A speaker at a recent intranet conference declared “Intranets will be dead within five years.” He waited for the horrified gasp, but none came.

In fact the seasoned audience seemed to agree, at least in the sense that we were all trying to push intranets on from the top-down, publishing paradigm of old. Enterprise social networks (ESNs) have sometimes been positioned as being ideologically at odds with intranets, but in practice most organizations have embraced both (see, for example Jane McConnell’s annual survey).

The more pragmatic question then, is what is the right balance point? 

Blending Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Many organizations have invested heavily in highly structured and well governed intranets, but they struggle to get regular, widespread content contributions. A social approach offers the promise of higher engagement levels and more dynamic content, but it requires a relaxing of control. 

ESNs work best when introduced in alignment with the existing intranet. Oakley, for example, has an intranet page on the use of the Oakley brand with a side-panel where employees can ask questions and discuss the brand policy. This provides both an authoritative reference space, and also a place to enter into dialogue about the topic.

When ESNs are introduced as stand-alone, people get confused about what to use when, or where the "current" place is to get answers. Topics get duplicated on different systems, which ultimately degrades the user experience. 

Citizens and Consumers

This tension arises because it forces organizations to reconcile two different world views: The Employee as Citizen vs. The Employee as Consumer.

The “Employee as Citizen” view is seen in a top-down leadership style focused on setting strategy and direction. A logical consequence is that employees need to know things from above in order to do their job. This makes it important that they get clear, consistent messages about what’s going on. Traditional intranets support this approach and promote content on the basis of perceived importance by leadership.

The “Employee as Consumer” view positions the employee as a partner to the organization. As knowledge workers, it is the individual who is best-placed to decide what she needs to know and what she should communicate.

This is similar to a free-market economy where consumer power dictates how things are shaped. Much of the appeal of ESNs centers around this -- allowing everyone to decide what is important. Additionally, the facilitation of micro-supply and micro-demand for information serves a long tail need for specialists that an intranet with content architected from the top-down rarely meets.

Learning Opportunities

Despite ESNs' intuitive appeal, there are potential drawbacks in the workplace:

  • Choice is not always desirable as it leads to inefficiency, duplication and indecision. You really don’t want an internal marketplace of expense claims systems, for example. 
  • Information overload has a direct cost to the organization in employee productivity (compare this with company Twitter posts, where getting more retweets is almost limitlessly a good thing).  

The challenge is to access the value of an ESN without undermining the benefits of the more controlled, traditional intranet. Below are some guiding principles to help you do this.

5 Guiding Principles to ESN-Intranet Balance

1. Design your intranet around communities and use ESNs as the cornerstone. When you structure intranet sites around commonalities in the information (e.g. everything about pensions) or commonalities in the provider (e.g. everything from HR) it becomes hard to augment it with information produced bottom-up and organically. Instead, structure sites around communities of people (e.g. everyone who works in HR or everyone in the Birmingham office). Here, the ESN tool is the main vehicle, with intranet pages on the same site providing context and reference.

2. Let the community decide what adds value, but provide manageable frameworks. The community will be best-placed to decide what it needs to know and the tools to use, but there’s a risk that so many participants make things messy, purely from a kind of crowd entropy. To counteract this exercise a degree of curation to preserve navigation and make high-value content prominent. 

3. Blend content on the community from all levels, both formally published and employee-generated. The community can be seen as an audience. Content can mix top-down and bottom-up so long as the origin is clearly marked, just as the BBC Website mixes authoritative journalism with reader comments.  

4. Differentiate fact and advice. When their goal is efficiency, employees welcome authority for reference information (“How many annual days leave can I have?”). But sometimes they want options because their goal is discovery (“What is the best way to explain the features of our new product?”). Facts need clear, concise, searchable content. Advice needs flexibility, community input and quality filters like ratings.

5. Use appropriate governance for each content category. Governance doesn’t have to mean control. It means making an explicit decision that some areas (e.g. forums) will generally be unedited, whereas others will continue to be tightly controlled (e.g. financial results). 

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