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Intranets Then and Now or The Rise of “Make it like Facebook”

To really understand the value of social intranets today, you have to understand where they came from.  Today we’re going to spend a little time taking a look back at where intranets have been and where they’re going, because having that context can be a real boon when you’re staring at an intranet redesign project.
In its traditional context, and I’m going back to the late 1990s here, an intranet represented a one-to-many or few-to-many communication channel, typically from a central corporate entity to the employee base at large.  It had limited personalization, if any, and definitely very little interactivity.  The best ones projected a strong brand and helped reflect the prevailing corporate culture.  A popular approach was to copy the “directory tree” structure popularized by Yahoo at the time, offering drill-down navigation into various departments and features through endless menus of text.  (At the time, this was actually a deal more exciting than it sounds.)
Now, obviously, a good intranet still serves as an important communication channel and a means to project the corporate brand.  It can play a key role in giving people in a corporation, an institution, an enterprise a shared identity.   But increasingly that communication is following consumer trends and has become a two-way street.
The advent of early editions of SharePoint paved the way for this by bringing document-based collaboration to the masses, eventually dovetailing with the ability to host intranet content (HTML pages) and leading more companies to move their first-generation intranets into what was then called the “Enterprise 2.0” model of  collaboration and communication.  (Curiously, to those of us with a Microsoft bent, SharePoint 2003—being more focused on collaboration than delivering rich web content— was very much a follower in the intranet space.  It wasn’t until the 2007 edition that SharePoint became a viable intranet platform, and it was with 2010 that it truly became ubiquitous.)
Today we see most modern intranets as a multi-functional portal of hosted web content, applications and links to external applications, and collaboration around documents and files.  Increasingly they’re bringing people together via a new channel—social collaboration—that adds people and what they know, like and do to the equation in a way that’s never been possible before.
We are seeing more mobile devices, and designing for them—slates and phones—because in an increasingly connected world, the most sophisticated knowledge workers tend to take their work with them.  Just as well, economies of scale (from an infrastructure perspective) and the breakdown of what once were perceived as insurmountable barriers (data security, compliance and regulation, customizations) as interest in moving certain workloads to the cloud.
It’s an exciting time to be involved with these technologies, that’s for sure.  Nobody’s sitting still, least of all Microsoft, its partners, and its customers.  SharePoint 2010 and now, SharePoint 2013 are playing a key role—maybe the key role—in modernizing intranets and making things like social and mobile possible.
You now have the ability to do social tagging—following people and communities that interest you and surfacing their activity in your newsfeed—and microblogging right out of the box.  An extension like Yammer and partners like NewsGator continue to innovate on top of that platform, too, offering even richer and more valuable functionality.  I don’t think you can ever truly be “bleeding edge” in enterprise software, but Microsoft and especially its partners are doing a great job of staying on top of this trend.  Feature parity with consumer sites like Facebook may always be too much to ask, but the cost of doing business—the need for compliance and governance that doesn’t exist in public social networks—would seem to indicate that a slight lag between enterprise software and consumer platforms sounds like a fair tradeoff for most enterprises.
Currently, it might be true that only the best intranets are social intranets—but before you know it, social software will move from a “nice to have” to an expectation.  People, especially younger professionals, will be far less likely to work for or stick around with a company that fails to offer these tools.  Everyone will be doing it.  The best intranets will be the ones who realize true value from their social software, though.  The best intranets will be the ones who do it right.

Thoughts on “Intranets Then and Now or The Rise of “Make it like Facebook””

  1. Pingback: Interesting elsewhere: #intranet questions, answers and award-winners | Intranetizen

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Rich Wood

Rich Wood has been planning, designing and building enterprise solutions and internet sites with an emphasis on stellar user and customer experiences since 1997. Rich is a National Director for Content and Commerce Platform work in Perficient Digital. One of the rare breed of strategists to truly understand both the business needs of the customer and the platforms that serve them, he is a keen advocate for and accomplished speaker/writer on issues that surround that inflection point. His work has been published on CMSWire, Sitecore and Microsoft partner blogs, and his own LinkedIn page as well as our various blogs here at Perficient, and he has spoken at multiple major conferences including Microsoft's SharePoint Conference 2014. Married and a father of five, Rich enjoys spending time with his wife and family. He is a native of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a graduate of Marquette University.

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