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.