In 1993, the idea of cyberspace – a shared electronic experience where ideas and information could be freely and instantly exchanged – was just emerging from science fiction into reality in the form of early online communities. In the years since then, technology has given us the World Wide Web, instant messaging, and intranets. Today, when my clients ask me, “what can we do to refresh our intranet?” my response has been more and more often that intranets are part of our organisations’ past, not their future, and that they might want to seriously consider some alternatives.
News of the wholesale death of the intranet has been, as the saying goes, wildly exaggerated. But intranets are fundamentally changing and, in many cases, are simply disappearing as organisations and technology evolve. Why? There are three big trends driving the final few nails into the intranet coffin.
Thanks to the improved availability of high-speed Internet access and ever increasing cost of real estate, fewer knowledge worker jobs are tied to a desk than ever before. Almost 40% of Fortune 2000 knowledge workers in a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study reported working from at least two locations on a regular basis. And almost three in ten workers in a recent US mobile technology survey reported using their smartphones to access information vital to their job while in transit.
The Millennial generation is also beginning to show their strength of numbers in the workforce, and their preferences are clear: work is what you do, not where (or even when) you do it. The continuing battle to recruit top talent is forcing companies to reconsider tying staff to a desk, regular hours, or even a laptop as this highly-educated, smartphone-centric group becomes a large percentage of global corporate teams. And responsive design just hasn’t been enough to provide a compelling intranet experience on a smartphone.
This is something we all know, but we seldom acknowledge the impact of this phenomenon on the communications channels that we use. While not every company has found its way to an integrated communications strategy, most employers already recognise that their external social media channels are a significant source of news for employees. And we already know the power of enterprise social networks (ESNs) that paved the way for Jive and other ‘social intranet’ solutions.
None of these have had the success of their external counterparts like Twitter or Facebook. However, there are plenty of case studies that demonstrate that a conversational, crowdsourced approach to creating company news and job-relevant information is far more engaging. Ironically, successful social intranets provide the ability to subscribe to topics or project-related sites and drop information into an email digest – avoiding a visit to the intranet at all. These tools get far more engagement than those that force browsers to seek out the data that they need by navigating through a series of menus and pages.
Would you rather type a question into Google’s search box or ask a colleague about that latest project or initiative? Last year, the number of people using the top four messaging platforms was larger than the population using the top four social media platforms for the first time. This demonstrates not only the shift to mobile as the platform of choice for Internet-based communication, but also the preference for conversation over browsing.
And not all of that conversation is going on exclusively between humans. As part of a consulting engagement, I recently helped a mid-sized health care organisation script a chatbot to answer questions about employee health care benefits on the company’s Slack platform. (A chatbot is a program that can draw upon a set of rules and a database to have a conversation with someone on a narrow set of subjects. If you’ve interacted with someone offering to help you in a chat window of a commercial web site, there’s a better than even chance you were “speaking” with a bot, rather than a human). A surprisingly small amount of programming created a resource that was informative, conversational and quite popular, answering text-based questions like “What is the deductible amount for our premium health plan?” with both plain-language responses and links to relevant online documents – all without a click into the dreaded “search” box or a single visit to the company intranet.
Here in 2017, cyberspace is on the verge of looking a lot more like the stuff of 1993 science fiction. Mixed reality, chatbots, machine learning-driven assistants (like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri) and immersive video experiences will be part of every internal communicator’s daily work in the near future. Some of us are implementing these technologies right now. But the future is not yet evenly distributed.
For most of us, 2017 promises to be a transitional period where the past and the future of business communications will coexist. Advanced enterprise social networks like Facebook’s Workplace are running at some companies right alongside SharePoint 2010 intranets. Slack communities are emerging as a popular mobile collaborative platform inside companies where Yammer groups are languishing.
But for some of us, the post-intranet era has already begun. Someone you know will very soon start speaking to their computer about your company strategy and get back meaningful, relevant answers. And sometime this year, I’m willing to bet that one or two of your co-workers (perhaps in IT, perhaps in marketing, maybe even your CEO) will be regularly putting on an Oculus, Magic Leap or Microsoft HoloLens headset to explore how a virtual world can support your corporate narrative.
What we’re eventually headed towards is a future where our conversations about the intranet won’t be about taxonomy, navigation, or even any other aspect of user interface. In the post-intranet era, we’ll be talking about how to best encourage crowdsourcing of stories, indexing compelling content so the chatbots can find it, and ensuring that both leaders and employees have the tools they need to create and share content that moves the organisation towards its goals.
What will be the preferred channel for “official” company news by the end of this year? Email may still be the business as usual solution for a lot of us. But some employees are already following their CEO on Workplace or subscribing to a particular Slack channel (or on one of their competitor’s platforms). Whatever the future of IC looks like at the end of 2017, for leading edge IC teams it probably won’t be yet another page on the company intranet.
BIOGRAPHY – Jeff Zwier
Jeff Zwier is a strategic communications leader and consultant helping organisations navigate change, implement cutting-edge communications technologies, connect with their employees, and get the most strategic value from their communications function. In addition to his current consulting role, he is an active author and instructor on organisational communications and change management. You can learn more about Jeff’s work by following him on Twitter (@jzwier), via his LinkedIn posts or through his blog, The Art and Science of Business Communications (www.artscicomms.com).