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What’s the sweet spot between Intranets and ESNs?

What’s the sweet spot between Intranets and ESNs?

See-sawI was at an intranet conference where one speaker declared “Intranets will be dead within 5 years”. He paused for a horrified gasp, but none came. In fact the seasoned audience actually seemed to agree, at least in the sense that we were all trying to push intranets on from the top-down, publishing paradigm of old.

Enterprise social networks (ESNs) have sometimes been positioned as being ideologically at odds with intranets, but in practice most organizations have embraced both (see, for example Jane McConnell’s annual survey). The more pragmatic question then, is what is the right balance point?

Blending Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Many organizations have invested heavily in highly structured and well governed intranets, but they also struggle to get regular, widespread content contributions. A social approach offers the promise of higher engagement levels and more dynamic content, but it requires a relaxing of control.

ESNs work best when introduced in alignment with the existing intranet. Oakley, for example, has an intranet page on the use of the Oakley brand with a side-panel where the social network is able to ask questions and discuss the brand policy. This gives employees both an authoritative reference space, but also a place to enter into dialogue about the topic.

Conversely, when ESNs are introduced as stand-alone, people start to get confused about what to use when, or where to the ‘current’ place is to get answers. For example, topics start to get duplicated on different systems, and this ultimately degrades the user experience.

Citizens and consumers

This tension arises because it forces organizations to reconcile two different world views: the Employee as Citizen vs. Consumer.

The ‘Employee as Citizen’ view is seen in a top-down leadership style focused on setting strategy and direction. A logical consequence is that employees need to know things from above in order to do their job. This makes it important that they get clear, consistent messages about what’s going on. Traditional intranets support this approach and promote content on the basis of perceived importance by leadership.

The ‘Employee as Consumer’ view positions the employee as a partner to the organization. As knowledge workers, it is the individual who is best-placed to decide what they need to know and what they should communicate. This is similar to a free-market economy where consumer power dictates how things are shaped. Much of the appeal of ESNs centers around this – allowing everyone to decide what is important. Additionally, the facilitation of micro-supply and micro-demand for information serves a long tail need for specialists that is rarely met by an intranet when content is architected top-down.

Despite the intuitive appeal of ESNs, in the workplace context there are potential drawbacks:

  • Choice is not always desirable as it leads to inefficiency, duplication and indecision. You really don’t want an internal marketplace of expense claims systems, for example.
  • Information overload has a direct cost to the organization in employee productivity (compare this with company Twitter post, where getting more retweets is almost limitlessly a good thing).

The challenge then, is to access the value of an ESN without undermining the benefits of the more controlled, traditional intranet. Below are some guiding principles to help you do this.

ESN-Intranet guiding principles

  1. Design your intranet around communities and use ESNs as the cornerstone of this. When intranet sites are structured around what the information has in common (e.g. everything about pensions) or what the provider has in common (e.g. everything from HR) then it becomes hard to augment it with information produced bottom-up and organically. Instead sites should be structured around communities of people (e.g. everyone who works in HR or everyone in the Birmingham office). Here, the ESN tool is the main vehicle, with intranet pages on the same site providing context and reference.
  2. Let the community decide what adds value but provide manageable frameworks. The community will be best-placed to decide what it needs to know and the tools to use, but there’s a risk that so many participants make things messy, purely from a kind of crowd entropy. To counteract this there needs to be a degree of curation just to preserve navigation and make high-value content prominent.
  3. Blend content on the community from all levels, both formally published and employee-generated. The community can be seen as an audience. Content can mix top-down and bottom-up so long as the origin is clearly marked, just as the BBC website mixes authoritative journalism with reader comments.
  4. Differentiate fact and advice. Building on the point above, employees welcome authority for reference information (“How many annual day’s leave can I have?”) because their goal is efficiency. But sometimes they want options because their goal is discovery (“What is the best way to explain the features of our new product?”). Facts need clear, concise, searchable content. Advice needs flexibility, community input and quality filters like ratings.
  5. Use appropriate governance for each content category. Governance doesn’t have to mean control; it means making an explicit decision that some areas (e.g forums) will generally be unedited, whereas others will continue to be tightly controlled (e.g. financial results).

Finding the intranet / ESN sweet spot - five guiding principles

Photo credit: antony_mayfield

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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