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Social media dons a shirt and tie – and the intranet follows suit by getting Social

Are the rumours true? Is it time for the humble old intranet to bow out gracefully in the face of a slew of “Facebooks for the enterprise” (aka enterprise social networks, or ESNs)? Shall we accept that Social is Everything, even when it comes to our most structured organisational information, and go all-in, leaving the rubble of a million abandoned intranets in our wake?

The answer is: no. Whatever you do, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. (And why would you want to, anyway, when SharePoint 2013 is nearly here?!

If good old internet opinion is anything to go by, and if you only scratch the surface of the subject, then maybe you’d have good reason for thinking intranets were yesterday’s news. Sometime around June of this year, the intranet death knell sounded (not for the first time, but louder than ever). Enterprise social networking tools all of a sudden loomed huge on the tech landscape and the success stories were manifold – in June alone some of the biggest players in the IT world – Oracle, Salesforce and Microsoft – stumped up a massive US $2.25 billion to buy social media new(ish)-kid-on-the-block businesses, Vitrue, Buddy Media and Yammer. Tech Fortune calls the maturation and increasing uptake of ESNs a “silent revolution.” Says Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, “From its humble origins in college dorm rooms, social media has quietly crept into the boardrooms.”

Out with crusty old anti-social intranet technologies, they said, and in with shiny new cloud-based ultra-social collaboration tools. And internet headlines got right on the old bandwagon, prophesying a swift decline for intranets into obscurity and disuse. 

For example:                          

The Future of Collaboration is Not the Intranet (8 June)

What Ever Happened to Intranets? (7 June)

But you only have to start reading the comments for each of these articles to see that – by and large – it’s not a sentiment that is widely shared. The intranet lives! But one thing both camps tend to agree on, though – or to at least concede – is that the intranet as we know it needs to evolve and get with the programme (and the programme is, of course, social – amongst other things). If we’re honest and we take a good long look at our existing intranets – and I openly count Intergen’s intranet in this statement – they fulfil a very real organisational need, but they’re often a few steps removed from the action, they lack much in the way of everyday interaction, and they’re far less frequented than they could be.

If I had to come up with an analogy, I would say our incumbent intranets are like last year’s favourite restaurant: when you go there you still get what you came for. It does the same thing it always did. But your tastes have changed, the décor’s suddenly looking a bit dowdy and the clientele is ever so slightly thinner on the ground. And, let’s face it: there are always new menus to try.

When two become one (as the Spice Girls once said).

I haven’t seen SharePoint 2013 in action (although many here have been working with it since the beginning of this year) but I have read extensively about it – including on Intergen’s very own blog, here (The New SharePoint) and (SharePoint 2013 - Social) – and have found myself seduced by some very appealing screenshots. Everyone here is super excited about SharePoint 2013’s imminent arrival for lots of reasons, but one of these reasons is that it’s not an either/or argument. With Yammer now part of the SharePoint 2013 picture, you can have the best of both worlds – intranet and ESN – all in one place.

The infographic published by Microsoft and Yammer upon announcement of Microsoft’s Yammer acquisition tells us that 85% of Fortune 500 companies use Yammer, and 80% have purchased SharePoint. And organisations are increasingly getting that embracing the social media paradigm makes good business sense, especially when it comes to catering to communication expectations for younger generations in the workforce. Huffington Post tells us that in 2011, 79 percent of 2,100 companies surveyed by Harvard Business Review reported that they use or plan to use social media. And that was a year ago – and a year, in social media terms – is a very long time. I’d suspect that number is ever inching upwards.

But back to settling the ESN vs intranet score. The fact that Microsoft SharePoint 2013, with Yammer as part of its offering, will bring the ESN and the intranet together into one entity puts paid to the dilemma of taking a side. But why do you need both?

If in doubt, consult an expert.

To answer this question with authority, I decided to quiz Intergen’s Elder Statesman of Intranets (and information management in general), Paddy Payne (who, I should probably point out, is probably more commonly referred to as Director, Consulting and Architecture Services). He had some wise and knowledgeable things to say on the matter.

Having observed a few trends in his years, Paddy told me to “never believe a claim that says the next big thing will do it all, or that everything in the past is dead.”

The intranet has its place, and that place isn’t going away.

“When we talk about communication, or the exchange of information, it’s a continuum. At one end of the continuum it’s controlled, and at the other end you have information that is totally uncontrolled, like gossip. And then you have everything in between. There will always be a place for controlled information, and an ESN isn’t that place. Sometimes you need to get your hands on the authoritative document right away and have confidence that the information is absolutely correct. Try managing your travel forms and policies within an ESN, for example, with any confidence that you have the definitive version.”

Paddy points out that, when it comes to the communication/information exchange spectrum, we should be free to embrace as much of this spectrum within our working day as we possibly can.

“Ideally, we want the best of both worlds. Technology is providing us richer and richer environments in which to meet people’s needs in easier and simpler ways, so we can expect the best of both worlds. We want the confidence that we’re getting the hard facts, and then to also be able to gauge sentiment, find out what people think and get the consensus on things.”

Search and you shall find (but not through ESN alone)

But the biggest strength of an intranet – the key to it all and the reason why it must never be relegated to the has-been pile, Paddy says – is enterprise search. It’s great to have many types of information, and different channels through which to consume it, but how do we have oversight over all this information – formal/informal, controlled/uncontrolled?

“We need something that goes over the top of all these information sources,” Paddy says. “Enterprise search gives the ability to surface not only all publicly available organisational information pertaining to a search term – from your intranet, document management system, records management systems, collaboration sites and – now – ESNs – but also external information as well – reaching out into Facebook, Bing and news channels, for example.”

When we consider that the amount of time spent looking for documents or the right person is estimated at up to 40% of an information worker’s time, we see just how important it is to have embedded structures and overarching searchability.

“However social we get,” Paddy says, “we still need a robust system that can deliver us mission-critical information and a solid source of truth, as well as the ability to search right across the organisation and beyond. And an ESN alone is never going to give this to us.”

Different strokes…

“And at the end of the day, one size doesn’t fit all,” Paddy tells me. “An organisation is full of different people with different needs. We have more channels than ever now to cater to these needs, but with diverging channels comes a greater need for a big picture view of all these various information types, and this is where an intranet comes to the fore.”

To return to familiar turf, Intergen has an intranet. We’ve also actively used Yammer since 2009 – separate from our intranet, outside the firewall, as a non-paying customer. I rely on both, in different ways. I’d hate to lose either, or to have to choose one over the other, and I welcome the day – maybe one day soon – when we bring the two together into one place.

And, with the launch of SharePoint 2013 imminent, all this will become a reality, and the ESN or intranet argument will effectively become moot.  And when that day comes, rather than getting embroiled in a tug-of-war over which is better, we can focus on supporting improved organisational communications and knowledge management using the complementary – and now integrated – capabilities of both.

Posted by: Katy Sweetman, Marketing Director, Empired Group | 02 October 2012

Tags: Social Media, Yammer, SharePoint 2013, Intranet

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