What are digital workplace, intranet and ESN anyway? This is how I define them

Organisations assign different tasks and roles to their Intranet. Over the past few years, the addition of features that enable knowledge-intensive work and interaction have caused many of the originally mass-communication focused intranets to transform into versatile digital workplaces. Currently, there are basically two types of intranet: the communicational intranet and the digital workplace. In addition, the popularity of using enterprise social networking (ESN) software as a tool for shared learning and coordination of work is growing.

North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.

11 June 2018

Hanna P. Korhonen

Here are my definitions of some of the core terms related to present-day intranets:


The intranet is an internal online service to an organisation. It enables official internal communication and serves as a channel for distributing the employer’s policies and guidelines to the employees.

In many cases, they are the hubs of internal information, as well as starting points for internal digital work, and often includes links to other systems and databases.

Communicational intranet

The communicational intranet or traditional intranet is a type of intranet that focuses on one-way and mass communication of topical information and distribution of information generated by the employer. The communicational intranet forms the core of all intranets.

The communicational intranet has many of the same technical elements as a public website – it features dynamic content such as news and events as well as permanent content such as web pages, pictures, videos, attached documents and hyperlinks. The content is often generated and maintained by appointed personnel, and the flow of information resembles that of a mass medium. The end-users use the intranet just like they use any ordinary website – to consume information published there; they are not active contributors of information themselves.

Communicational intranets are commonly used by larger enterprises to facilitate employee engagement. The communicational intranet remains relevant to organisations employing a lot of blue-collar workers. It all boils down to costs. The licencing of platforms designed for interaction and knowledge work is usually based on the number of users. As of yet, blue-collar workers in many cases do not need the versatile digital tools for multidirectional interaction required in knowledge work, which means that purchasing such licences for them is not cost-effective. Building the intranet using a CMS saves the employer some money by offering a way to avoid licencing altogether; if there are any licence fees, they will most likely be in proportion to the size of the installation.

Practically any content management system (CMS) can be used for creating a communicational intranet – examples include WordPress, Episerver and Drupal. Most CMS‘s feature advanced multilingual capabilities, which drives the efficiency of content production for large international companies in a substantial way. Additionally, CMSs enable to build website-like visually attracting intranets that are responsive and implement the company brand strategy.

Social intranet

The social intranet can be regarded as the communicational intranet 2.0. A social intranet is an intranet where all of its users are (potentially) active communicators or contributors of information.

In a social intranet, every user has a user profile. All content and communication is linked to the user profiles. This is in contrast to the communicational intranet, where communicators remain unknown (information communicated in the manner of a mass medium).

In the social intranet, user profile pictures are prevalent – they accompany comments, likes, blog posts, forums, contact details etc.

The social intranet does enable the users to interact with one another, but it does not quite compare to the digital workplace or ESN in this respect. Typical means of interaction in social intranets include commenting, liking, shoutboxes, minipolls, blogging and profile updates.

Several of today’s CMS platforms allow for creating simple social interaction functions, such as likes.

Enterprise social networking

The enterprise social network(ing), more often than not abbreviated to ‘ESN’, is synonymous with group discussion, social interaction channel, or internal social (medium).

The ESN system enables the users to communicate and interact, share information and coordinate their work. ESN tools are utilised in particular for the everyday communication needs at offices and facilities in addition to sharing knowledge in communities of practice.

Examples of ESN systems include Microsoft Yammer, Workplace by Facebook, Slack, Google G+ and Atlassian Stride.

The enterprise social software should not be confused with instant messaging, because, unlike in instant messengers, conversations over an ESN remain stored and visible at forums or such. The user may re-read these or respond to them at a later time.

The popularity of using ESN as a method for shared learning and coordination of work is growing. An ESN solution may also be expanded to become an internal hub of dynamic information with automated notifications or feeds from other systems.

In some organisations, the internal social platform has replaced the intranet as the primary official internal communication channel. However, the ESN system does not eliminate the need to distribute certain static information within the organisation, as it rather serves as a hub for dynamic information.

Digital workplace

The term digital workplace refers to a platform or platforms which the employees of an organisation use to manage and share information and knowledge as well as communicate and work within projects, units and teams.

Generally, a digital workplace consists of the basic digital infrastructure on which knowledge workers rely to edit and distribute shared documents, coordinate their work and communicate with each other. Having these tools and storage spaces available in the cloud is becoming more common. The online digital workplace can replace some of the other basic means of communication, such as emails and file sharing via network drives.

In its most basic form, a digital workplace includes group work spaces/sites, teamwork spaces/sites, project work spaces and wikis. Group work spaces enable knowledge work and information sharing in teams, units and projects, making file sharing on network drives obsolete. Work spaces oftentimes feature other interaction functions, such as commenting and chatting.

Group work spaces may be used as a natural complement to an organisation’s intranet to function together as the core of the digital workplace. Another system platform may be used to accommodate group work spaces, alongside a communicational or social intranet. This is often the case when only a part of the personnel require a digital group working tool.

Other applications included in the existing ecosystem, such as an ESN medium, are common elements of a digital workplace.

Major digital workplace ecosystems include the Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Office 365 cloud service with its Office suite and the Google G Suite with its offering of cloud office apps. Some of the other Examples are the IBM product family, which features group working and document sharing in the Connections enterprise social software among other things, and the Atlassian product family, which includes the software Confluence, Stride and Jira.

Products such as these are rapidly moving to the cloud (although Google G Suite of course has always been a cloud-based service). These product families for the digital workplace consist of several applications, each designed to serve a particular purpose. The applications are very tool-like (in most cases client-specific tailoring merely pertains to the their appearance), usually with corresponding mobile apps.

In a broader sense, the digital workplace may include the traditional intranet and ESN, document management systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, file-sharing services, case management systems etc. and even the customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Enterprise Portal

The enterprise portal or employee portal can be considered as a special case of the intranet or the digital workplace.

The portal integrates information that is relevant to the specific user into a single view, from various systems and databases located outside of the intranet. This gives the employee a personalised interface to current affairs, tasks and required links and information.

In many examples, the user can move the portlets around to customise the view as they prefer. The portal may also be delivered as personalised for a specific user group, role or process, which enables the organisation to provide a view suited to their sales personnel, for instance. Traditional enterprise portals require an enterprise portal product, such as Liferay. Many of these represent a wet dream from the early 2000s.

Today, contemporary versions of the enterprise portal (which are not called ‘portal’ anymore), instead, can include notification feeds from the digital workplace itself and from other systems either to the user’s personal activity stream or to a group. Digital workplace products based on this feed philosophy include e.g. Intrexx, IBM Connections, and Universe. Also, add-ons can be used to import feeds from external systems e.g. to a group on ESN.

Digital workplace

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