Social intranets and the supply chain
To paraphrase (technically misuse) a line from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy—“In the beginning intranets were created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The general perception of intranets within the IT pantheon is as unloved, unused and frankly annoying. Let us be frank, there is nothing like starting an article by annoying half your readers, yet it is the truth. Both technology vendors and enterprise buyers alike with whom we deal at 451 Reseach create a collective groan when the word intranet is sounded. Regardless, intranets are critically important to any growing organization because they are often the only means of connecting and communicating with ever more disparate, fragmented and disconnected workforces. That original social purpose for intranets, rather than the static repositories and bulletin boards many became, is more important today than ever before, yet to date progress has been slow.
Intranets can and often do provide an essential, closed and secure service within organizations to keep employees informed of corporate decisions and strategy as well as a central repository to employee-related forms and policies. They might even play a part in training and onboarding new employees. More advanced intranets can serve as interactive self-service portals, for example, providing an interface for the help desk or HR. So not all intranets are unloved; some are very effective and worthwhile initiatives.
What should a social intranet provide?
The technology of intranets has followed the same lifecycle path of pretty much all IT systems before them. First they are a novel idea, then get some momentum and expand widely. Over time they become mature and ultimately seen as a legacy system. Yet typically the aging of old systems represents an opportunity for a refresh and rethink of the underlying business problem that the system is trying to address.
Today many organizations are looking to upgrade, replace and in some cases actually abandon their corporate intranets. Many are actively exploring a more modern approach to addressing the same underlying business need (communicating and sharing centrally with employees), looking for alternatives and fresh ideas. Others are simply looking to move on from intranets altogether. Both situations represent a huge opportunity for enterprise buyers and those who potentially service buyer requirements.
Hence, at the bottom level of our forces pyramid (DOWNLOAD CHART 1 or see page 13, KMWorld, January 2016, Vol. 26, Issue 1), we have “Collaboration,” but it is underscored by “Socialization and Insight.” The question savvy organizations are now asking is what are we socializing for, and how do we know if that collaborative work is effective (insights). Essentially, this is stage one and the place where many organizations are currently at today. They are reassessing technology investments they made into social and collaboration and figuring out what their core purpose is, how they can be best leveraged and how they can track and gain insights.
One step up our pyramid, we find a fragmented workforce—although plenty of organizations still require employees to attend a physical workplace at designated hours, increasingly working at home is an option, as is the use of outsourced, part-time and contract workers. Add to this the fact that whether on the road or at the desk, employees are often using their own devices to access corporate applications and information. That changes the archetype for intranets and brings in many more factors from mobility and security to fundamentally different organizational dynamics to consider when conceiving, designing and building an intranet system.
Controlled employee communications
That brings us to the final two tiers in our pyramid. The first is the ever more critical need to provide a controlled mechanism for employee communications, which come in many forms. Historically intranets have provided a digital alternative to internal publications, HR and legal forms and documents and updates on the company. If we consider the impact organizational fragmentation is having on modern organizations, they do that and more. They need to utilize employee communications to guarantee that everyone, whomever or wherever they may be, are on the same page, to drive efficiency, maintain a common culture and shared corporate values.
Finally, at the top of our pyramid, organizations need to monitor and ideally control work activities. The ultimate goal of the more ambitious social intranets and enterprise collaboration initiatives is to first provide the network, then to control the message and finally to find out what people are really doing, and to place essential checks and balances to drive productivity. In few if any organizations today is that a reality but at a technology level, it is where much of the current investment is heading, building analytical approaches to mining, predicting and controlling social activity within organizations.
The eagle eyed will notice that there is a fifth element to our pyramid, the pyramid itself. We have depicted here a supply (or value) chain, to denote the organization’s core purpose—to create and deliver services and/or products. The chain represents all the moving parts that exist for an organization to operate. Elements such as planning, ordering, manufacturing, supply and logistics, sales, marketing and customer support. If the purpose of an intranet is to connect and provide effective and collaborative communications between employees, the reason for building an intranet is to ensure the operational chain that is at the core of the organization functions. “Social for social’s sake” is of very limited value. Social intranets have to support an organization’s core mission and its operations. Ultimately a social intranet needs to tie itself directly to measurable business process activities.