Digital Workplace: Useful Term or Confusing Jargon?

Intranet vs digital workplace

Everyone knows what an intranet is: a website that’s internal to an organization and helps workers be more productive.  But though well-understood, the term “intranet” isn’t exactly sexy. A little shopworn, it sounds slightly out-of-date to some ears. In light of the evolving nature of how people work and what today’s intranets actually contain, is it time to come up with a new, flashier and more accurate word to describe an organization’s collection of internal tools available to workers via the web?

For those who say yes, the favored replacement is “digital workplace.” It’s actually not a new term, but in intranet circles it’s growing in popularity as a useful idea that encompasses all of a company’s work-enhancing apps and info that web workers can access through their browsers.

But not everyone is happy to jump on the digital workplace bandwagon. Intranet expert Chris McGrath, for one, recently took to his ThoughtFarmer blog to argue that not only is the switch to digital workplace unnecessary, the term is so vague as to be nearly useless:

Over the past couple of years, as intranets have become more collaborative, folks have argued over the term “intranet.” Should we keep it? Is it a dated term? Do we need a new word to describe this evolved “thing” the intranet has become?

The answer (my answer?): No, we don’t. When “web 2.0″ came onto the scene we didn’t stop calling the internet “the internet.” Why? Because it’s still accurate. The internet is still a web between many networks. It’s the stuff we do on websites that’s evolved. Similarly, the stuff employees can do on intranets has evolved. But intranets are still internal websites that help employees get stuff done.

Some intranet people are interested in rebranding intranets as the “Digital Workplace”. But there’s no reason to do that — it takes a term that is understood (“intranet”) and replaces it with something so broad and generic as to render it meaningless….

Intranets are concrete. An intranet is a place. You can go there and when you get there you know you’ve arrived. An intranet can be social or not and can include lots of different integrated applications. But it’s still a place (as much as something on the web can be a place). When you show new employees the intranet they know it’s the intranet and they know how to get there.

McGrath argues against the nebulous quality of “digital workspace,” complaining about the fact that the term erodes the clear and comforting notion that work gets done in a specific place (though in this case a virtual space rather than a cube) and may confuse users. Others are likely to point to that same boundary-dissolving quality as one of the chief advantages of the new term — it keeps up with the reality that work is increasingly about what you do, not where you do it. Still other experts, like BT’s intranet guy Richard Dennison, are splitting the difference and wondering whether intranets will survive as a piece of a larger digital workplace.

Which take on the digital workspace debate do you find most compelling?

Image courtesy Flickr user Johan Brook

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