Should I replace the intranet with an Enterprise Social Network?

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.

There are 6 comments

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  1. Jane Hansen

    It’s about command and control IMO. Organisations that refuse to understand that command and control from the top doesn’t really work are reticent to engage with ESNs. But then they will get a senior stakeholder who goes ‘ooooh, shiny’. and they go out and buy one They would be better off spending no money and using traditional channels to put out the dull leadership messages that few people read. The resultant employee attitudes they get will be the same (disengaged, not trusting, non-collaborative) but at least they didn’t fork out the bucks. Getting an ESN and turning off the ‘S’ is a waste of both opportunity and money. OTOH, it means management and internal communication dinosaurs get the lack of engagement they deserve.

  2. Russell Pearson

    The big difference as identified is that old chestnut of systems of interaction (ESN) and systems of record, the traditional intranet. While it falls down on records management, one of the key strengths of a good ESN however, is that it is configurable as either a social or a more traditional intranet platform. It’s also not uncommon to have generic accounts for publishing in either – indeed using these is often a security and compliance requirement for either type of platform. Nor should the CEO’s important message be replaced by one of more puddling significance if the person managing the homepage has it set up correctly – an ESN can easily handle an Exec comm centric purpose with the right layout and widgets – i.e. don’t rely on a stream for C-level news, create a specific news channel as you would for any intranet. So all in all, I think it’s more how the ESN is set up – Jive for example can easily handle the different comms use cases, but it is still weak when dealing with structured information, unless it’s connected to say SharePoint…

    • Sharon O'Dea

      My experience with Jive is that while it’s technically possible to deliver comms and standard information publishing use cases on it, the workflow is convoluted and the end result just not as good as you’d get from a CMS (because, well, it isn’t a CMS). All pages have to come from an individual user, but many firms are reluctant to put names of real people on either policies or news items, so publishers have to log out and log back in with a generic ID, or use a not very user-friendly ghost publishing feature. It’s clunky and doesn’t allow for effective content governance (ie it has no workflow, content expiry, etc). ESNs don’t offer page templates for publishing which allow for information to be better presented and effectively coded for search and usability (lack of templates + complete freedom to publish more often than not results in a hot mess of fonts, styles and code). That’s not a criticism of Jive per se, but rather of people who buy it in without full consideration of their requirements and governance.

      Using an ESN requires a radically different approach to internal communications – the old publishing model, of pushing out CEO announcements and expecting them to be read, simply doesn’t work in a social space. Content needs to be concise and engaging to work on the wall (this is especially true on Facebook Workplace, which has no homepage). This is absolutely necessary in the modern world, in my view – high quality, engaging and concise content is respectful of employees time and offers them something of value, rather than treating them as a captive audience who have no choice but to read. Again, this is something many teams who bring in an ESN don’t take account of when they start. Some adapt and thrive; others don’t change their ways of working at all and instead try to make the social intranet less social – kind of defeating the point of getting it in the first place.

  3. Lisa Riemers

    Thanks Sharon for as-ever sharing your brilliant words of wisdom here. In my various past roles I’ve seen examples of having clearly defined lines between the two, but also increasingly blurry ones. Whatever the org, I’ve generally found that blogs are that excellent crossover area of published, yet social content, and end up getting used heavily by senior managers and internal comms teams to disseminate information.

    That idea of puddle-based blogs *can* be a useful prompt for senior execs to actually finish their posts, to knock that one off the top spot, too. I know for a fact there was competition at board-level as our directors used to compare who was the most popular author!

    I’m delighted to say that you’ve both inspired and feature heavily in my latest blog post over on Invotra, touching on what came before, and also the things I like about us now – as in my tweet, Invotra Digital Workplace does both trad intranet AND social, with awesome people/profile/team functionality and site locator, and the ability to connect things if you so wish! Please do take a look (there’s a massive disclaimer when it starts to get promo-heavy).

    • Sharon O'Dea

      Hi Lisa! I think we’re saying much the same thing here; the line between ESNs and traditional CMSs is getting blurrier all the time, with ESNs beefing up their publishing capability, and CMSs adding social features. And some tools that straddle both, like yours. The important thing is to fully understand what your business and your users need and ensure the tool or set of tools you use meet those needs, rather than being led by the technology, and with a full understanding of how you’ll operationalise the tools. Getting a social tool can add huge value, but it doesn’t replace the need for traditional publishing, in most organisations, so most places will need both (or a platform like yours which does both).

      ESNs throw up new challenges for organisations, communicators and leadership. A surprising trending post can prompt a CEO to explore how they can use this engagement more productively. Or it can cause a nervous comms team to close down in favour of command-and-control. As Jon noted in our post on Facebook and Internal Comms last week, to get the real value from that ESN communicators need to work differently. They need to have a dialogue with leaders and stakeholders on embracing social in the workplace. But some just aren’t prepared to do that, and go the opposite way – trying to “manage out” real engagement in favour of command and control. Before getting an ESN (or a social intranet platform) orgs need to go in with their eyes wide open, and ask: What do we need to do? What do our users need? Are we prepared for the impacts of being more social? Does our leadership really get it?

      If an organisation isn’t really prepared to work in social ways, then as commenter Jane Hansen says above (hello Jane!), they’d be better off not getting social functionality in at all 🙂

  4. Lisa Riemers

    Yes… without full buy-in at a senior level, an ESN is impossible to keep online! I had some “interesting” conversations with some of our exec about taking down a post that was raising a legitimate concern about an HR practice – some negotiating later and we ended up with a wonderful authentic response, and an open and transparent conversation which actually resolved the issue.

    At the time I didn’t realise how lucky we were to have such real and encompassing support for a change in the way we communicate as part of a cultural revolution; at another organisation, whilst operational transformation was a key strategic goal, we barely had buy-in for people to be allowed to comment or rate published content, so creating an ESN was out of the question.

    Tech is absolutely not the silver bullet (and I take your point about one tool to rule them all) … tbf our product *is* actually divided up depending on the needs of the org (so you could just take people directory and intranet, or social). I should probably clarify that actually, so thank you for the feedback!

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