Should I replace the intranet with an Enterprise Social Network?

Intranetizen's picture

With the arrival of Facebook Workplace and the merger of Microsoft and LinkedIn enterprise social just got sexy, and many companies are asking if they still need a traditional intranet.

Comparing the high adoption rates of ESNs with the low readership on internal communications, scrapping the traditional intranet in favour of something more social can seem an attractive option. Others use the introduction of an ESN as a route to replace a tired old intranet that otherwise wouldn’t get budget.

But the line between the two has become more blurred over the years, with ESN platforms introducing better publishing capability, and enterprise content management platforms adding social features. This, in turn, begs the question: does my organisation really need both?

Before we start, what’s the distinction?

  • Intranets enable publishing of content, with tight management over who can publish and on what pages, allowing control of the homepage, for example
  • Enterprise Social Networks allow all users to post content, share and follow one another

Ultimately, the combination of platforms that make up your intranet or digital workplace should be driven by your organisational and user needs, not by the technology, so this isn’t a question we can answer for you in this blog post. But it’s a question we get asked a lot, so we’d like to set out some of the pitfalls that come with ditching your traditional intranet altogether.

Not all content is social

There are few organisations which don’t have a need to publish simple, authoritative information such as policies, guidelines and corporate updates. A traditional intranet should provide a canonical source of trusted information, while enterprise social networks provide a means by which this information can be distributed, discovered and discussed.

During its lifecycle content might begin life in:

  1. the social space, as a conversation, before moving into
  2. the collaborative space as it’s discussed and developed, before finally taking its place in
  3. the managed space.

ESNs provide strong capability in the social space, with some offering strong collaboration capability too, but don’t support – or claim to support – that managed space. And that means you’ll need to make some big compromises if using an ESN as your intranet.

Square pegs and round holes

Enterprise Social Networks such as Jive, Yammer and Chatter do provide the ability to publish pages of content, but content management simply isn’t what they are designed for, so this involves ‘hacking’ the platforms, introducing convoluted work-arounds, and living with sub-standard publishing capability.

For example, we know of one global firm using a pure ESN as its only intranet platform who have had to create a series of generic user IDs for authoritative information and corporate communications, with such content being ‘ghost published’ as blog posts with the social functionality manually turned off. This same technology-led approach has led to key policy and guidance being uploaded in a series of embedded documents rather than web pages – so despite massive investment in the intranet, this ‘upgrade’ has resulted in making information harder to find for users and workflow more complicated for publishers.

As we noted in our series on Workplace by Facebook, this new kid on the block provides little traditional publishing functionality at all, forcing internal communicators and publishers to use other tools and reconsider how they share messaging internally. Facebook themselves recommend taking a heterogeneous approach to the digital workplace, combining Workplace with productivity suites like Office 365 and/or a traditional intranet. Some content, such as policies or redundancy announcements don’t sit well as social content.  

Content wants to be found

Content Management Systems place pages into a structured hierarchy, which in turn can create simple, task-based navigation. ESNs use search and social graph to surface content. This can be enormously helpful in boosting relevance, but it’s rarely wise to dispense with traditional navigation altogether. Users rely on this to find information quickly, and to distinguish between information that is current and official and that which has been uploaded by an end user and may no longer be in force.

Users generally prefer a combination of good search and good navigation inside the enterprise; losing proper structured navigation can have significant negative impacts on user satisfaction. Relying on the social graph to surface content works well for content that employees want to share, but less well for valuable but less engaging materials. 

You’ll miss your homepage

ESNs offer limited options to control what appears on your homepage. Social networks are, by definition, driven by what people are talking about. What appears by default on social is the stuff people care about and are talking about that day. And that’s unlikely to be your corporate news.

As we noted in our piece on Workplace and internal comms, the dominance of the feed will force internal communicators to work harder to make their content work on social. It also requires companies to accept a loss of control; there will be instances where a post about a puddle in the car park trends for days while an announcement from the CEO fades from view in hours. Those using ESNs report stern words from CEOs with bruised egos.

Many companies simply aren’t equipped for either of these changes and instead opt for option C – turning off social features on the homepage in favour of content widgets they can directly control, so they can carry on publishing corporate news in the same way they always have.  If buying an ESN only to turn it into an extremely expensive but hard-to-use standard intranet sounds absolutely bonkers, that’s because it is. But it happens.

No easy answer

ESNs deliver some real advantages over a traditional intranet, from improved engagement to focused use cases that enable people to work more effectively and productively. But just as Facebook hasn’t replaced websites, ESN doesn’t negate the need for boring old enterprise publishing either, so we’d caution against claims of one tool to rule them all.

There’s no simple answer to the ‘ESN or intranet’ question, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, organisations should choose the right set of tools to  meet their users’ needs, fully understanding what functionality each offers – and does not offer.



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