Fourth Generation Intranets: The dawn of a dynamic new business tool, inspired by social networking

By Nigel Danson, Odyssey Interactive Ltd |  Software, collaboration, internal communication

Today, we live and breathe the Internet. Web 2.0 means its use is active not passive; we use it for information, to garner opinion, pass comment, shop, share photos and engage with like-minded souls and much, much more. But, have business tools like intranets kept pace with this level of interactional behaviour?

The latest, Fourth Generation (4G) Intranets are being heralded as intelligent intranets. This new league of business communication allows users to actively engage from every part of an organisation – the Holy Grail from an internal communications perspective.

Communication systems in any organisation benefit from two-way dialogue and participation. Content of both online and offline systems are improved by enabling people to play a proactive role, keeping the user involved – they are the reader, the author and the editor. 4G Intranets will be able to transfer such responsibility without it being forced. Rather it is something that will simply become ‘part of the day job’.

The other major shift being seen with 4G Intranets is findability and ease of use. It is now possible for intranets to understand user habits, identify spikes in specific areas of interest and know which are the most commonly visited documents. Therefore through monitoring user behaviour, the search function, often the biggest drawback for employees of older intranets, can be significantly improved.

Encouraging social interaction between colleagues is another function which demonstrates that 4G Intranets have come of age. It makes sense that future systems should properly embrace technology developed on the web to help colleagues find desired interests or skills in the same way that they do on a Facebook or MySpace group. Flagging specific attributes, like speaking a second language, is an obvious example of the professional benefit that can be gained from personal applications.

But, probably the most valuable characteristic for any enterprise is an ability to identify information gaps. Conventional review methods require specific questions to be asked of users to reliably identify such gaps, a labour and time-intensive task. This shouldn’t be the case with the improved technology available. ‘Failed searches’ provide essential insight into what desired information people aren’t getting. By taking the search function as a data collection and reporting tool seriously, internal communicators will be able to read a constantly updated, anonymous survey of the issues at the heart of the workforce.

It’s now expected of commercial websites to play a proactive sales role where earlier versions of online stores would simply return a search with lists of requested items. Now, we see a broader range of suggestions tailored to our tastes. Intranets can use the same intelligence to make informed suggestions on content to users, driving information towards people rather than waiting for them to find it.

The technology for 4G Intranets is not new, but the way in which it is applied to the business environment will present a seismic shift in employee usage of their intranet. Imagine an intranet that isn’t a repository for procedural paperwork but a really powerful internal communications and collaboration tool.

Third Generation Intranets have been traditionally run by IT/ HR departments and focused on official handbooks, procedures, policy documents and a place to display shared documents and presentations. The role of intranets as a place to find such information means that these basic functions will remain; it is who manages them that will change. 4G Intranets will expand the ownership of content from administrators with technical expertise to everyone else in the organisation, with or without specialist knowledge.

This model of shared responsibility promotes universal ownership of the system, to the point that IT/Intranet Manager can step out of the editorial/content procedure completely, while Intranet Champions will supply organisational content in their field of expertise or responsibility. Successful intranets of the future will encourage the audience to interact with that content, making suggestions, additions and amends. Systems developed with these principles of shared ownership and two-way dialogue will become more responsive to the needs of the user.

Building trust through the quality and accuracy of information.

By giving users the ability to rate content according to its quality, flag inaccuracies and profile documents according to the search terms that produce the best results, modern intranets will make documents available where they are most likely to be found. Think of it as a constantly evolving system that adjusts to the behaviour of its user, one that will actively reduce the amount of wasted time and retain faith in the system as a reliable and efficient business tool.

Traditionally, duplicated documents are often listed without a paper trail to help identify which version is the most up-to-date. Users are unlikely to take the time to review these documents to find the most recent version, meaning documents are subject to scrutiny at management level or not at all. An intranet should demonstrate its value by easing this responsibility from all levels of personnel. They should be able to offer simple solutions to help both authors and users date check documents and make it easy to take action whenever redundant information is found.

Leading websites such as Amazon use anonymous data collection technology to look at what users are browsing and buying; their purchase decisions, product searches and movement around the website adds to the site’s store of anonymously gathered intelligence. This in turn develops insight into a user’s preferences. It outputs this intelligence in peer-rated product suggestions. It is this same technology, applied to an internal audience, which will enable modern intranets to effectively ‘push’ the most current, useful and important content on behalf of internal communicators.

It stands to reason that the information that is well read will also be popular with like-minded colleagues. 4G Intranets can improve searches by developing a knowledge bank of popular searches and documents, mimicking commercial websites by creating keyword “clouds” or a “best link” facility like those used to great effect on the BBC News website. After all, why would anyone expect to search for today’s top news story? It’s so important it should be staring you in the face. Second guessing users on their likely searches will help to save on man hours by delivering results quicker.

By monitoring popular search terms and documents, administrators will also be alerted to trends indicating what issues are of the greatest significance to those around them. For HR Managers, a higher than average search for ‘bullying’ or ‘counselling’ would give valuable insight into problems or opportunities arising on the shop floor.

Without feedback from users, intranet administrators remain unaware that valuable information is simply missing from the system, or that a ‘black hole’ exists. Second and
third generation systems usually accept infinite searches yielding no results but never report to managers that a significant number of people, or specific sector of the business, had searched for information that simply isn’t there. In this situation staff are unlikely to take the time to address the knowledge gaps themselves via offline discussion; instead they are more likely to ignore the intranet in future.

If developers learn lessons from popular commercial search engines, which log user activity, their intranets can effectively play the eyes and ears of an organisation by reporting on demands for information.

Drawing an active audience through dynamic content and personalisation.

Good websites and social networking sites have been made more engaging with the use of rich media applications, delivering information in formats that are more ‘human’ than the written word. 4G Intranets can give content providers the same flexibility. Videos, discussion forums and interactive event calendars are now amongst the tools internal communicators should be using to deliver their messages. Formal meetings to cascade company policy or conduct training sessions can become the second choice to delivering the same content via video direct to a colleague’s desktop. Such tools can not only save time but also transcend geographical boundaries where colleagues work from different locations.

As it effortlessly bridges such divides, intranets can also be valuable tools for the facilitation of joint projects. As a virtual workspace, the system can help people to work together when they are seldom likely to meet. This could be due to conflicting shift patterns for example. 4G Intranets will offer an area with shared access where people can work on the same document, leave messages for each other, record and store work.

New intranet systems can also play a vital role as a social space, where commercial and personal interests sit side by side. Personal profiles offer a way in which colleagues can get to know one another. Informal spaces in which people are able to interact are integral to the success of 4G Intranets, not only to get people talking but as a vital ‘pull’ factor, drawing people towards the intranet more often to catch up with each other and company information at the same time. Light hearted applications like games can be combined with more formal company information that sits alongside competitions, blogs and polls. These features can create the enthusiasm which draws greater numbers of willing users, to the point that there could easily be 80% or 90% of the workforce using it on a regular basis.

As well as encouraging a sense of belonging, this means in practical terms, it is easier for new staff to integrate when joining a business as they can see who their colleagues are, what position they hold and what expertise they bring to the organisation. If you find you have a spare ticket for a sporting event it would be easy to search personal profiles on the intranet to find someone who might want to take it off your hands. 4G Intranets will help facilitate such connections.

Merging companies and grouped organisations will be able to benefit from systems that encourage staff to get to know each other online and break down barriers, share experiences and promote the common ground which brings employees together on both a personal and professional footing.

Now the intelligent web tools commonplace on the web are in the hands of the internal communicator.

The success of websites that respond to a customer’s preferences and the enthusiasm for social networking websites is based on ease of use, quality of content, two-way dialogue and mass participation. Providing all of these elements on an intranet and combining them with traditional elements needn’t put additional stress on the time of system administrators. In fact, the opposite is true.

A 4G Intranet system, which responds to the demands of its users, can recover time that is often lost by searching older networks for documents and other resources. The efficiency saving, based on saving 5 minutes search time every day per employee, would be roughly 1% overall. For an organisation of 100 or more that’s 1 person’s time better employed elsewhere. The time gained not only equates to a direct saving on costs but also encourages improvements in productivity with time saved on administering internal procedures.

Investment in 4G Intranets makes commercial use of Web 2.0 technology an efficient, forward-thinking way of managing internal communications.

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Nigel Danson is Managing Director of Odyssey Interactive.

Formed in 1996, Odyssey is one of the UK’s longest established internet companies with specialist knowledge in intranet technology. With 8 years consultancy experience in implementing successful intranets Nigel has overseen development of Interact 4.0, the world’s first Fourth Generation Intranet. The development of a new generation of intranet, using Web 2.0 technologies, enables Odyssey to offer new solutions to improve collaboration and communication. Clients benefiting from Odyssey’s help to build and launch their intranet systems include ADT, Hoyer, Calor and Chelsea Football Club.

To find out more about Interact 4.0, download the brochure or book a demo please visit: http://www.interact-intranet.co.uk

Odyssey Interactive Ltd
5th Floor
Station House
Stamford New Road
Altrincham
Cheshire
United Kingdom
WA14 1EP T: +44 (0)161 927 3222

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