Traditional intranets, dominated by top-down corporate communications, are seen as outdated, no longer fit for modern, networked organizations. ESNs, so their champions say, are the way of the future -- enabling conversation in a way that’s flexible and responsive, aligned with modern ways of doing business. 

But what the debate should really boil down to is what does it take to create a productive digital workplace?

Organizations are seeing tangible benefits from networked, social and interactive tools -- in helping people to connect, to share, and once they’ve developed trust in both people and system, to solve for one another, and for the business. 

In the move away from one-to-many publishing models and embracing the principles of working out loud, organizations unlock the value of their human and intellectual capital in ways that simply weren’t possible before.

Flow of Information

But the full value of enterprise social can’t be realized until it’s integrated with other systems and tools -- else it risks becoming another silo, the very thing they aim to break. 

In her annual Digital Workplace Trends report, Jane McConnell talks about the digital workplace having three overlapping dimensions – managed, social collaborative and structured collaborative. 

  • Managed content is authoritative and structured; what the organization wants to tell the people employed there. That it is officially published means people trust it. 
  • Social collaborative describes the process of building and strengthening networks, discovering and discussing. This is where serendipity happens. 
  • Structured collaboration is the use of collaborative tools to create artifacts and get work done.

Content can move through each of these dimensions throughout its lifecycle. Social or structured collaboration could well be the means by which such content is developed, and through social sharing the best content rises to the top until eventually taking its place in the managed content space.

The degree to which any digital workplace focuses on each depends on user needs and organizational objectives. What works in a company with large numbers of desk-based office workers won’t in one dominated by mobile sales teams.

Lessons From Outside the Workplace

As ever, we can learn a lot from the external Web. Facebook hasn’t replaced websites, as there’s still a need for both brochure content and transactional functionality. But Facebook and its ilk have become primary tools for conversation and discovery. At the same time, websites have been building up social features alongside their published content, such that social, managed and transactional sites are integrated and the journey between them seamless.

As a user I don’t know -- or care -- that the experience presented to me is a mish-mash of systems.

Similarly, companies are seeing the digital workplace as heterogeneous, made up of an ecosystem of platforms and tools -- bringing content, transactional and social tools together into a coherent whole. 

This approach is reflected in the vendor space too. Social tools such as Yammer, Jive and Chatter have quietly been expanding their content management functionality. Meanwhile, content management systems (including SharePoint) have been beefing up their collaboration and social capabilities. 

But while there is a large degree of convergence, as it stands ESNs aren’t a true substitute for a CMS, and vice versa. Vendors, recognizing that most will opt for a combined approach, have invested in myriad connectors to make their products work better together.

This means companies can mix and match the best of traditional intranets and enterprise social in ways that meet their specific needs and culture.

So while some organizations take the radical step of replacing their traditional intranet entirely with an ESN, most are developing an ESN alongside a traditional intranet before integrating both into a productive digital workplace.

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