The chasm of internal communications tools

There is a chasm, I think, of internal communications tools.

The spectrum goes like this:

  1. Telephone: is immediate and pressing. I’ve heard the advice many times to get things done — pick up the phone.
  2. Email: is not quite immediate but still fairly serious. If I send out an email, the larger the group the more I feel it should be pretty important to steal their time.
  3. Chat (e.g. Slack): is real time but much less formal. At the end of the day because people are freer to share I can hardly keep up with the avalanche of content. Younger (possibly tech) workers prefer the medium sometimes not even bothering to check email/calendar events.

Then there are project tools that are all about work — they are not really communications tools because they are structured for working purposes. And of course there is calendar to schedule catchups when all of these fail.

As a product practitioner — I often need to dialog with the broader sales and marketing org about various queries but I don’t want to put in an email or schedule a call because it does not clear the importance barrier. It’s more of an “if you are interested and have an opinion” thing versus “I need you to way in on this.”

That is where “intranets” come in. At most companies I’ve worked with, I’ve championed the need to fill the void with a middle-ground that is more “feed-like.” With feeds, content often is self filtering to the level of “does this warrant a post?” however flies in under that boundary of “this isn’t important enough to email the whole company about.” Co-workers can check in and skim feeds whenever they desire and drill into the category of content they want. It’s a great medium.

As I’ve chatted with various orgs about this concept — sometimes I sense a hesitancy due to how open the medium is and that it may become petty or a time sink like Facebook. The truth is that if people want to waste time on activities like Facebook — they are going to do so. I believe hesitancies like this reveal a deficiency — perhaps the company is not clear enough on it’s goals or is not doing a good job providing the team motivation and accountability.

If there is a problem in the org a feed may provide a platform for this but I think that openness in communication far outshines this potential risk. Rather business leaders could use it as an opportunity to influence conversations they may not have been able to do so before. Those conversations are happening anyway so putting them in a domain where they can be moderated is good.

The requirements

When it comes to “feed type intranets” there are numerous options. Firstly I’ve taken the time to think about what I think is important in these tools and secondly I’ve audited the top dozen players in this space do you don’t have to.

Must haves
  1. Pricing — low price per seat given it’s just a comms tool but not free to avoid alternate monetisation.
  2. Clean base design — clear and uncluttered. It’s surprising how many players in this space don’t actually have a good base design.
  3. Login via Google — whether it’s Google or some other auth, single sign on is key when you want people to actually use the tool. Another password will totally kill it.
  4. Posts — this is a given. Native support for text, images, video embeds, file attachments.
  5. Comments — this is another given. It’s about starting open conversations.
  6. Profile photos — make it seem more personal. A side aspect of this tool is that it could become a director of sorts and also support in/out of office.
  7. Remove clutter / turn off unneeded features — this stood out to me after reviewing the options. So many were cluttered with things like calendaring that most would never use because they “do that somewhere else.”
  8. Custom apps — so many companies are going to want to tie in some custom system. E.g. the ability to automatically post status graphs etc.
Should haves
  1. Advanced content — Support for Google docs or polls
  2. Email to create post / Slack to create post — The ability to easily pipe in a post when you’re not logged in.
  3. Tags — the ability to tag posts which can then be used to view a feed on only content in that topic.
  4. Filter — Good feed filtering on tag, person, search etc.
Could haves
  1. Self hosted — I think cloud based is fine but I’ve included this as some of the players are one or the other and I wanted to capture that.
  2. Customise templates — It’s great to start with a clean base design and to turn off features you don’t use but ultimately companies are going to want to customise this to give it their look. This should be limited however to prevent uber-ugliness.
  3. Email digest — A nice to have is to get email digests on tags or groups you want to follow.
  4. Votes / Likes — This can be really helpful when a feed becomes an idea-board with the need to “up-vote” certain items.

Here are the players I looked at.

  • Yammer — I’ve used this tool before. They were one of the early-comers to the market. I was concerned though because their link to the app directory was broken and it made me wonder if the owners view the tool as EOL and have forgotten about it?
  • Workplace by Facebook — I tried it out. I was turned off by how you couldn’t turn some of the cliche Facebook stuff off and how it looked Facebooky. Full comparison below.
  • Social Go —The design was a little messy. No google login and no apps.
  • Jive — Looks a little pricey and harkening to project management?
  • Jostle — Because it’s not on the comparison list I’ll put it here, I noticed they integrate with the Bonusly internal incentive system which is interesting as I’ve seen that used well before. If a company is using Google cloud a lot — this seems to be the intranet most compatible with that.
  • Social Engine — Self-hosted. Seem to be an older player. ‘Joomla-esque’
  • Ning — A bit more general “build your own social network” type deal. Less of a targeted intranet solution but they came up because I know they have some of the capabilities on my list.
  • Opensource Social Network — Reminded me of the “rawness” of the likes of Joomla.
  • Elgg
  • HunchBuzz
  • HumHub
  • Honey

You may be able to tell from the title graphic that I have to stop and say “Slack why are you not on this list?” I wonder if I’ve missed something where they’ve said they will or definitely will never address this space but it seems like a logical move. I don’t think their ‘digest’ feature works though.

There you go. If the above data isn’t displaying right, try this link. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about which is best for you. Every org has different requirements and you can use my evaluation matrix as a base. Instead of MOSCOW rating you could fold in numeric scoring on the requirements and use that to score each of the solutions.

If any of the above data is incorrect, let me know and I’ll update. If you’ve implemented one of these tools and this content helped you — let me know in the comments!