Intranets in the New Realm of Digital Working
These are some early thoughts about what intranets will look and be like in the future. The article also offers an alternative to the metaphor of intranets sitting within the “digital workplace””. Elsewhere I have suggested that the metaphor of “place” is rather juvenile, superficial and limiting. The digital is more of a realm – multi-dimensional, that plays into the physical but also transcends it. Digital working is always physical, though its direct relationship to the human physical experience, varies, especially as digital working and information processing becomes more detached from real-time human stewardship (The machines are beginning to talk to themselves and each other).
I’ve seen a lot of intranets in recent years. As creator and co-host of online broadcasts such as IBF Live (Now Digital Workplace Live), as well as facilitator of interactive gatherings of intranet leaders and managers from all over the world, I’ve helped those leaders and managers share knowledge and experience.
Most intranet home pages still look like the front page of a glossy magazine. Others bear resemblance to a CNN or Bloomberg news bulletin. One of two are different, drawing from the home screen of a smart phone or tablet, and one we saw was just a search box in the middle of the portal page (Guess who…)
In nearly all cases what we still have are the tired old metaphors of screens being digital renditions of (often the worst aspects) of physical work places – more or less cluttered desk tops, in-trays and out-trays, and lots and lots and lots and lots of contents pages, headlines and indexes.
Intranet usability has been all about helping people navigate through clutter to find or get to what they want to find out or get done as quickly and easily as possible. Many intranets are more or less managed as wild gardens of content, with intranet teams using governance to weed those gardens and “platforms” to landscape them. And one person’s flower or herb, is another person’s weed. One person’s supportive structure is felt by another as weighing them down.
The digital realm is changing what can be possible in the world of work. The failure of imagination in the world of intranets has largely left intranet design back in the Dark Ages. On, off. In, out. Click, search, logout.
What you are about to read are the first, tentative steps of imagination into the new realm of digital working, and what intranets could, and perhaps should look and feel like. I take permission to be vague with terminology, and to engage in a few leaps of imagination in order to allow imagination to flow more freely. Imagination, as Einstein reminded us, can be more important than knowledge. But I do promise, this subjective early look, is based on years of conversations, observation and practical reflection in the field of intranets and digital working.
At times, I’m going to be pretty lyrical and even poetic.
Let’s start with…
The Empty Space
Google’s intranet, Moma, gets a tiny bit close to what I am going to envisage here. The starting point for the intranet in the new realm of digital working is going to be much more emergent and “open”. The default will be to the “empty space of possibility” not the preloaded page of delivered content. The intranet will be an intelligent “entity” that defaults to a state of readiness, is able to respond improvisationally, learn inductively, and make use of fuzzy logic.
New intranets will constantly be forming and creating stories and narratives that are useful for getting things done in the organisation, especially in organisations experiencing increasing rates of change, and more dynamic external environments. Intranets will need to serve businesses and organisations that are attempting to improve their real-time awareness and responsiveness – conscious businesses.
Story databases will feed fuzzy logical decisions that will allow the intranet to smartly guess what response is needed for a user’s current “24-hour story day”. Content will be much more thinking-driven and more akin to wet paint or clay than etched words on paper or stone. Permanence will simply be the result of repeated transitional states, The intranet will be entirely responsive, flexible, malleable, morphing around the emerging needs of the present moment and the “becoming-known” future. The intranet will match,and even help to drive the agility of the organisation.
Intranets will become utterly responsive entities, and response will be largely invoked by human “users” or intelligent digital entities (Ab-human and artificially intelligent “scripts”, bots, and digital “beings”, not all by any means modelled on the clumsy form of the space-time-limited human being).Response will become more important than delivery.
Intranets will default to white space, to “open space”; their default mode will be “ready and waiting”.
Response will be invoked by typed, gestured and spoken commands, questions, inquiries, and requests. Response will also be invoked by the digital entity’s own pro-action and reaction in its own semantic context.
It will process aspects of the “bigger picture” both in the realm of digital working and in its data-information-knowledge picture of the physical world. This will become even more prevalent as both the internet and intranet of “things” develops and deploys. We will become less immersed in the digital, yet the digital will become ever more immersed in the physical.
In the realm of digital working, intelligent response will be based on semantic ‘back stage’ operations. Our blank screen will leap into life based on our “input”, our willed impulses and the intranets improvising and ongoing “suggestions” for us. Intranets will dialogue with us.
We will set the level of immersion in our lives as defined by individuals or organisations. The intranet will suggest meetings for us – times, places, people, even agendas. Yet it may also arrange these things for us, without regular transactions with us. We’ll decide how much it “does for us”. Often it will model ideal or best practice.
In institutions such as prisons, the digital entities may well “run things” (based on our scripts), with only occasional direction from humans. In a design office, it may well be we who determine what occupies the white space on the screen. Personalisation will be on a continuum and the content construct will run from “personalised FOR us” to “personalised BY us”.
So, t the starting point of the new intranet will be the empty space. Content and process will emerge for us each working day. We might invoke the news page, the desktop, or we might invoke the search process, or even the virtual community conversation. The physical desk itself my be empty, non-existent, or located in more than one place, and a simple, command will “invoke” the needed or desired appearance of the screen.
Intranets will often operate in one of two archetypal modes: response or priority offer
1. In response mode, the intranet demonstrates readiness to respond to self-defined priority
2. In priority offer mode, the intranet offers real-time personalised priority
In many cases there may no longer be a desktop (unless invoked) or a home screen that looks like a front page of a newspaper or magazine (unless invoked)
There will new home screens, which will form “Out of” the individual beholding and using the intranet.
Any default content or process will be smart, not a bad, clumsy guess. Personalisation won’t be derived from personas, but from my individuality, my unique organisational “footprint”. This will be enabled through inductive machine learning. My intranet experience begins at a state of “not known” and a prime purpose of the intranet is to research my unfolding story, and tailor content and process to it, adapted and finessed in realm time. It will seek repeating patterns and needs and form relatively more permanent structures to create continuity of user experience. But, in the background, any repetition and continuity is still emergent and transitory in terms of underlying logic.
Intranets will exist in playful states. Play involves experiment and adjustment. The intranets will attempt to reflect us back to ourselves in ways that help us to be productive and effective at work. In many cases, We will be the input from the intranet, not the input into it.
And if you thought that all sounded weird…
So, intranets in the digital realm of work will be immersed constantly in a human-invoked and inspired inner conversation to offer regular digitally intuited help back into the physical world of work, and laterally, into other functionality in the digital realm itself. Sometimes content or functionality will simply connect up, seek synergy and enhance. But more will happen. Temporal limitations will be transcended as “scripts” (digital entities) become able to exist and process the same questions, tasks and data, simultaneously along the whole time line, time-travelling into historical data processes and “events” (replaying them in the present), linking future scenarios to past events, and informing present decision-making. Digital entities will be able to exist in more than one physical place at once (Our digitally driven taxi may be driven by processing taking place on the other side of the world, our medical operation may be being robotically controlled by a recorded procedure from ten years early, and delivered via undersea cable, or even via quantum processing),
In the new real of digital working, intranets will contain digital entities that are created and self-create which can refine and evolve themselves to improve intuited functionality. “Apps” will more and more become flexible building blocks that link up, mutually transform and enhance. Early indications of this are with intelligent calendars, computer-integrated manufacture, and digital applications of human biology.
I envisage two new, underlining processes
Evocation – the ability for the user to invoke digitally rendered
physical states e.g a news page or a virtual desktop
Invocation – the ability of the user to invoke self-decided functionality
Intranets will be ultra-responsive, supporting and enabling both evocation and invocation. They will sometimes be experienced as akin to a new form of magic.
Intranets will become more about connecting digital processes and “entities”, as well as connecting up human beings across space. I may well be able to meet myself or my hero digitally and seek help with a decision in the now (reminiscent of the Star Trek Holographic Doctor or Doctor Moriarty). In the nearer future, intranets will bundle content more intelligently together. We’ll arrive at physical or virtual meetings with resource “Pictures” intelligently formed, portfolios of messages, reports and conversations summarised, distilled and automatically appropriately presented. Meetings will be convened, not be subjective mood but by intelligent inductive decision-making in the digital realm. We’ll go to the right meeting with the right people, just as the digital realm may well correctly guess and order what book we want to read next (already in place on Amazon.com).
Metaphors come to mind here: butler, valet, personal trainer, nanny, guide, god.
What will keep up safe?
There may be some underlying principles, which were imagined by the science fiction writers of the fifties and sixties, such as Isaac Asimov.
As intranets and the internet become embodied in physical things (from watches to beds, from implants to glasses), we may have to set behavioural limits for the new digital realm of working and living. We are already having to meet new challenges of human death (with my digital “afterlife” needing to be managed). As drones deliver products right to our door, we’ll have to keep ourselves safe from burglary, attack and accident. The digital assassin has been prefigured for years.
We may imagine some underlying “fundamental laws” for intranets in the digital realm:
– non harm to human life
– sustainability of natural resources
– conscious business
– service to the human realm
Currently, the ultimate right of removal, reversal and adjustment of content rests with the user, though this is already a controversial area, as it becomes almost impossible to fully remove content from social media spaces. By losing the human right to delete, we will transform, even at the level of our brains, as we lose the right and ability to choose to forget.
Yet it can become useful and beautiful
The blank page, set as an empty space, shimmering with readiness to response. We invoke the screen (physical or projected). Our gestures guide the respond of an intranet that improvises flexibly in realm time, and also implements content and process decided by the organisation’s governance and decision-making, and its own proactive “pre-loading” of our day with an intelligent and even wise offering or task, content and function. The screens create a helpful response to us getting things done in ways that we, and the organisation would call “satisfying”.
We set intentions, the intranet supports by linking us with whatever we need to meet the intention with satisfied action. It learns from those actions, refines and enhances into the future. The intranet dialogues within itself and with other humans, seeking productive connection. The intranet helps us find in ways that are lean. It engages in “Goethean dialogue” internally, and with us, at the human-digital interface. The intranet listens actively, and responds with only the essential that is needed. It learns how to manage and not fill silence and space. Content is constantly reduced to only what is needed. Databases become defined by “foreground” and “background” content, immediate need and potential need. Intranets self-garden, and the home screen feels uncluttered (unless we creatively, conscious choose clutter).
Intranets could still be used as tools for manipulation and control. This will be down to the ethics of the humans who lead them. (Nothing new there). That choice is up to all of us. But the potential is there for intranets to form the heart of the realm of digital working, as responsive, helpful, resource-wise, evolving processes that help businesses, organisations, groups and individuals to behave consciously, and be more successful as a result.
Intranets represent the internal communication realm of many organisations. As the firewall has become de-imagined, they have crossed more into the ecosystem (digital and physical) of which the organisation forms a part.
Yet, most consciously managed businesses and public organisations locate their identities in an internally defined purpose. Some organisation will find that purpose increasingly defined and influenced by other organisation, processes and communities external to it (For example, many digital businesses, are really temporary project structures that overlap and interact in the creation of a product such as a film or a game.)
Holding organisations based around brand and financial goals still strongly exist and probably will into the future. But where there is work to be done, around a fairly time-resilient product or set of products and services, organisations will remain as legal forms that dialogue and interact, sense-make and mutually commit internally. Here, the internal dialogue will be embodied by that internal network – the intranet.
But intranet are going to change beyond anything most people can, or are imagining. Intranets could well help to create more conscious businesses. Here they come…