The Intranet is Dead! Long live the Human Centred Intranet!


I’ve been trying to dig into the Digital Workplace intranet meme a little more.

For some context, at the beginning of the year Jane McConnell noted:

I’ve tested the term “digital workplace”  at two intranet conferences recently, one in Stockholm and one in Paris, and with several of my clients. The term has had an impact on management decisions in two recent client cases.

However, McConnell also reflects on the fact that the phrase itself isn’t new and points to the use of the “digital workplace” back in 2000 and 2001. I actually found an even earlier reference, from HP back in 1997, who described its aim as:

to facilitate information sharing and to bring information closer to people

…by putting printers in offices. 🙂

I’m also reminded of Negroponte’s book, Being Digital – published in 1995. He wrote the following in a preview piece in Wired magazine about the future digital society he imagined:

I do believe that being digital is positive. It can flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people in ways beyond not knowing whether you are a dog. In fact, there is a parallel, which I failed to describe in the book, between open and closed systems and open and closed societies. In the same way that proprietary systems were the downfall of once great companies like Data General, Wang, and Prime, overly hierarchical and status-conscious societies will erode. The nation-state may go away. And the world benefits when people are able to compete with imagination rather than rank.

Taking on board some comments from Twitter about this I can fully appreciate the need to coin simple phrases that intranet managers can use to influence and get the attention of their internal sponsors. But lets be clear: the digital workplace isn’t coming, it was already here from the moment the first desktop PC clone appeared in offices. Think about the impact of the humble spreadsheet.

In another blast from the past, consider Davenport’s insightful 1994 HBR article, Saving IT’s Soul: Human-Centered Information Management. I wrote this reflection on Enterprise 2.0 and Davenport in 1997 and summarised the following from Davenport’s original article:

  • Focus on broad information types;
  • Emphasize information use and sharing;
  • Assume transience of solutions;
  • Assume multiple meanings of terms;
  • Continue until desired behaviour is achieved enterprisewide;
  • Build point-specific structures;
  • Assume compliance is gained over time through influence; and
  • Let individuals design their own information environments.

Not only does this advice still hold true today, but we finally have the tools to do it. Yet this was written over a decade and a half ago!

We could go back even further of course… Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart, etc.

Clay Shirky on the other hand first started talking about ‘social software’ in 2002.

So where does this leave the Digital Workplace? I just can’t help feeling that the intranet community – and I mean those who are currently focused on the narrow domain of publishing or communicating digital information to staff – are at a tipping point. I hope as many as possible make the right choice and engage with current perspectives, rather than holding on to the past remade.

In any case, the Human Centred Intranet doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it?

Image Credit: Flip Clock 5.05 CC NC-ND


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