Enterprise social software vendors love to emulate consumer brands: Facebook for the enterprise, Twitter for the enterprise, YouTube for the enterprise. But intranet designs or collaboration portals don't live or die by how well they emulate the look and feel of popular consumer social networking sites.
"Whether it actually looks like Facebook, Google, Amazon or whatever is somewhat irrelevant. What our users are saying works best for them is what decides [the tools and interface]," said Mark Morrell, intranet manager at BT Group, formerly British Telecom, one of the world's largest telecom operators, headquartered in London. "If you really ask people, it'll be functionality over design, but it's got to be a functional design."
Collaboration and intranet professionals say they don't aim to specifically emulate LinkedIn or try to develop Twitter or Facebook for the enterprise. Instead, many look at what makes those user interfaces so successful and determine whether some elements could be applied to their own portals to increase adoption.
"Certainly, [enterprise social software] needs to be very usable and meet the needs in that organization and fit with the culture that exists in that organization," said Morrell, who blogs about managing the BT intranet and satisfying its 140,000 users around the world. "If Facebook is what people are very connected to in an organization, then why not emulate something that is successful?"
Although enterprise social software vendors don't make any claims about emulating consumer sites, many recent releases, including Microsoft's SharePoint 2010 and Cisco Systems' Quad, provide user interfaces that bear uncanny resemblances to popular social media outlets.
But that's not a bad thing -- even if Twitter or Facebook themselves fizzle as fads and join MySpace and Friendster as ghosts of social media past, according to Zeus Kerravala, distinguished research fellow at Yankee Group.
"Companies need to understand that what they're putting in today is likely not going to be the thing we look at 20 years from now or 10 years from now -- but that's OK," he said. "That's part of the evolutionary process of technology."
Peter Richards, intranet manager at Tabcorp Holdings, a gambling and entertainment company based in Melbourne, Australia, said enterprise social software that gives a consumer-esque experience will fail if that is its only purpose.
"All users are different, and all organizations are different. There is no single solution that is perfect for everyone, and it's an intranet manager's job to get out there, learn about how your company operates, meet and observe as many users as possible, and identify what they need," Richards said. "Identifying a need and delivering functions that workers use often will do more for user adoption than simply implementing the current trend just because you can."
Tabcorp's intranet has one Web 2.0-inspired application -- a blog run by the company's managing director with user comments enabled. Richards said he is trying to determine whether it would be valuable to include more, but he remains skeptical.
"If we were to discover a workplace situation where a microblogging function like Twitter would streamline a work task or process, then we would definitely consider it," he said. "[But] at this point in time, and considering the diverse workforce within my organization, I believe that delivering an intranet that looks and works like Facebook would run the risk of isolating a large percentage of users."
Enterprise social software inspired by, not emulating, Web 2.0
The podcast platform on BT's intranet is "very similar in look and feel and in the philosophy that you've got with YouTube" in terms of its ease of use, Morrell said. The company's blog platform is built with Wordpress. His corporate wiki, BTpedia, is based on the same application that online encyclopedia behemoth Wikipedia has used, MediaWiki. It gives BT intranet users a Wikipedia-esque experience, he said.
BT's intranet now hosts 500 blogs, several hundred podcasts and about 2,500 articles on BTpedia, Morrell said. Nearly 80% of the blogs were updated at least once in the past month. Those measures of success are partly a result of employees' growing comfort with mainstream social media user interfaces, he said. A recent survey of his users revealed that 90% of employees under 25 years of age use social media; just under half of employees 50 years or older claim to do so as well.
"For wikis, people do like the format that is used for Wikipedia. They like the simplicity of [our blog application] Blog Central because it's very, very similar to the external version of Wordpress," Morrell said. "There have always been early adopters, but what we've found now is the 'normal' people are coming on and using [enterprise social software]."
When users log into the corporate portal for American Electric Power (AEP) -- an electric utility company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio -- they see a news feed with status updates and alerts about colleagues commenting on posted videos and blogs, said William Amurgis, manager of internal communications at AEP.
But what users see would not be mistaken for LinkedIn or Facebook, he said.
"As intranet managers, we owe it to our employees to keep pace with the consumer space," Amurgis said. "We're not going to have an internal iTunes for people listening to music at work, but we will look at [interfaces] and features of things people use in the consumer space and will adopt those tools that have a business context."
Amurgis expects that his team, which builds all of its applications in-house, will eventually have to support field workers who will expect to geotag and upload photos directly from their mobile devices to their personal and group intranet pages to get colleagues' input -- just as easily and with the same familiarity they have now on consumer portals.
"Even a traditional utility company will equip everyone with smartphones, and that influences our design right now," he said. "We're preparing our intranet for that saturation date."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer