Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Trouble With Intranets

Reading back over this blog I see that I was at one time a big fan of the concept of a social intranet.  I am less so now.  The main reason is that I've come to the conclusion that intranets carry too much baggage to be able to help facilitate enterprise social networking (ESN).  Even the term " intranet", dating back as it does about 17 years, is problematic.  It means so many different things to different people, with the default probably being what that 1997 intranet could do, but with a few more bells and whistles.  Actually, I've discovered that intranet platforms not unusually were conceived back in that era and have been updated piecemeal over the years, but that's a bit of an aside.

Most people, when they hear the word intranet, probably think of one or more of these things:
- a library of dull but necessary stuff such as policies and forms
- a mouthpiece for management, probably edited by Internal Comms
- a handful of quite useful applications such as an IT helpdesk or a place to order supplies or claim expenses
- some attempts to pep the site up with branding and/or widgets from the web such as the weather or how well the tube lines are running
- a staff directory.

This is all quite good stuff and I don't deny that it has value.  It seems always to take more time and effort to create than something based on a 17 year old concept should, but then it does have to be tailored to the needs of the organisation concerned and so, broadly, I'm fine with that.  However, its value is way off what's possible and what modern organisations need to be aiming at if they are to achieve the agility and responsiveness that current-day market conditions dictate.  The main reason is that the content of the traditional intranet is almost entirely supplied by the centre or the top of the organisation.  HR, Internal Comms or the CEO's PA probably contribute 90% of it.

But modern intranets include " social", do they not?  This, is it not, is where the important interactions and discussions all across the organisation, top-down, bottom up, across silos, happen, surely?

They could, but by and large they do not.  This is because " social" cannot just be tacked on to an intranet, or anything else for that matter.  But if you buy a social intranet that is what will probably be attempted.  Because the ESN angle will be perceived as just one, relatively small part of your intranet implementation.

Perhaps this looks like blaming the software, which is putting the cart before the horse?  It isn't really.  As I said at the beginning, it's the perception of what an intranet is that's the problem.  That goes equally for the average user's perception, senior management's perception and the intranet team's perception.  Each helps the other down a road to an intranet that maybe does quite a lot of things but definitely isn't an ESN.

Matters are made worse by the complexity of the typical intranet platform.  I pride myself on being quick to learn the ins and outs of them.  But there are often so many features, and then quirks or bugs, that it can take me weeks or more to become even a moderately competent administrator.  Add to that the hidden time sink of permissions.  The platform usually allows a great deal of flexibility and granularity of permissioning.  This makes it both difficult to set up a permissions model and tempting to go for one that is far more complex than necessary.  In turn this leads to a high maintenance overhead.

All in all then, I'd say by all means choose a social intranet if you're sure it meets your organisation's needs, provided you exercise due caution in relation to the pitfalls I've mentioned.   But if what you primarily want to do is introduce enterprise social networking I'd be inclined to look at simpler, standalone solutions, and put the time into adoption rather than set-up and maintenance.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Do social intranets have a future?

The last eight months or so have been interesting times, as the old Chinese curse has it.  My experience consulting for Interact has taken me into about 20 companies and has given me a real insight into how each of them views the 'social' side of their (planned) social intranet.  There is a wide range of intentions, from, at one extreme, 'Not for the forseeable future' through to 'Gimme gimme gimme'.  Most are somewhere in between, perhaps best expressed by the phrase 'interested, but cautious'.  There is also often a difference in attitude between the intranet team (keen to go for it) and the senior management (perceived as sceptical or anti).

I suspect enterprise social networking is being given the time of day by more executives than a couple of years ago mainly because of the mainstreaming of Facebook and Twitter.  Even the most hardened laggard will have a close relative or friend who uses these.  This fact has raised consciousness of the ubiquity of these tools, but is a double-edged sword for those like me who'd like to see more Web 2.0 in the workplace.  On the one hand I can refer to activity streams, for example, as being 'like Twitter', thus short-cutting the explanation. On the other hand in doing so I'll conjure up whatever impressions, possibly negative, that person has of the content of Twitter, thus making it more difficult to get them to see that it could be different on the office social network. 

Anyhow, this is a summary of sorts of where we seem to be, with some organisations swimmming but many still trying to put a toe in the water.  What I want to do now is pull in other trends and factors and think about how things will go from here on. 

At EurocloudUK the other week (thank goodness the speakers and topics were more up-to-date than the website! - sorry, Phil, David!) it was suggested by David Terrar (@dt) that the three big trends in technology at the moment are:
  • Social
  • Mobile
  • Cloud,
and that together these form a tidal wave for change.  I think I agree with this.  These forces are strong enough to sweep away the resistance and objections of the more traditional sort of IT manager, although in more heavily-regulated environments that resistance might take longer to founder.  I can see that in maybe a couple of years time - yes, that soon - there will be little if any need to use a PC to do work.  At ISKO UK last week Steve Dale (@stephendale) showed a photo of his two year old grandson ably using an iPad.  I agree that his generation will not be pushing mice around.  Combine these truly user-friendly devices, tablet and smartphone, with Cloud (SaaS) providers of not only 'social' but all the applications that we now traditionally think of as being inherently about client/firewall etc - but much more user-friendly - and you can see where enterprise IT is headed. 

Yes, but: what's the relevance to social-in-the-enterprise?  I think the social-cloud-mobile triumvirate mentioned above is going to - eventually - result on the virtual disappearance of the membrane that separates people within organisations from those outside it.  I'm not sure though.  And there's a huge amount to be said about that, touching on issues such as trust, confidentiality, transparency.

That's probably for a later post. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Joining Interact

I've just started a new role with a company called Interact.  They develop and market intranet software.  They were hiring and I got into discussions with their CEO, Nigel Danson, and things developed from there.  Having been pretty impressed with their competitor Igloo's product, I considered the bar to be high for Interact to impress me, but impress me they did.  I also like the 'roving consultant' nature of the role, and gelled very quickly with Rachel and Steve who also interviewed me. 

Have I gone over to the 'dark side', throwing my independence to the wind and from now on becoming nothing but a walking, talking, tweeting plugger of one firm's products?  I don't believe so.  I'll do my best to 'tell it as I see it'. Interact are clearly strong on running intranet seminars and their annual conference is a major event.  They like to emphasis the benefits of intranets rather than merely pitching their own product.

I'm looking forward to joining them.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

No-one ever got fired for....

It used to be 'for choosing IBM'.  Over time, that became 'Microsoft'.  Arguably, now it's 'Sharepoint'.  It certainly seems that way to me.  A huge percentage of large corporations have chosen it for the portals / intranets, yet I don't hear much enthusiasm for the product.  The best that commentators seem to be able to come up with is things like, "It's very flexible - if you've got the development staff to tailor it", or "We know the supplier's going to be there in five years".  In other words, weak praise, mainly driven by safety concerns.  Maybe the recent purchase of Yammer will change things, but it's too early to say.

In the meantime, there are some excellent out-of-the-box and/or SaaS social intranets that are virtually unknown by comparison: Interact, Igloosoftware, Thoughtfarmer, MangoApps, to name but a few that I've looked into or used recently. 

Maybe it's time people did start getting fired for choosing Sharepoint instead of properly investigating alternatives such as these? 

Friday, 15 June 2012

A rose by any other name

How important are the terms we use in world of, er, oh dear, I've got to pick one: Enterprise 2.0, Web 2.0, social networking, social media, social business, social intranets, social computing?  I've had a couple of interesting conversations this week with some folks from an Intranet company, and in their experience the word 'social' doesn't always go down well with customers.  The connotation is often of "not businesslike", "time-wasting".  But of the seven terms I've quoted, five use the word 'social'. Of the other two, Enterprise 2.0 is obscure in lay circles, and Web 2.0 is both too broad and too techie-sounding.  And in any case all these terms have subtly different meanings.

Can anyone help with a way of dealing with this? 

Friday, 1 June 2012

I like LIKE

It's the perfect acronym: LIKE is London Information and Knowledge Exchange.  It's also a very likeable little set-up.  Started 3 years ago by Jennifer Smith, Virginia Henry and Marja Kingman , this for me has become about the only professional discussion and networking group that I go to with any regularity.  Maybe that just proves how unsociable I am, but I think there's more to it than that.  Somehow or other, the founders have developed a format that works really well.  There's a speaker, questions, food, and mingling.  Doesn't sound particularly revolutionary, and it doesn't have to be.  The balance between professional and social, seriousness and fun, is somehow just right. 

Last night the speaker was Martin de Saulles of the University of Brighton, who gave us some interesting perspectives on what the future might hold for information production, distribution and consumption.  Some of his predictions (after saying that only a fool would write down predictions, he made some, perhaps forgetting temporarily that 50% of his audience would tweet or blog them later) related to fairly old themes, such as the replacement of all things paper with a digital alternative.  However, Martin made a compelling case for believing that change is now taking place faster than many realise.  I, for one, would not bet against his prediction that in five years time his university library will no longer be buying printed books. 

Martin is a very fluent and engaging speaker.  I can imagine his students would stay awake during his lectures, even after a not-atypical student lunch of a couple of pints of Sussex bitter.  My only slight disappointment - and this is no criticism of Martin but more a reflection of my own interests - was that he didn't spend much time addressing the Web 2.0 communication / social networking revolution more generally, and where that might lead us in 5 years time. 

If you're into KM, information management or librarianship, and can get to Clerkenwell (which is a nice spot), I recommend giving LIKE a go.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pen pals as the killer argument

I was helping one of my sons today with a piece of homework, which involved writing an essay addressing the statement "social networking websites have reduced possibilities to form real relationships", or words to that effect. Thinking about it together, one of us came up with the point that in the days of pen pals - arguably a precursor to social networking - people got to 'know' each other remotely, and if/when they met, felt they had a relationship already.  This insight seemed, at a stroke, to debunk two points often claimed about social networking sites: that they are somehow uniquely about computers and the internet, and that they are the first instance of attempting to substitute the 'real' for the virtual, as far as relationships are concerned. 

My son went on to mention other benefits such as one-to-many conversations and near instant responses, but we both felt the 'pen pal insight' was something of a killer argument against those claiming that real relationships are being killed off.  I suspect I might be using it in a professional context before too long.