Back in the mid-1990s when the Web was young, we had corporate Intranets popping up all over the place. These were typically internal projects that were used to disseminate information to employees about projects, products, and customers. They were quick and dirty efforts that often involved off-the-shelf parts and little (if any) programming. The idea was to produce a corporate Web portal that was just for internal use, to enable staff to share documents, best practices, customer information and the like.
But they are mostly historical artifacts now. What happened? Well, for one thing, TCP/IP happened. Back in the mid-90s, corporate networks were a hodge-podge of protocols, including SNA and Netware. No one talks about these anymore. Having an all-IP network made it easier to adopt more Internet-native technologies. Remember when sending emails from one company to another was a chore and not always successful? Now we take it for granted that we can communicate with anyone.
Secondly, the tool sets got better. Many companies migrated their Intranets to Wikis or WordPress when it became clear that these products were easier to maintain and use. And then a whole class of products now called enterprise social networks arrived which have ready-made discussion groups, microblogs, news streams, and social media. For example, you can share files with comments attached to them, such as if a team is collaborating on a presentation slide deck. Or use them for customer support actions. Or tracking competitors. All the things that we once used Intranets for.
Then Twitter took off, and many of these products modeled their user interface on the simple 140-character “what are you doing now” dialog box. That made it dirt simple to add content and for a work team to collaborate together.
The final nail in the Intranet coffin may be the announcement this week from Socialcast. They are offering a fully-featured version for free and forever for up to 50 seats of its software. Expect that others will jump on board this model.
These enterprise social networking tools mean more than a “Like” button on a particular page of content: it is a way to curate and disseminate that content quickly and easily. Let’s look at a few of the distinguishing features for this class of products.
• Team workspace. You can segregate your work teams by project and have all the materials for that project in a single place for easy access. These spaces can be persistent to serve as an archival record for completed projects, too.
• Activity stream. The Twitter-like stream is useful to keep track of what your colleagues are doing in any given day.
• Presence detection. Like corporate Instant Message tools, you can keep track of when your co-workers are in the office or ask them quick questions via text or video chats.
• Document collaboration. You can edit documents in real-time to shape a particular deliverable for a client without having to do serial emails.
• External services connections. Many of these products can search and interact with CRM systems, SharePoint servers, Salesforce, emails, and other external services.
• Mobile clients. Most products have specialized clients that have been optimized for iOS and Android phones.
• Public or private deployments. You can start with a public cloud deployment of the product to try out, and then move your system to your own server behind a firewall for the ultimate security.
So say goodbye to Intranets. It was nice to know them. Certainly, the new breed of social network products makes it easier to communicate and collaborate. Now we just have to use them.