In almost every company I encounter, someone is dabbling with some kind of enterprise social network (often Yammer, as this is the most well known). In some instances these organisations have yet to progress beyond simply experimentation, but others are making great progress. Some early adopters are even in the process of consolidating their earlier experiments into a single enterprise social networking platform.

With all this interest in enterprise social networks (ESNs), where does this leave the traditional intranet?

One idea is to completely replace those intranets with an enterprise social network. The argument for doing this is that traditional intranets have failed in a number of dimensions:

  • Users and management don’t value them.
  • They are resource intensive to maintain.
  • Traditional intranets are not accessible when they need them.

Enterprise social networks on the other hand appear to help fill many of the voids traditional intranets create:

  • Users like using them!
  • They are less resource intensive to maintain.
  • Many of the solutions offer an instant fix to access beyond the desktop.

Sounds great, right? The trouble is, depending on how you deploy an enterprise social network you might end up filling a void but not actually fixing the underlying problem. Your current intranet may simply be a symptom of issues such as:

  • Mis-guided information management practices (based on highly structured document-centric systems).
  • Employee engagement based on top-down, centrally controlled communication.
  • Out of date staff development and learning practices.
  • Lack of investment in IT infrastructure.

The real limitation of most traditional intranets is that they have become places to visit, rather than places to actually work. And because they are not situated in daily work practices and process, information lacks context that makes it hard to find or use purposefully when it is needed. So its not surprising that traditional intranets have a reputation for being something that is needed, but are perceived to provide little practical value.

But enterprise social networks actually risk falling into the same trap, if we plan to use them just as intranet replacements.

If we are serious about deploying enterprise social networks, then we need to shift the discussion slightly away from the idea of simple ‘replacement’ to thinking more strategically about this as a transformation. This could be thought of in terms of a simple maturity model:

  1. Lowest level of maturity – use an enterprise social network to solve a point problem or constraint – e.g. improve employee engagement or mobile access.
  2. Middle level of maturity – use an enterprise social network to augment an existing intranet (i.e. its integrated in someway).
  3. Highest level of maturity – the intranet is an enterprise social platform (which supports people, process and content).

So should you replace your intranet with an enterprise social network?

Yes, eventually, but it may not be the first step in the journey for everyone.

(Of course, if your current intranet is really that bad then there is nothing to lose by replacing it right now – just remember, it might not be the silver bullet you hope for immediately.)

UPDATE: Also see this follow up post, What is an Enterprise Social Network?

Do you need help with transforming your intranet or selecting an enterprise social network? Headshift Asia Pacific offer a range of consulting services to assist you:

  • Mentoring and strategic advice.
  • Workshops.
  • Business case, use case and vision development.
  • Technology selection.
  • Implementation support – including technology, social learning, community management and organisational change.
  • Program evaluation.

Contact James Dellow on 0414 233711 or via email.

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