Are ESNs Just Intranets In New Clothing

The term "intranet" has been around for a relatively long time in technology-speak. And while it seems that every time an upstart comes on the scene people question the relevancy of the intranet, I've got something to tell you:

Intranets aren't going anywhere. 

We at the Worldwide Intranet Challenge ran a poll earlier this month completed by 218 people that asked the question: “How do you define an intranet? An intranet includes...(select all that apply):” Below are the results:


The Perception of Intranets has Changed Significantly

The poll results show that the perception of intranets has changed significantly. They have come a long way since they were seen merely as static repositories of a few out-of-date policies and procedures and a couple of news stories.

People now view intranets as including discussion and collaboration places, wikis, personalized activity streams, employee profiles. It almost sounds like we should change the name and call them something else ….

Could ESNs and Intranets Be the Same Thing?

Compare the poll results with the following definitions of an Enterprise Social Network (ESN):

Enterprise social networking focuses on the use of online social networks or social relations among people who share business interests and/or activities." -- Wikipedia

Enterprise social networking is an organization's use of social media, internally and externally, to connect individuals who share similar business interests or activities." -- TechTarget

Space for sharing, collaborating and participating in the building of internal knowledge in your company." -- Zyncro

What the intranet poll results and the ESN definitions show is that a strong overlap exists in functionality. Perhaps the major difference is that intranets also provide traditional document management and content quality control features (though I’m sure ESN vendors would argue that their tools can do this as well). However, functions such a discussion groups, private collaboration spaces, microblogging, employee profiles and wikis clearly apply to both ESNs and intranets.

Throw in terms like digital workplace, enterprise 2.0, web 2.0 and social intranets and the water becomes even murkier.

Toby Ward emphatically clarifies these murky waters his article, "Save Your Tears, Intranets Aren't Dying," where he explains that as far as intranets go, there will be no "paradigm shifts" or "evolutionary arcs" happening anytime soon.

It will be business as usual. Specifically he says, “Nor should you be fooled by old sheep in new clothing with five-dollar handles like 'digital workplace' and 'enterprise social network.' They are fancy names for an old concept."

Which begs the question, "What is the value in defining an ESN?"

Are ESNs a Cry for the C-Suite's Attention?

I contend that the main purpose of this relatively new term of ESN (and others) is to capture the imagination, attention and budget of the C-Suite. Not unlike some other terms that have come and gone over the years (remember Electronic Performance Support Systems?).

James Robertson describes this dilemma in his article, "Take an ‘all of the above’ approach to intranets," where he says:

The technology space is in constant flux, with new ideas and solutions transforming (and often disrupting) existing models...These changes often lead to debates about the old versus new. Sometimes heated, these can inflate into full-scale religious wars… These new vs. old debates can be exciting, galvanizing discussions and monopolizing time at conferences and events. Yet they are also unhelpful, as real-world organizations must tread a middle path that meets today’s needs, while benefiting from new ideas and technologies.”

He then goes on to compare "intranet" vs. "digital workplace" where he says “the term ‘digital workplace’ presents a broad vision that has the potential to change the conversations within organizations, particularly at senior leader levels.”

The same can be said for ESNs. It has the potential to "change the conversation" or even just start the conversation with those who control the purse strings.

As kids everywhere prove time and again, nothing captures the attention quite like a shiny new toy.

Intranets Aren’t Going Anywhere

The term "intranet" has been around for a relatively long time now (in the technology world at least) and has passed the test of the time. And while I don’t see it disappearing anytime soon, the perception and definition of an intranet is certainly evolving and changing as new approaches and technologies emerge.

I'll leave the last word to Toby Ward who sums up the future of intranets best when he says, "That old clunker still has some gas in the tank."

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  jenny818