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The Intranet Grows Up

From MySpace-style profiles to video blogs, check out the cool new things businesses are doing with their intranets.

It wasn't too long ago that intranets--internal company websites--were considered the redheaded stepchild of a business's technology efforts. Once reserved for HR policies and company documents, intranets took a back seat to the company's website as an underdeveloped--and rarely used--tool for employees.

But many are turning their attention back to their intranet and discovering cool new ways to engage employees. Whether it's MySpace-style profiles or video sharing, intranets have expanded from a corporate bulletin board to a social networking tool.

Intranets in Action
Interactive promotion company ePrize, based in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, expanded its intranet nearly 18 months ago to include more employee-centric features, including an area called the "Water Cooler" where employees can sell personal items, such as extra concert tickets and homes, and post announcements, such as needing a sub for the company's softball team. Employees can also log into the system each morning to order from a daily lunch menu. The $4 lunches are automatically deducted from their paycheck and delivered that afternoon.

Another new feature ePrize employees enjoy is the ability to create personal profile pages that include contact info, languages spoken, birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

"The intranet is the way we stay connected and network within our company," says Alesya Opelt, senior marketing director. "It isn't a place reserved for boring HR guidelines and document sharing. We use our intranet as a place to interact, build and document our culture, and to get to know each other beyond just an e-mail address."

Developing intranets that allow employees to interact using the same tools they're used to outside the workplace is a new trend many businesses are exploring successfully. Lois Paul & Partners, a public relations company headquartered in Woburn, Massachusetts, recently expanded its intranet from the usual company announcements, info and links to resources, by creating an "LP&P Underground" blog. The blog serves as an outlet for employees to talk about topics that interest them outside of work, such as the latest in pop culture, TV shows, music and other random topics.

"It's a nice way to take a break from the busy day to talk about something fun," says Kristin Cronin, senior account representative. "It's also a good way to get to know fellow employees a little bit better."

Cronin adds that the blog has been a great way for newer employees to engage with employees that have been with the company longer, and despite business owners' fears, it hasn't cut into productivity. "People here work hard and know when they have a few minutes to browse the latest blog posts and when they don't," she says. "Blog entries can be a quick thing that the multi-tasking Gen Yers, and even the Gen Xers, can handle with little interruption to work."

The Appeal
This attempt to reach twentysomething employees is the crux of the new "social" intranet movement. As more and more Generation Y employees enter the workplace, employers have to find new and different ways to get employees involved.

"What's happening is people are gathering in intranet chat rooms to have events people used to have in a conference room," says Richard Laermer, author of Punk Marketing and CEO of RLM PR, which helped its client Comcast be recognized as one of 2007's "10 Best Intranets" by the Nielson Norman Group. "It's a fun way to participate without having to go to a sock hop or company picnic, which is hard for people these days, who work more than they ever did," Laermer adds.

He encourages business owners to let employees share industry-related stories and video on the intranet. He refers to this as "edutainment"--the ability to blend educational material about the company and its field.

"The last thing employees want to see on the company intranet is the company handbook," he says. "Have a good time with it--put up videos and hold online chat sessions instead of meetings. Employers who set up intranets need to remember, it's not supposed to be a brochure; it's supposed to be 'intra'-active."

Dr. Gerry McCartney, CIO of Purdue University, agrees. While other CIOs are trying to discourage viewing video online, he decided that if that's how people want to communicate, then that's the medium he should use. His video blog, Vignettes, engages his staff more than any e-mail or newsletter ever could, he says.

McCartney sees the increasing use of Web 2.0 technologies as the future of the intranet. He predicts that as we move toward communicating more on mobile devices, businesses will begin delivering communication to employees via text messaging and providing access to the intranet through employees' cell phones.

Whatever stage your intranet is in, it's time to pull it out of the past and start treating it as the valuable tool it is. Whether you're connecting employees to important information or connecting them to each other, the intranet has become a powerful new way to internally strengthen your business.

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