Enterprise intranets are usually created to act as the main conduits for internal collaboration, including content creation / acquisition. But, to-date, most are failing to engage their internal customers: the employees of corporations.

According to a 2009 report by Watson Wyatt, only 50% of employees accessed the intranet on a daily basis; 80% said their company’s system needed improvement; and 50% said searching on their intranet was too difficult. Instead of functioning as a framework to access self-service portals and the apps/tools needed to be more productive, intranets are often difficult to navigate, out-of-date, non-intuitive, and bulky.

Bill Ives notes in his review of the Global Intranet Trends 2010 Report:

The intranet is starting to become the entry point into the “workplace web” – the collection of resources and information needed by staff. This includes applications, intranet sites, specialized portals, team spaces, collaboration spaces and so on. This was the original vision for many intranets but rarely realized.

To improve intranets to act as effective “gateways” for collaboration, intranets would likely benefit from many capabilities incorporated into Web Experience Management (WEM) for external-facing websites, including the use of social apps. In this case, a company’s employees are the customers to be engaged and converted.

Editor's Note: Follow our articles on enterprise collaboration including: Collaboration – an Intranet Perspective by Martin White and Enterprise Collaboration: It's About the Culture, Stupid.

Processes, Tools, Interconnected Employees

Community and collaboration in business enterprises are about people working together more effectively, quickly, and proactively -- to achieve the goals of the business in dynamic fashion. This definition of collaboration seems to be eluding many companies that have enterprise intranets and are adopting social media tools. It’s not about tools adoption, but about interconnected employees working together more often, reducing silos of knowledge and expertise, and sharing relevant insight as quickly as possible.

The intranet can utilize approaches “borrowed” from WEM-oriented external websites to improve usability and engagement, but intranets must also integrate with business processes that are part of individual employee workflows. The intranet can become a personalized focus for an employee’s essential information flow related to the business operations that the employee ties into. The context for collaboration on intranets is connectivity to business processes and work. To increase employee use of intranets requires that intranets embody the employee’s "way of working".

Sameer Patel makes this observation in his post on the Google Wave discontinuation:

Organizations still need to understand how to design work processes that blend optimal process and collaboration but its a hell of a lot easier when the software plays nice…end users are still struggling to understand the basic applicability of these new tools to meeting their performance requirements better/faster/simpler. Organizations on the other hand often have a huge gap between declaring big picture strategic collaborative intent and tool selection.

WEM for Intranets

For intranets built as “engaging” sites, several WEM capabilities work well:

  • End-to-end software solution, with excellent usability both for business users and IT personnel (includes behind-the-scenes document and content management, workflow, design tools and so on)
  • Recommendations-like technology for social search and personalization (as well as enterprise search)
  • Analytics -- for usage and performance stats and improvements
  • Rich media and video capabilities
  • Social collaboration / communication capabilities
  • Mobile access / multi-channel
  • Extensive integration / interoperability capabilities at several levels of the enterprise infrastructure

Like external-facing websites, usable and relevant intranets must be designed from employee POVs, but with this difference: the larger the organization, the more diverse the employee perspectives and needs. External-facing websites usually have much more focused target markets.

To deliver effective intranet experiences to all employees, it may take a composite of applications, not just one main platform, to achieve all of the necessary services. Beyond tools for overt collaboration, communication and user-generated content, there are needs for more “formal” services for document management, forms management, legal and HR processes, and so on.

Personalization and Customization

Personalization is one of the main keys for the engagement and enablement of employees using intranets more effectively, while also greatly aiding the work employees do each day. Personalization is becoming increasingly sophisticated, which helps the customization of intranets to have more impact.

There are technologies available for social search, federated search results, self-adaptive UIs, recommendations, bookmarks, “my links”, “my sites” and so on. Even basic customization can often lead to decent productivity gains for employees.

Role-based personalization has great potential for connecting employees much more tightly to the content, social media and business apps that matter most for their jobs. Personalization / customization advances should lead to aligning intranet usage to the business processes of daily work.

Search and Relevance

Search is the other essential key; unfortunately intranet / enterprise search is still far from the Google-quality search employees would like for fast, efficient acquisition of relevant information. Intranet solutions will have to continue to focus on improving search, including highly customizable approaches to advanced search. For collaboration purposes, “people search” has become more important to locate experts and project resources. Recommendations technology can also play a part here.

Editor's Note: Read Jeff Carr's 2 part article: Enterprise Search and Pursuit of the Google Experience.

Interactive Collaboration and Content-Creation Through Social Apps

Social media content resources include the usual roll call of blogs, wikis, forums, KB, etc. Ease of use, acquisition and curation for all social venues will make a big difference for aiding employees in work. Wikis in particular need excellent oversight to remain current, relevant and usable. Social media can also provide a wide range of communication venues between employees and teams.

Intranets are becoming more real-time through chat, micro-blogging and other tools, especially useful for the growing prevalence of virtual teams. As with all intranet capabilities, social apps require frequent and energetic tending.

Intranet Content Management / Document Management

Social apps can enhance how intranets are used, but do not cover all that the intranet should offer. Other services include sophisticated content management, document management, and access to more formal content from HR / legal departments. In the realm of content management, many different kinds of content live on intranets.

Mark Morrell, in his post All intranet content is not the same lists four types: Formal, Team, Crowd and Personal. “A fifth category covers services, which are online processes where people do tasks to fulfil their roles.” In many cases, it will take composite technologies to meet all intranet content needs.

Multi-channel Management - Mobile Access to Intranets

With the wider distribution of employees and growth of virtual teams, mobile access to intranets must evolve and improve. The ever-improving sophistication of mobile devices is increasingly making it easier for employees to use mobile access to perform work tasks via intranets, especially with tablet devices now in the mix.

It is likely that the intranet design for mobile users should be separate from the traditional enterprise network-based intranet, but should also include the WEM approach to provide better usability and engagement. In fact, with the proliferation of customer-centric apps for mobile, there are even greater expectations for what enterprise intranets should provide for the employee experience.

The Human Side of Intranets for Enterprise Collaboration

There are multiple obstacles to achieving effective intranets that engage and convert employees, including the failure to allocate sufficient money and permanent staffing to build and maintain high-quality sites. After the intranet is in place, enterprises must next create and sustain processes to continually improve and innovate intranet applications and services. But the biggest obstacle comes from the “human side” of intranets.

Ironically, for many companies, implementation efforts for collaboration technology, such as intranets and social apps, will be doomed to failure for one simple reason: most enterprises have failed to engender a “collaboration culture” based on real human interaction.

Enterprise collaboration as a practice requires true top-down corporate commitment to a collaboration culture that is strategic to business goals and is an important component of internal business processes.

While employing a WEM approach to create more effective intranets is an excellent idea, it is still essential that companies grow and nurture live collaboration cultures, where collaboration is a natural response for business activities, for any departments in the enterprise. Planning a healthy collaboration culture also requires a dynamic plan for the role that WEM and social technology will play to bring the people in the company together for productive interaction and interconnectedness.