Replacing an intranet with an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) might strike some as a strange choice. The chaotic information management environment of an ESN represents the complete opposite of a thoughtfully designed intranet. Some question the value an ESN provides against the clear bottom-line benefits of a well run intranet.

To understand where the two fit, you must first understand the value that both provide.

People often see intranets as an end in themselves -- an issue when establishing their value. This might sound unfair, when intranets often struggle for recognition and funding. But outcomes decide an intranet’s value, not just the immediate quality of the visual design or the efficiency of content management processes.

Get all the moving parts right and you can expect dividends in staff productivity and engagement.

The emergence of ESNs appeared for some as a threat to the important activity of intranet management, which put intranets' value into question. Some even wondered out loud if we needed intranets now that we had ESNs.

Value is Relative

The point of course is that value is relative.

Intranets deliver value based on the management of known information (“known knowns”). Companies design them to give people access to the right information or systems that they know exist. A philosophical take on the challenges facing intranets is that they must reach consensus about what is known, what needs to be known and how it should be found.

Intranets fail when they stop representing current information or the mental models that allow people to find the content and systems they need.

Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) appeal for the opposite reason. The lack of structure provides a number of different opportunities not afforded by intranets:

  • ESNs help people to escape the tyranny of hierarchy -- information and knowledge can flow around mistakes or gaps in other communication structures.
  • They introduce people to potential new ways of organizing -- different group structures can be tried and experimented with.
  • They help people imagine the future -- people can explore topics and ideas that do not fit into existing structures. 

ESNs also provide value by offering employees a digital space to address the unknowns or surface knowledge that's hidden. This provides a potentially powerful platform for innovation and dealing with industry disruption.

What's Next for Intranets?

Intranets still fill an essential role, but are not in themselves engaging, responsive or transformative.

That doesn't excuse poorly designed or maintained intranets. With 20 years of collected experience about intranet design and management behind us, we really just need to continue improving and adding value to them.

One of the fundamental and increasingly obvious gaps between intranets and ESNs lies in their software heritage. For the most part, intranet platforms have been planned and deployed like any other traditional enterprise application. This involves slow and deliberate release cycles of design, functionality and sometimes even content.

ESNs on the other hand are children of the modern Internet, built by people with radically new software development philosophies that favor fast, iterative development and what might be called “an apologize later” attitude. Other parts of the enterprise mirror this approach in some places -- both in terms of software development and general management practice.

So we shouldn't debate the value or role of intranets versus ESNs as tools. The question comes down to the fit with culture and business practice.

Could you replace your intranet with an ESN? Perhaps.

Do intranets have a future? Definitely, particularly if they can learn to become agile, lean intranets.

Explicitly picking an ESN over an intranet is a value trade off. It may reflect a focus on addressing unknowns in the operating environment. It might also indicate immature intranet management practices that ESNs were not designed to solve.

Most businesses will need both or a combined solution. Because work requires dealing efficiently with the knowns, while also creating space for the unknowns.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  Yevy Photography