost effective option that fits their way of working. Businesses don't want to overspend on this matter. Expensive software, or software that requires an army of developers to customize and configure, better offer a lot of value.

I work for one of these software companies, and like many others, we think we found a solution. We refuse to think that since we are an intranet, we can't become that single pane of glass or do expertise location well, and that because we are an intranet, every employee can't have a voice. We're an intranet first and foremost, but include most features of an ESN. Obviously, we aren't going to be as good at those. But it shows: you don't have to give up everything, there are grey areas.

It's futile to fight one another, touting that one model is the best. ESNs, intranets, portals are all fine options -- if they fit your way of operating. So do your homework, pick the software that fits you, not what your neighbor said was great. Stop fighting over petty things, usher in the age of collaboration. Get to work.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  charlie cars