Intranets: Relevance in the Age of Enterprise Social Networks

The world of information technology is full of buzzwords and jargon which can cause confusion for some. Consumers in particular can be easily misinformed about a product or service if too many complex terms are used to describe it. Marketing is a hard job, but marketers and the businesses behind the product or service being sold should take responsibility in spreading the right information so that buyers can truly appreciate the thing they have purchased. Take for example intranets and enterprise social networks. For many people, these two processes and solutions may seem the same. Is the term intranet still applicable or relevant in the so-called age of enterprise social networks? We’re here to find out.

Intranets and Enterprise Social Networks Defined

First, let’s try to define what an intranet is. An intranet is a private network that can be accessed by any authorised personnel or user within the organisation or business. An organisation-wide intranet can be an important point of internal communication and collaboration. It can also provide a single starting point in accessing internal or external business resources. The simplest form of an intranet is established with technologies including hardware and software for LANs or local area networks and WANs or wide area networks. Intranets are implemented and used as corporate culture-change platforms where a large number of employees can discuss important issues using an intranet forum application. Through this communication and collaboration, new ideas can be presented regarding management, productivity, corporate issues and quality.

In enterprise-sized intranets, the website traffic is usually similar to public traffic and can be understood by using web metrics software in tracking the overall activity of an intranet. Surveys among intranet users add to the effectiveness of an intranet. If sections of a business intranet are made available to customers and others outside of the business, that part of the company intranet will become a part of an extranet. If some part of it is being used through an extranet or through a public network, it will need to use some form of encryption and decryption and other types of security procedures to connect one part of an intranet to another system. Most intranet systems are managed by the HR department, communications team, the IT team or a combination of these departments.

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An enterprise social network on the other hand, focuses on the use of social networks with people who share activities or interests. The platform is designed for use in the enterprise environment. The platform encompasses the modifications made to corporate intranets and other classic software used by large enterprises in organising the communication and collaboration of intranets. It can also be defined as the use of social media to connect users who share similar business activities or interests. Or it can also be a space where users can share, collaborate or participate in building internal knowledge within the company. The users of an ESN will see a real-time stream of ideas, opinions, conversations and free-form dialogue.

Are ESNs the Same as Intranets?

This is the question many are asking. Some believe that an ESN is just another popular term for an intranet. Others are saying that intranets are on their way out because the new ESN is more socially-focused. However, the two are different.

Intranets have been in use for decades. An intranet is the central hub of an organisation where employees can access information like news, policies, documents, reports, videos, audio and knowledge-based articles. Traditional intranets were designed and implemented for one-way communication where information was created and supplied by management and then consumed by the workforce. With the introduction and popularity of social networking sites, intranet vendors recognised their potential and introduced social collaboration and communication tools in intranet platforms. Many companies are now starting to teach their employees about SaaS and cloud computing. These new technology trends are being used and implemented in many intranets globally.

Because of the inevitable market shift toward interactive communication, traditional single-sided intranet platforms started to become obsolete and were replaced by software that allowed more flexibility, communication and employee collaboration. Today it is easy to see social intranets have evolved from traditional intranets by combining the central hub of enterprise information and the latest social and collaboration tools.

While most social intranets evolved from traditional intranet upgrades, enterprise social networks are quite different because they evolved from social business software and other enterprise collaboration products. Enterprise social networks give more focus on social collaboration and communication. These platforms already include document management and content management system functionality as some of their basic features. This resulted in social intranets being categorised into two main groups or types – an upgraded intranet or an enterprise social network implemented as a social intranet. Which type is leading the way? As mentioned earlier, traditional intranet service providers are trying to meet demands by integrating social features int0 many existing traditional products.

Intranets Vs Enterprise Social Networks

On the other side of the coin, enterprise social network vendors have already nailed the social features. With the usual intranet features one would expect, these social networks have also included tablet and mobile applications, an advanced employee workspace, task management features, knowledge management applications, event integrations, calendar, daily workflow integrations and many others. Many experts also believe that enterprise social networks are dictating the direction of the industry since efforts are focused on enhancing, refining and adding new social business collaboration tools to increase productivity and employee engagement.

Is there an existing battle between intranets and enterprise social networks? Some say that intranets are on the way out and ESN is the new kid on the block that will take over. Where will intranets fit in with the enterprise social network platforms? Is there a need to replace your intranet with an ESN solution? It all comes down to what your users – your employees – need in terms of collaboration tools.

Some experts believe an intranet should not be separated from an enterprise social network. There should be an online channel and it should be integrated with a clear content strategy which allows freedom and flexibility. According to an article by Jenni Wheller, there are different levels of social connection specifically for social intranets. She stated that social intranets are platforms that allow users to publish news or information and “like”  and comment on it. She also stated that a social intranet is different from an enterprise social network. ESN is designed for collaboration communities and file sharing, creating a space for any user to add news and information. People can add their status updates and any personal details to their profile. Think of Facebook designed for corporate use. According to Wheller, intranets and ESNs are two very different things when creating an online community. They serve different purposes and also foster different cultures, but she added that they need to meet the purpose and should work together.

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Keeping the user or the employee in mind will give any organisation a clear view of the capabilities an intranet and ESN can bring to help people work more efficiently. Many experts believe that intranets and ESN can work together. The two platforms should be thought of like opposing sides of the brain; an intranet is the left hemisphere and ESN is the right hemisphere. Somehow, people seem to think that the lines between the two are now blurred. Even if you know what your company needs and the goals you want to achieve, it can be hard to figure out whether an ESN or an intranet will meet those needs. The best thing to do is use common sense and work out your objectives before evaluating the available tools, technologies and platforms.

The Differences Between the Two Platforms

Even though many experts think the two can work together, there are still some who believe intranets and ESNs are two processes like the poles of a magnet; opposites with no common functions or features whatsoever. Some experts are divided on the advantages of each platform, thus we will present the known advantages of each.

Advantages of intranets include:

  1. Savings. Intranets save businesses money by eliminating the need for buying and maintaining software.
  2. Efficient workflow. Social intranets provide many functions in just one platform. Employees will no longer have to switch back and forth using different tools. It is also a time saver since users will be using the platform instead of searching for the needed information through multiple channels.
  3. Employee adoption.  Because intranets are designed for many users in mind, there are a few tools to learn and use every day. It’s faster and easier for employees to get used to it and generally easy to implement.
  4. Consistency in communication. Consolidating enterprise communication into one platform will ensure the information be delivered and shared consistently. This will also make sure that everyone across the many departments within the organisation get the memo. Everyone will get the message at the same time and in real-time.
  5. Discussion boards and chat rooms. Ideas, questions, discussions or brainstorming can all take place in an enterprise intranet. Discussion boards or chat rooms can be used for collaboration and efficiency on projects. Any pertinent files, projects, messages or discussion history can be backtracked if needed. Full transparency and response marking can be made if employees need it.
  6. Knowledge retention. Articles, blog posts, conversations and other knowledge-based information can be saved and accessed using the platform because of its built-in repository.
  7. Access. Enterprise intranets can be configured to allow users outside the premises or outside the firewall to access specific areas as needed or as directed. Documents, FAQs or collaboration spaces can be made available to outside users while keeping the internal communication protected from any unauthorised access.
  8. Return of investment. With all the benefits mentioned, the return of investment will be assured. No time wasted on unnecessary work and functions. Collaboration and communication will take place on one central platform.

Enterprise social networks advantages include:

  1. Higher customer and employee engagement. The relationships between users of a network can be classified into strong ties, potential ties and weak ties. Strong ties are working relationships where employees know each other well and have worked and socialised together. They have interacted with each other professionally and via a social network. Weak ties are relationships where the employees know each other, but have not worked together or they are not fully aware of each other’s skills. Potential ties are relationships where employees who have not worked together have an interest in working together on a particular task or project. 90% of people will be willing to help if a human connection is made. Any information that helps in making a personal connection between employees can make a great difference in achieving enterprise goals. Implementing an enterprise social network can lead to 39% increased employee engagement, 29% increased executive communication and a 30% increased employee satisfaction.
  2. Enhanced innovation. ESNs facilitate crosstalk within the organisation. Users can ask questions and provide answers to project descriptions, daily tasks or skill sets. And with this information exchange, a database can be built that can be searched to find relevant collaborators. It will also help in breaking down the corporate walls and help in uniting isolated groups, encouraging them to share their expertise with the rest of the company. It’s really important to have a common platform where different disciplines and ideas can meet, innovate and evolve together.
  3. Better decision making by way of prediction markets. Prediction markets provide companies with a valuable mechanism to get information that may be hidden from upper management and decision makers. Having an active social network within the organisation can provide an effective way of promoting participation in the prediction market or for Business Intelligence. Integrating prediction markets into enterprise social networks will surely promote participation.

Enterprise Social Networks: Replacing Intranets?

Solid supporters of enterprise social networks have stated that intranets have failed and are out-of-date. They added that intranets were designed to replace announcement boards, specifically HR announcements. People need intranets if they are looking for something specific, but otherwise they are largely ignored when everyone goes on with their business. ESNs have solid supporters who describe these platforms as the future of business communication because they combine the static information the business needs with dynamic interactions that help users become a productive part of the organisation. Enterprise social networks are not new. When Facebook took off, many companies tried to replicate it with communication/collaboration tools specifically designed for enterprises.

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The problem is that Facebook does not directly translate to the enterprise world; it is set up for a completely different culture. Employees don’t interact with friends or colleagues if they are at work. Most conversations or enquiries come about from conversation during breaks, during meetings, in the hallways or elevators of an office building. In most cases, people usually stroll over to their teammates to check on what they are doing, how they are doing it and to ask for collaborative ideas. This is what ESN is built for; an online environment similar to the actual physical environment of the enterprise, consolidated to be more innovative and promote more efficient work. They also added that an intranet has succeeded in creating a central hub and an online bulletin board, but these platforms were ultimately ignored unless someone needed an important question answered. For ESN supporters, an enterprise social network not only moves information online, but it also creates an online culture. It becomes an extension of the work culture. Even failed enterprise social networks can successfully represent the culture of the organisation; an office culture of poor collaboration that is resistant to change will be reflected in an enterprise social network. In this way, ESNs can be a tool to understand a company and its flaws.

Intranets will continue to decline because there is an excess of content within the system. Many users cannot find what they are looking for and with the lack of governance, taxonomy and search strategy, the downfall will continue. The enterprise should deliver targeted content to their employees by providing the information they need when they need it.

The Crossover

For some, there shouldn’t be an intranet versus ESN issue. Intranets can publish content and act as the central control station of the homepage or publishing while ESN is designed for use by a greater population with social tools for posting and sharing content just like Facebook. So how can a crossover be possible? How many intranets successfully integrate ESN tools and features? How many enterprise social networks provide blogging templates?

A professional or enterprise intranet community considers social tools to be part of the system. Many consider discussion groups, wikis and other content to be part of an intranet and many consider microblogging as part of the equation. This crossover is also evident in the array of intranet software available in the market today. Many of these productivity tools offer the combined capabilities of an intranet and a social network in one package.

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You can certainly implement both systems as long as they compliment each other in such a way that the experience of using them is as seamless and as user-friendly as possible. Document and content management system like SharePoint have proven to do specific things really well but fall short when social tools are needed, thus they added the many social features of SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online. Another argument worth mentioning is that  enterprise social networks don’t have the best document management capabilities. Yes, you can save documents but it’s not the most optimised place to do so, especially if you require features like metadata or versioning.

Why then are enterprise social networks branding themselves as social intranets? The simple answer is because social intranets are easier for decision makers to understand and purchase. Social collaboration tools and communication technologies cross over many departments, so it’s very important that the market and the enterprise  appreciates the differences between the two platforms in order to make an informed decision when upgrading or replacing current setups. It’s also important to know the advantages and disadvantages of the two platforms in order to create an effective working relationship and to reach the business goals of the entire enterprise.


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