In the age of Facebook (or should I now add Google+) and other social networking technologies, this isn’t just a provocative question. The intranet has turned out to be a trailblazer in the communications revolution.
At many companies – including my employer – the intranet has grown as an information platform over the years. It is the primary source of information, from sales documentation to marketing materials. Here, we can read press clippings and inform ourselves about things like the rules for company car use. The intranet also gives employees access to a wide range of different services and programs, from expense calculators and business trip application forms to the careers portal where we can agree on goals. It is a place where we can order business cards or configure our company cars. Combined with an editing system or web content management, portal technology is ideally suited for providing employees with all kinds of personalized information and services. The portal knows who I am and provides me with a range of information based on my job profile and what department or region I belong to – from the menu of the cafeteria where I work to specific departmental rules and processes.
No question, an intranet equipped with these kinds of functions represents a milestone in corporate communication and organization. Yet we are already witnessing the early stages of the intranet’s evolution into the social intranet. Current systems are still plagued by a certain amount of sluggishness when it comes to updating and generating content. Web content management systems tend to work with editing and approval processes that enable pages to be altered or replaced. It makes a lot of sense to use these processes for external websites since they ensure the quality of both content and appearance. But these ponderous approval processes are not appropriate when it comes to simply providing large quantities of information within the company. This is where it is worth considering using social software. Blogs and wikis offer a way for experts and departments to add content themselves quickly and easily. The right information is there on time, and in many cases this is more important than having beautifully laid out, grammatically flawless pages.
Of course, there are certain risks that go along with the use of social software. When a company “empowers” its employees to create content, they are duty-bound to do so. But there are plenty of examples where this kind of “social empowerment” makes sense – in areas such as customer service (with support wikis) and product documentation. Here in my section at IBM, we have a department-specific wiki. Each area, from sales management to marketing to services, is responsible for entering the latest data in a timely fashion. Of course this doesn’t always work and people have to be gently reminded to do it every now and then, but we have still managed to set up a comprehensive information platform about social business and collaboration solutions in Germany. Alongside this wiki reference work there is also a German community where users share important bookmarks, files and presentations. And there are blogs and forums where we discuss current issues. The community and the wiki are part of IBM’s in-house social network, a corporate Facebook based on IBM Connections. The IBM intranet uses portal technology and social software technology. Transaction-oriented functions are organized to a large degree using the portal, whereas knowledge, communication and information-centric functions are increasingly being transferred to the social software.
In a recent blog post, Elizabeth Lupfer talks about three different types of intranet: the content intranet, the social intranet and the hybrid intranet, which – as the name suggests – is a mixed type. I am not sure whether it makes sense to distinguish between a content and a social intranet. Quality of information is extremely important in a social intranet too. It also adds the aspects of communication, networking and especially dialogue as well as active individual participation as a core differentiating feature. There may even be implementation scenarios where a social software platform can fully replicate an intranet. In most cases though, they will be hybrids, sites where portal technology is sensibly combined with social technologies, forms applications and transaction applications.
These days social functions can be integrated into corporate portals and intranet portals with little fuss, using modern portals, portlet and mashup technologies, which have made great strides recently. A recent piece by Dion Hinchcliffe calls for intranets to become social and explains how to do it. His article outlines three different ways to set up a social intranet.
Companies have to address this issue for various reasons. One is the pressure to ensure better internal exchange and documentation of information and knowledge; another is that they are hiring greater numbers of digital natives who are demanding the use of suitable technologies; a third is that employees from very different sectors within the company need to acquire social media competencies. People working in customer service, sales, product development, marketing, PR and management will soon be expected to make greater use of social networking services to communicate externally. That is where the customers and the potential customers are. That is where people are talking about the company. A company’s social intranet is a place where employees can learn how to work with social technologies. Ultimately, there is no way around the social intranet. It is the next stage of evolution for the intranet and, what’s more, it prepares companies for social business, for the fundamental shift in communication and, most importantly, for dialogue with customers.