Intranets need social to survive

Current state of corporate intranet "somewhere between poor and terrible" because overlooked and underfunded; many still slow to adopt social elements critical for survival, say industry observers.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Traditional intranets will have to shed their corporate skin to turn into social portals that are engaging, collaborative and accessible, to cater to workforce accustomed to using social media.

Toby Ward, president of Prescient Digital Media, said the current state of the corporate intranet today is "somewhere between poor and terrible", because most organizations "woefully underfund" their employee intranets as compared to their public-facing corporate Web site.

For these "social intranets" to become more lively and a necessity, more investment, content and diligence are required, Ward emphasized. "People under 45 now live and breathe social media in their day-to-day lives; they expect their workplace to be similar."

As Tim Zonca, director, product marketing at Jive Software, put it: "Intranets, as they are now, won't last." These traditional intranet systems, he said, are like "crumbling portals" that mostly ineffective, siloed and built on outdated technologies, and were designed for managing documents and content, rather than human collaboration.

While reliable for carrying out company-wide communication, they fall short of the needs and expectations of today's sophisticated workforce, he added.

Slow and hard changes
Ward noted there have been small steps of improvement and innovation--thanks to social media--to the intranet over the last 10 years, despite "headlines predicting the death of the intranet".

Jake Wengroff, global director, social media strategy and research at Frost & Sullivan, said company intranets today are under pressure to change. "Once viewed as internal Web sites or document management systems, such legacy systems are increasingly being dumped in favor of more flexible and dynamic enterprise social networking platforms, which are much more social in nature, and accessible via mobile devices."

According to him, legacy corporate intranets will have "a hard time revamping themselves into enterprise social networks", and cannot keep pace with the social features, communication options and accessibility that today's employees demand. For instance, additional costs may be incurred to pay for additional modules from vendors or in-house development, and having more content stored on the intranet may mean higher hosting fees.

While other industry executives concurred on the demise of traditional corporate intranets, they added that this paved the way for the intranet to become in itself more socially engaging and less corporate-heavy.

Dion Hinchcliffe, executive vice president of strategy at Dachis Group, said superior models of enterprise social networks could render intranets irrelevant since the former has much higher levels of staff participation and can substitute many intranet functions.

Zonca said the new social intranets are not just about engagement and continued activity where people and interact with content and each other. Employees should be able to connect to and access the intranet from anywhere, he added.

"Coupled with the latest advancements in social technologies, there is an unprecedented opportunity to transform outdated intranets with technology that is social, engaging, productive, and encourages collaboration."

These industry observers shared their top tips on how companies can make their intranets more socially collaborative and productive.

1. Have better search
According to Ward, the number one complaint of intranet users is "the search engine sucks". This is rarely the search engine's fault, but usually the fault of the collective audience who are creating and publishing content on the intranet.

As such, authors and publishers need to be trained to write effective titles, page headers, keywords, summaries and to effectively tag their content, he advised. "As the content improves, the search improves, and the entire intranet improves and becomes more engaging."

Hinchcliffe recommended implementing federated search--which is the simultaneous search of various searchable resources. This cross-silo and enterprise-wide search function will allow full contextual search, conducted across the thousands of social links, provides real relevance of results that "unleashes discovery of information across all enterprise systems, including engagement and transactional ones".

2. Build user profiles and wiki pages
Hinchcliffe said allowing highly-detailed and personalized user profiles to be created similar to Facebook, helps employees find people who have the expertise and information they need. The same applies to passing intranet pages to an entire department to encourage interaction with the rest of the company and supply them with information.

Ward concurred, saying that employees should be encourage to create their own internal "corporate version of Wikipedia", with wiki pages on industry jargon, acronyms, and even market competitors.

He noted that the significance of this step runs deeper. Wikis are empowering and controlled bottom-up by the end-user, rather than top-down. When staff are encouraged to contribute to wikis in their own words, the employer is showing a willingness and interest in employee opinions, collaboration.

"It wants to promote dialogue, instead of merely just pushing corporate information or corporate PR (public relations)," he said.

3. Have an executive blog and allow user comments
Ward said this should be a single, shared blog for the entire executive team, where each can contribute posts on "what's top of mind" or the pressing priorities. And user comments should be encouraged, as per the same principle of openness and two-way communication.

He noted user comments are no longer an overlooked feature, and are considered necessary in effective workplaces. "When employees are heard and believe the company cares [about their opinions], employee engagement increase rapidly."

4. Everywhere accessibility
"Traditional intranets are places you go to, and those days are gone," Intranet "goes with you," said Zonca. "A real social intranet works wherever you work, bringing the social experience to places where employees work."

While this means that employees should always be able to browse their intranet online, it should also be available on their smartphones or tablets, if they are on the road, he explained.

5. Use gamification
Noting the popularity of social gaming, intranets can also tap game mechanics to spur overall initial adoption and foster continual engagement, said Zonca. The more advanced intranet 2.0s can also use game incentives targeted at certain groups to drive specific activity or tasks, he added.

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