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.


Gerard Richardson said...

Hi enjoyed reading this blog thanks. I think it's a thought provoking position you take that 'social intranets' can try to be all things to all people and that purely driving for an ESN only is perhaps a better approach. I for one see a lot more potential for value add to the business in terms of joining up teams to help each other. Intranet's certainly take up a lot of resource in administering, are typically very un-user friendly to work with and can swallow up a lot of time and effort with little reward. I suppose the obvious question would be 'where do all my policies go then'?

Simon Carswell said...

Thanks, Gerard. Good challenge on the policies. I don't really think it's wise to rely on shared drives for that sort of thing, so there needs to be some sort of document repository. This could be a very simple intranet, maintained by HR or Internal Comms, for example. It wouldn't need distributed authoring, a permissions model or community facilities.

Niklas Angmyr said...

Thanks for posting on this subject. I agree on the misleading notion of intranet. But maybe of another reason.

The overall task in an organization is to get the job done. To do the job effectively there is need of support. You need to find out whom in the organization to seek help from in subject X. You need to read a policy in order to understand how to act upon Y. Project team ABC need to easily find the last version of project Z so that the team can plan next step according to last revision. A business developer need to be informed on management news so that he or she can adress right stakeholder regardings his or hers innovation idea. Etc.

Do the terms "intranet", "social intranet" or even "digital collaboration" fit into this conception? "Social" is embedded in work, is it ever possible to get the job done not being social? Is it then correct to use this term in an explicit manner?

I think the focus at all times should be "getting the job done". And there are many support needs in this mission. I regard the needs as fragmented and unlike. And added to this is the various individual needs.

The notion then of "intranet", "social intranet" or even "digital collaboration" are deceptive because it makes you think of one solution fits all. Rather there is a need of a concept which regards the variation, fragmentation and pluralism of "getting-the-job-done-support".

Simon Carswell said...

Niklas, Thanks for those comments. I believe you're absolutely right to point out that "one size fits all" isn't appropriate. I have been falling into that trap to a degree, then wondering why "social" doesn't get "adopted". I plan to focus much more in future on specific solutions to specific issues. I like the expression "to get the job done". I'll keep that in mind!

Geoff Garcia said...

If I read your post correctly you seem to say that ideally an organization would have a separate intranet and ESN.
Is this to say you wouldn't allow any social on your intranet? So no blogs, no commenting on news or content, no forums, no team collaboration? At that point all your left with is a share drive of content. Where would you draw the line on what functions live on the intranet vs ESN?

Simon Carswell said...

Geoff, Thanks for your comment, and it's a reasonable challenge to make. My thinking on that would be that it would be quite easy for all the commenting and so on to take place on the ESN and link where appropriate to the intranet. You wouldn't need forums, as the ESN would be a substitute for them. (Arguably they are a bit 'last decade' anyway - although I still use them on the Web.) Blogs and team collaboration: have you succeeded in getting either of these adopted? I haven't.
As I said, though, I don't think it's wrong to try to do all these things on the intranet - I'm even doing it in a current project! - it's just that it makes adoption of 'social' less likely because it probably won't get the emphasis it needs.

Geoff Garcia said...

Hey Simon, not sure I agree about commenting not taking place on an intranet. Comments provide so much value being inline with the content itself. Taking commenting, likes and share capabilities off news and announcements, let alone the rest of our content, would cause a revolt here.

We've had team collaboration for nearly 10 years and its been reasonably well adopted (enough that we'd get a lot of complaints if we took it away).

Blogs were a recent (last 2 years) addition to our intranet and they've been well adopted (a LOT of complaints if we took them away).

I've seen conference presentations where folks use a separate site (an ESN) for their social tools versus their intranet, and each time I get the impression that it was a decision they regret (same impression I get from folks using SharePoint)

Perhaps I'm just stubborn (or maybe the intranet vendor we use has done an amazing job bridging these functions together), but I'm not convinced of the benefit of separate sites, given all other things being equal.

That said, kudos on a compelling blog post and a very interesting topic that I'll surely be thinking about again and again!

Odessa Winston said...

Some of it are real troubles about Intranet. But I think that designing an Intranet which is patterned to the company and employees will be more useful. I have read an interesting article from http://www.simpplr.com/blogs/2015/10/exciting-intranet-is-it-possible/. It just shows that exciting Intranet is done easily.

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