Social Business, Today's Intranet is a Mix of Old and New
Traditional corporate intranets are often neglected and underused -- few would refute that argument. They’re supposed to be the center of our work life (and for some they are), but for far too many they have become a dumping ground where content is stored and ignored.

Intranets have failed to live up to their potential for a number of reasons: ineffective search, out-of-date information, spotty access across browsers and devices, poor support for collaboration -- the list goes on. They’ve become a place to occasionally visit, rather than a place to do our daily work.

Many have suggested that the enterprise social network (ESN) is the answer -- a combination of social profiles, activity streams and other modern communication tools as a possible replacement for what ails you. Some are even claiming that the new enterprise social network represents the death of the intranet as we know it.

But it seems the reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. ESNs are not replacing traditional corporate intranets. In reality, they’re becoming a part of them.

The Role of the Enterprise Social Network

ESNs are a subset of the wider social software space and, for some, an alternative to the traditional corporate intranet. They facilitate the connection of people, and they’re ideally suited for networking, expertise location and conversations.

It starts with the profile, the basis of any social network. This is the new corporate directory. A searchable listing where you can retrieve contact information, identify experts and connect with colleagues, no matter what department they reside in. Thanks to profiles, people have an identity beyond their employee number and email address.

Not only is a richer employee identity revealed in an ESN, but now their contributions are also visible in the news feed or activity stream. Each profile follows its owner as they interact throughout the intranet, letting you discover the people behind the information. You can see what they’re working on, the questions they’re asking and the hurdles they’re encountering.

The ESN has introduced a more open and transparent way to work which has tremendous value --discovering useful information or knowledge you might not otherwise see, getting timely answers to questions you don’t know who to ask, and staying updated in a less obtrusive way. But with that being said, the capabilities offered are not without their own set of challenges.

For example, activity streams are useful for addressing the real-time communication and information sharing requirements of the more ad hoc style of collaboration, but must be used alongside other tools to meet the broader communication and collaboration needs of an organization. Let me explain.

Workers Need More

Although there’s a lot of excitement and hype surrounding enterprise social networking, it turns out that most workers need to do more than just network with their peers.

People need a place to store, share and collaborate around their work (usually documents); they need an area to find company-wide updates (that’s not email); and they need a central location for forms, templates and documentation. And if a discussion in a microblog post evolves into a project, it often requires a whole new set of supporting technologies to see it to completion.

Think about finding product information in a knowledge base, accessing payroll information from the HR department or updating an out of office calendar. These are pretty standard actions in the new intranet. They’re frequently accessed, constantly updated and should be easily accessible by employees.

In an ESN, a payroll update can be attached to a post in the activity stream, but that has a short shelf life and can be quickly buried by other posts. In a traditional intranet, these resources can be made as a core part of the site map and navigation structure to ensure they are persistent and discoverable.

A Mix of Old and New

There have been many blog posts and conversations about this topic over the last year, but it bears repeating. The intranet is in the midst of an evolution, not a revolution. It started out as a one-way communication tool and static repository of information, and over time, it has become more interactive and collaborative by weaving in modern social features.

As organizations update and revamp their approach, intranets are combining the traditional features we’ve come to expect with the more modern social features we've grown to love -- activity streams, site navigation and search to improve how we find and discover information; distributed content authoring and comments to promote two-way communication.

We encounter many approaches taken by companies as they look to update their intranet. I recently sat through an intranet demo from a large financial services organization. They've opted to run an ESN as a separate application alongside their traditional intranet. They did this to maintain (what they feel) is the best of both worlds. Although it’s clear that by separating the conversation engine from the content repository, they’re struggling with usage and adoption.

Yet another way companies tackle their communication and collaboration challenges is to bring in a collection of standalone cloud apps. Organizations (and even end users themselves) may bring in file sharing apps for document management, a blogging app for more formal communications and a wiki for documentation. Once again, they face many of the same problems -- lack of integration and lack of adoption -- not to mention the introduction of big security holes.

In either case, consider the underlying challenge we are all trying to solve: knowledge sharing is a completely voluntary activity. Organizations can’t make people share what they know and they often struggle to motivate employees to use yet another application to do so. But by launching an intranet that combines old communication tools with the new and by populating it with valuable content that initiates conversations, you can foster the conditions that make it easier for everyone to participate.

What do you think? Is your intranet a mix of old and new?

Title image courtesy of Roland IJdema (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on intranets.