The idea of the Social Intranet has been around since about 2010, and it was revolutionary when first introduced. Although tools such as wikis, blogs, and online forums had long since found their way into company infrastructures, intranet managers and internal communicators often took a wide berth around interactive platforms.
In the foreword to my 2011 book Social Intranet, I describe the concept as follows:
The Social Intranet sees itself as a company-wide platform for a broad variety of communication and collaboration applications that better inform, motivate, and help employees work together."
Since then, both the concept and the term have become well established. Other names with the same underlying concept emerged over time, most notably are interactive intranets or modern intranets.
Intranet relaunches are usually planned as part of a transformation to a social intranet, for which a whole range of ready-made software platforms such as Jive, Simpplr, Igloo, or Jostle are available on the market.
But while the idea of bringing communication and information together onto a single platform that also facilitates collaboration has great appeal, it faces three major problems.
- Social Intranet Software Creates a Conflict Between Security and Reach
- Social Intranets Miss the Top Two Trends in Digital Collaboration
- Social Intranets Miss Innovations for Employee Communication
Let's look at them in more detail:
1. Social Intranet Software Creates a Conflict Between Security and Reach
Because employee communication and deep collaboration on content have very different objectives, conflicts arise when trying to combine the two.
Communication needs reach. And by reach, I don’t mean theoretical reach. In theory, terminals on the factory floor have reach, but the reality is that they’re hardly ever used.
Likewise, theoretical mobile reach can be created with responsively optimized intranet pages. But given the tedious necessity of having to log in daily, it’s a practice that’s hardly ever used by employees in real life.
Communication needs real reach. To achieve real reach, intranets must be accessible as apps on employees' smartphones—preferably branded with their company's unique design. If employees don't have a company device, they must be able to use their personal smartphones or tablets.
With an app, there’s no need for a daily login. Active instant notification is possible for selected information. And content and services can be targeted for optimal relevance, meaning that employees will use this channel voluntarily because it helps them with their daily work.
The issue of range is complicated by data security. Companies often use a graded security classification for information. Typical levels are:
- strictly confidential
Shared information that meets the requirements for real reach (as described above) usually falls under the categories of “external” and “internal” information.
The problem is that when collaborating on important projects, “confidential” and “strictly confidential” content is often created. As soon as sensitive content comes into play, it will obviously influence the overall security rating of the platform, making the use of private devices hardly possible.
What this means is that many active social intranets built around collaboration cannot be accessed by an adequate number of employees—hardly the best scenario for a communication medium meant to reach everyone in a widely dispersed, global enterprise.
The digital divide is now wider than ever: on the one side there are employees who communicate directly with management via email, intranet and other digital means; on the other side are the colleagues who still only receive an employee newspaper four times a year. Internal communications teams can't effectively do their job in such a limited environment.
2. Social Intranets Miss the Top Two Trends in Digital Collaboration
At its core, the concept of collaboration via social intranets looks similar: There are virtual team rooms in which functions such as blogs and microblogs, wikis, task management, or document storage can be activated. These team rooms have always been good for storing structured information, but they aren’t really the best place for collaboration.
But recently there have been two fundamental innovations in the area of collaboration that have completely bypassed the already limited capabilities of social intranets:
Team Messaging Software like Teams and Slack
Tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams have shown how collaboration can work across multiple groups. Not only are internal emails significantly reduced, but users particularly appreciate their ability to decide whether or not to integrate external tools and control how deeply they wish to stay up-to-date.
The COVID-19 crisis has further accelerated the adoption of these tools. Teams usage saw a huge jump as entire companies were moved overnight to remote work. Some may even ask if a tool like Teams can entirely replace any other tool for intranets and internal communication — I think there are many reasons why this is not the case. The same argument holds true for why Yammer will fail as your one and only internal communications tool.
Whats does that mean for Social Intranets? It means that collaboration and teamwork will no longer be a core task and requirement of modern intranets. I actually think that these are good news for intranets, because it allows the category to focus on it's original purpose around creating a branded digital entry door for the organization and a personal "travel" guide for employees on their way through the employee journey.
Real-Time Co-Editing of Documents
Documents have been declared dead time and again, but they remain a very effective way to express and share information. For years, teamwork on documents could be very complicated, with issues arising due to countless versions (concept_V12.6_final-final, etc.); check-ins and check-outs; and a difficulty in commenting directly on live documents.
With the emergence of online word processing, parallel editing and live commenting on documents works much more smoothly. Unfortunately, this option is technically difficult to implement. That's why only the big players (Microsoft and Google) have it on offer—and unfortunately, they’ve created a seemingly unassailable monopoly in the market.
What’s clear is that collaboration can now be done much better digitally outside of social intranets, which have begun to make more sense as a platform from which to access external options for collaboration. However, this development has only served to make the myriad choices available to users even more confusing.
Thinking specifically of Microsoft 365, the biggest challenge facing their rollouts (of SharePoint, Teams, Yammer, etc.) is explaining to users which tool they should use for which purpose.
Any company that feels the necessity to throw a social intranet into this pot is clearly at a disadvantage.
3. Social Intranets Miss Innovations for Employee Communication
One of the central duties of an intranet is to support employee communication. Be it central news, local updates, or channels for specific target groups such as managers or salespeople, the intranet has definitively replaced the employee newspaper as the leading medium for internal communication. That being said, while the requirements for digital communication are in constant flux, companies rarely meet these requirements beyond taking simple measures such as creating a blog.
Here are 3 ways that social intranets have missed the innovation train when it comes to internal communication:
We’ve already taken a look at the technical requirements for real reach. If you want to reach all your internal users, you have to make operation easy, with little or no extra training necessary, and without forcing employees to actively subscribe to content and groups. (Usability studies show that 90 percent of users choose not to actively personalize their communication tools).
The most successful communication intranets aren’t characterized by how long they’re used every day, but rather by their regular use for limited periods of time (e.g., 3–10 minutes) by as many employees as possible.
Functional focus on all types of internal communication
Communication is more than just company news. Operational communication is also important—can a division manager communicate effectively with her 100 employees? Can she easily create multimedia content on her own, and can this content be sent via push message if necessary? Are these messages automatically and prominently visible on the home page of your employees’ mobile devices? Can notifications be resent as part of a campaign? Is it easy to find out (within the framework of data protection) the type of content preferred by a particular user group? Can content be created simultaneously in several languages or translated automatically?
The most successful Staffbase customers are particularly strong in the area of operative communication and they've significantly improved their reach (by as much as 10x) compared to existing social intranets.
The functional design of social intranets, on the other hand, has always been "collaboration first" and "communication second." The typical answer to questions about digital communication features is, "We have a blog."
In such scenarios, internal communication is usually displayed to the user as a list of content pieces in an activity stream appearing on the intranet start page. Decentralized content creators such as location managers or team leaders generally lack control options as to what can be seen, how long it will appear, and where it gets displayed.
Back when intranets were still called employee portals, there was also the first wave of so-called Employee Self Services (ESS). These integrations of personnel features such as timesheet recording, paystub distribution, or vacation request forms were usually expensive to create and cumbersome to use. With the triumph of mobile applications with much better usability, these integrations again became highly relevant for mobile intranets.
Social intranets offer very few options in this area. This can partly be explained by the poor precedent set by employee portals. Today, a typical Staffbase customer will naturally have ESS on their list of features, and they can range from the above-mentioned personnel services via KPI dashboards, yet be as innovative as live parking displays for a car-sharing exchange.
When it comes to such integrations, we will without a doubt see more and more innovations—such as chatbots and digital assistants. The future has only just begun.
What Happens Next?
There is broad agreement among intranet experts that the era of large, monolithic platforms is over. The concept of the digital workplace has arrived, and at its core is the idea that flexible and specialized applications can be used for specific use cases.
In these times of digital transformation, the long-neglected, yet all-important area of internal communication needs its own specialized application. Modern communication is no longer just top-down, but side-to-side and bottom-up.
The vision of platforms such as Staffbase is to merge employee apps and intranets into a mobile-first communication platform to assemble all important moments that matter to employees around their journey. That's why we call this new category of intranets Employee Experience Intranet (EX Intranet). Other terms such as “Front-Door Intranet” (an entrance gate to the digital workplace) or “communication hub” are also being used, however the rise of the overall focus on a great employee experience as the main driver and source of employee engagement feels like the major trend here and intranets will (as always in the past) keep up with the evolution.
Anyone planning a social intranet today definitely needs a strategy in advance for how to ensure real reach. There are many examples of projects that followed the path of "social intranet first, mobile later." Don't make the same mistake by putting off until tomorrow what you can do today.
- The Communication Cons of a SharePoint Intranet
- 6 Rules for Taking Your Intranet Mobile
- Why Is the Digital Workplace So Important to the Employee Experience?
This piece was translated from the German by Robert Grover.