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Oscar Berg is a senior consultant, working with strategy, business analysis, and architecture within Enterprise Collaboration. Oscar has been writing about how to use social technologies for business purposes on his blog The Content Economy since 2007, and since 2011 as contributing author for CMS Wire. Oscar is passionate about creating solutions that make work and life simpler for people. He has been a frequent speaker at various intranet conferences in the Nordic countries, and at European conferences such as the Enterprise 2.0 Summit, Social Business Forum in Milan, and Social Now in Portugal. Oscar is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 45 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Do employees really need intranets?

01.30.2013
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Do employees really need intranets? I really think this is a valid question to ask, and to answer it I will tell you a story about something completely different.

There once was a company that produced wheel chairs. It had designed a line of wheel chairs that were so good that they come to dominate the market for years. Then suddenly, when there seemed to be no company that could make better wheel chairs for a competitive price, out of nowhere came a new company that introduced a product that ended the glory days of the wheel chair company. And guess what? The new product wasn’t even a wheel chair. In fact, the new competitor had created a new category of products that served the needs of physically disabled people better than the traditional wheel chair could.

The wheel chair company suddenly found itself on a slippery slope with dropping revenue and profit, as the market for wheel chairs seemed to implode. Their new product launches didn’t really appeal to their customers, many of whom had now switched from a traditional wheel chair to the new type of product.

In a last desperate attempt to survive as a company, the wheel chair company made an attempt to enter the new product category. It was a brave attempt, but it turned out to be too late and their products didn’t really add any value compared to the other copies that now flooded the market. The company had been really good at designing and producing wheel chairs, but the new product required a completely different skillset, way of thinking and extensive collaboration with other companies.

So, when looking back – where did it all go wrong? Well, at some point the company must have confused the solution – the wheel chair – with the need they were trying to serve with their products. They had failed to understand the real need of physically disabled people. They didn’t really need a wheel chair; what they needed was to move as freely in society as possible, and for them the wheel chair was just a solution to their needs. The new company, originally coming from another industry, understood the real needs of the consumers and came up with a better solution at an affordable price.

This story is of course entirely fictional, but if you started to think about Apple (and perhaps Nokia) when reading this, I’m not surprised. Apple is an example of a company that excels at understanding the real needs of customers and coming up with innovations that help them establish market-leading products. Instead of thinking differently, like Apple, the majority of their competitors simply aim to copy Apple’s success by copying their products, adding features and improving technical specifications. They too, like the wheel chair company, confuse the product with the need.

So, what does this fictional story have to do with intranets? It has everything to do with intranets!

Employees don't need intranets!

The most important question isn’t whether or not employees need intranets, but rather what problem or need an intranet is intended to solve, and for whom? Is it the same as it was in the beginning when the first intranets were introduced, or has it changed? Is the intranet a solution that solves these needs in a good way, or are there perhaps better solutions around?

What organizations need to understand is that an intranet is a solution to one or several business problems or business needs. During the last ten years, the traditional view of what an intranet is became an institution, something that seemed to have the right to exist on its own. On the way, it got disconnected from the business problems it originally was supposed to solve. Or rather, the original business problem or challenge that intranets are used to address has changed. The main business problem that organizations are trying to solve with their intranets is no longer primarily about distributing centrally produced corporate information to employees; they are using their intranets also to support the tasks employees are performing on a daily basis, including highly complex and collaborative tasks which requires a great deal of participation, dialog, immediacy and flexibility.

So, do employees really need intranets? The answer is a distinct “No”. What employees need is solutions that help them to be productive and engaged in their daily work, helping them to achieve their goals and the purpose and objectives they share with everyone else working in the same enterprise.

The good old technology-centric silo-building days are over

We are clearly in a day and age when we cannot simply work in silos; be it organizational teams, processes or business functions. We need to work together, and we need to remove all barriers or unnecessary friction that cripple our ability to work to together. This also means that we need to think outside the box when it comes to our supporting IT systems. We have to recognize that they have all been built to serve specific needs in those silos, and that integration and the possibility to access and sharing of information across systems is often an afterthought and not one of the fundamental design principles. A way to think outside the box is to become people-focused; understanding the people, their tasks and the typical situations they find themselves in - and designing the systems to support those. In that quest we cannot be limited by tradition or clinging on to solutions that used to work; we need to understand the real needs and continuously improve on our ways of working by defining and designing innovative services and solutions.

Published at DZone with permission of Oscar Berg, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)