Intranets 2012
I took a dip last week into the world of intranets for a client who was bringing together their content and community managers from around the world. I offered my take on trends and predictions the digital workplace: where things are in 2011, where things are headed in 2012 and beyond.

I drew from recent experience: having helped this client re-architect their internet presence I knew about their organization, customers, and platform; from my work with Sun Microsystems prior to their acquisition by Oracle, where I was part of the team to turn their intranet from a top down, centralized system to a more decentralized and social system; and from my work with Linden Lab, the creators of the virtual world Second Life, where I brought the collaborative tools of the intranet into the virtual company workplace we built for them inside of Second Life.

I also drew from a variety of resources, such as the Nielsen-Norman Group’s Intranet Design Annual 2011 of the top ten intranets – always an informative document.

One helpful model that provides perspective relative to these trends is the Gartner Hype Cycle. A number of features of new and trending intranets fall all over the graph, and it helps to look at their take on areas such as enterprise information management and content management when considering how real or out there intranet trends are. For instance, “Virtual Worlds”, which was certainly an intranet trend 4 years ago (when Gartner themselves predicted that by now, 80% of users would be visiting the internet with their avatar), is now at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment.

“Trends” were things I observed or discovered during my dive into source material. “Predictions” were things I made up as I went along. You’ll see that these trends aren’t isolated silos, many of them interrelate with each other, and so it isn’t really a linear list. But in a linear blog post, I have to start somewhere.

Platform

Although intranet platforms have specific features that are certainly part of other trends: customizable, mobile, the most significant platform trend is the adoption of platforms and versions that include these features. Enough time has passed between the introduction of Web 2.0-influenced features and their planning, rollout, testing and deployment in real intranets. These feature are no longer just predicted or in pilot, but they are real. Besides specific features, the platforms have evolved in their ease of management, maintainability, extendability. This has had an effect on the teams assigned to intranet activities and their assignments.

People

Several factors are influencing the people who build, maintain and use the intranet. As I mentioned, the deployment of new platform versions has shifted assignments away from migration, deployment or more difficult wrangling of the platform into submission. According to Nielsen-Norman, three areas that have benefited from this are:

  • Usability testing and feedback into design
  • Tuning – especially in areas such as search effectiveness
  • Content – curating and culling.

Management teams are becoming more aware of the intranet and its importance to the company. Intranets that are well instrumented for specific key performance indicators are able to make more-than-anecdotal cases for their returns on investment, which brings the intranet positive attention at higher levels.  We are also seeing corporate buy-in as executives become social content creators with executive blogs and the like.

Intranet platforms also allow for more decentralization of management and governance. This decentralization was often accomplished by having many separate intranets, but now platforms can allow for this decentralization within a common framework.

But the most important constituents are the thousands of employees who integrate the intranet into their working experience. New intranet architectures aren’t just rolling out corporate data and functionality down to the employees, but emerge from the use of the intranet by the employees. With trends of the social and mobile intranets this comes to the fore.

One more thing to note relative to the people who use the intranet, especially when combined with some of the other trends such as mobile computing, is enhanced 24/7/52 connectivity to the company. This is a two-edged sword with many implications, and it warrants not just technical but management attention.

Parallel Tracks

You’ll also see the trend of the parallel path, based on the factors of platform and people. By parallel paths, I mean what’s going on in the intranet relative to what’s going on with the internet at large. There’s a high degree of overlap, and then there are the things that make each domain unique.

For instance, in the internet, multiple platforms and technologies are emerging, competing, evolving all the time, but for any given intranet, platform decisions are more locked into specific choices. External technology may be advancing with new solutions and platforms but for a company that has picked a specific version of a specific platform, they may not get those advances for some time.

On the other hand, the intranet may be able to do some specific things that aren’t available in the internet at large because certain assumptions can be factored in such as officially blessed software and hardware. Or things that would not be acceptable from a privacy standpoint can operate on the intranet. For instance, some intranets include with search results the names of other employees that were searching for the same thing. Because an internal resource has rules and expectations of usage and privacy, they might be able to get away with this, but imagine if every Google search told you exactly who else was looking for the same… remedies.

The key effect, though, of parallel paths is when people jump the track to the other side. When features available on the Internet at large are absent from the intranet, people have a tendency to make use of them for business purposes. When you ban certain websites from internal access, people use their phones to get to them. When an intranet is not sufficiently social, people move their business conversations to outside venues. This happened at Sun. More people used the private Sun employee group on Facebook than were actively using their intranet. These venues may still be private relative to the internet at large, but they are still beyond the governance or measurement of the intranet. They are telling in the kinds of features for future intranet development, and they will happen anyway, but this needs to be factored in.

You also see track-jumping in the other direction: as intranets become more social, people may begin using them for workplace-inappropriate socialization, picking up where they left off on Facebook in their own hours.

Social

Speaking of social, this is certainly a trend, and one with a number of related trends. At Sun we spoke of turning the intranet upside down, and rather than reflect a centralized-org-chart-mirroring view of the organization, we architected the new SunWeb to reflect how people do (and can) collaborate out of emerging social connections.

When I say social, I mean several things: architectural components of the underlying data, the interfaces offered to employees, and the adoption and use of the platform.

Architecturally, we see that rich individual profiles and connections are at the heart of a social platform. The connection graph of how people are connected to each other and to information is the key data structure.  Such a graph can certainly contain a representation of the top-down org-chart view of the organization, and its departments and groups and management. And it can contain the corporate eye-view of information, organized along department lines. But the graph can grow in other ways, based on people explicitly making connections and groups of interest, or having these connections recommended or realized based on how the network is actually used.  An explicit group might be formed as a Mac user interest group, or groups can be formed spontaneously by the system recognizing all Mac users. And search results can be factored by these social data.

Social ultimately means enhancing the ways people already work together, and integrating it into the platform.

Social participation and support begins with individuals, and in addition to having rich profiles as part of the social entry point for individuals, systems are being developed that provide social ratings or scores for individuals. Peter Reiser, now at Oracle, has devised a “community equity” score that factors in participation, contribution, influence and expertise.

As I mentioned in the “parallel tracks” trend, people now have an expectation of having systems support the state of connectedness with each other and with information.

Realtime

Another trend that follows user experience and expectation is the trend of the realtime intranet.  You see this in several ways. One of the ways is in the proliferation of Twitter or Facebook like status updates in the intranet. Once you have the social connectivity, seeing the activities of those people and groups you are connected with is natural. This capability is available to augment Intranets in products such as Yammer, but will be seen more in the platforms themselves.

Realtime access to information is also enabled via dashboards and mashups.

Realtime also incorporates the ability to establish intranet connections using variations of VoIP: Voice, Video and Virtual over IP.

Related to realtime is another time-factored collaboration mode, which is pop-up collaboration. This is where collaborative spaces that have a limited-time or special-purpose duration can quickly be established and used for the purpose.

Crowdsourcing

A byproduct of the social intranet is the ability to tap into the “wisdom of the crowds”. There are several trends to consider here.

First is the rich source of metadata available, both explicitly and implicitly generated, that follows the use of the intranet. Explicit metadata includes user commenting on or rating content, explicitly following or subscribing to other people, tagging information, and so on. Implicit metadata accumulates as people interact with the network. Similar to how Google tracks for what you are searching for, what you are clicking, what you are doing, tracking your actions helps promote valuable content based on what people are actually paying attention to or using.

Group creation and management of content includes the ability of individuals to create content, but also to collectively create and maintain content through systems such as wikis.

Question and answer systems such as Quora provide infrastructure for tapping into expertise in an explicit way.

Finally, incentive based idea factories are finding their way into the intranet though systems such as Spigit, where ideas can be proposed and promoted, voted on, and systems of employee incentives can be factored in to motivate employee innovation.

Semantic

Some of the trends I’ve alluded to, especially those that tie rich metadata to people, information, and actions, are at the heart of semantic web technologies that are finding their way into the intranet. This means that there is meaning defined or derived associated with data, so that searching for information, or the connections among people and information, can be automated and continually improved.

Semantic technologies allow different kinds of information to have a structural layering that captures information about the information that can be used to make searches or other interactions more accurate and efficient. Semantic data will also be critical in the natural language processing that follows speech recognition technologies. One of the amazing things about the new Siri capability of the iPhone 4s is not that it can recognize your speech, but that it can make so much sense out of it relative to the information it knows about.

Mobile

Mobile access to the intranet is a big driver of change and capabilities, and is interrelated with other trends as well.

Mobile access entails a number of issues. Mobile devices need to be supported, but mobility applies to the worker and her environment, not just the device. Mobile security needs to be ensured. Mobile worker policy, more of a management and governance issue than an intranet issue, will both be enforced and enabled via the intranet.

Twice as many of the winning sites in the 2011 Nielsen Norman annual had versions for  mobile devices compared to 2010. One trend is for mobile versions of an intranet to focus mobile specific features, and not be a mobile version of whole intranet . Mobile device support can also have some degree of control and specification when designed for a company-issued device. And there is a proliferation of location-aware apps, not just on mobile devices but on all platforms, that can both feed location-relevant information into the intranet, but serve up more relevant information to the end user.

There’s an App for That

One trend in computing that started with the proliferation of apps on the iPhone, moving on to the iPad, and now even to the desktop. It’s been an interesting dynamic change as what were once standalone applications such as word processors became browser-based applications, and what were once information sources such as websites became mobile apps. I think this is still shaking out, but with common development platforms afforded by technologies such as HTML5, where a common source base can be accessible via a browser or wrapped up in an app, I think you’ll still see both, depending on context. Even standalone apps that take advantage of reference or linking revert to a browser to fulfill the links.

The role of the app will be to encapsulate specific functions or content for easy access and interaction. Intranet apps will start to be more common, and not just on mobile devices.

In the Cloud

Lots of babies named “Cloud” were born this year, and not just because they’re 3rd generation flower children.  But to me “Cloud” is more than just storing a file somewhere outside of your own computer or server, and more than just serving up software from a server. The notion of cloud is access to information from wherever you are without having to think of how to address the information by location or even filename or URL. The cloud experience gets you to your information wherever it is.

Custom

Customization and personalization is not just cosmetic – it adapts the intranet to how individuals actually work and think. There may need to be common elements presented to all employees so that they can have a shared base of knowledge and experience.  Customization also presents challenges to support desks who don’t know exactly what an employee may be looking at when faced with a problem.  However, customization (as with other features) can happen explicitly and implicitly. Implicitly as usage patterns are observed, much like Facebook or Google customize views based on what it calculates as relevant to you. Customized collections of information sources or feeds make it easier for employees to have the information they need or use most where it is most conveniently accessed.  Finally, many platforms now have an ability to support user-selectable widgets and plug-ins.

Programmable

Programmability of an intranet can include lower-level APIs to the data or interface so that modifications or mashups can be created by people with both access credentials and technical capabilities or resources.

Data feeds can also be made available through RSS or other machine-consumable formats.

Finally, mashup toolkits like Zembly Yahoo Pipes make it easier for individuals to construct apps or widgets that incorporate multiple data sources.

Emergent Intelligence

The intranet is getting smarter through more capable, semantic and social software in the platform, through the experience and knowledge that accumulates through its operation, and in the experience of the groups who create, manage, maintain and use the intranet.  This results in the emergence of new collaborative capabilities in any company. There will be a real trend toward serendipitous, unexpected ideas and innovations enabled by these new smart intranets.  That’s my final prediction.

Summary

It’s easy to see in retrospect how these trends all interrelate. The challenge is to work in any of these areas while being aware of consequences and opportunities in all of them.