I’ve been thinking for some time that a logical conclusion to the plethora of free (or at least cheap) social web applications will be companies simply outsourcing their intranets. Delivering a few portlets (or Open Social applications) into iGoogle or Facebook would seem to solve the problem of connecting your employees with the business, and has the additional benefit of helping employees connect with other employees. However, I was still surprised when I woke this morning to find that Serena has adopted Facebook as their intranet. The technically feasible has entered the realm of the possible.

I’ve seen a number of clients struggle with their portal strategy recently. They all have existing, isolated portals in different geographies and all the problems this implies (it’s hard to find, share and collaborate around information etc), but it’s hard to establish a clear business case for portal re-platforming/consolidation. The investment required just doesn’t appear commensurate with the benefits the project will bring. Confronted with a strategic investment (which seems to be a code word for hard to justify), most companies find it easier to shove in a federated search solution and move on to solve other, more pressing problems.

Instead of re-platforming and/or consolidating, why don’t we outsource the problem and deliver corporate functionality through something like iGoogle or Facebook? This is attractive for a few reasons, the most obvious being cost. While we might care about the content and applications we deliver into the portal, the portal itself is just a piece of infrastructure. Why own something when we can move it to a variable cost? Convert your portlets to Facebook applications, or even Open Social if you want some platform independence, and deliver them through the portal/platform where your employees already have an account. iGoogle via Google Apps for the Enterprise is an option if you want a branded solution.

A more interesting aspect is to consider the changing employer/employee relationship. In todays tight labor market we’re all rushing to find the best talent. Employees (particularly Gen Y, though I find the NEO/Traditional split more useful) are also more loyal to their network than a company, making it increasingly difficult to retain employees for more than a couple of years. This means that employers increasingly need to go to where the employees are, rather than the other way around. If you can’t bring the mountain to Mohammed then, bring Mohammed to the mountain. Most employees already have their own productive work/computing environment, so why not deliver your functionality into their personal workspace, rather than forcing them to go to an enterprise application on a company provided computer.

What this really represents is a change in perspective; taking an employee and ecosystem centric view of the world rather than a company- or asset-centric one. The days of Henry Ford and operating in splendid isolation are long gone, and companies now exist in broad ecosystems. If we want to grow as organizations then we need to focus on our role in these ecosystems, rather than focusing on creating assets to provide point solutions. Many of the simple business tasks we take for granted are changing beyond recognition while we stand in the shade debating the issues. Is it secure? Is it scalable? These questions have already been answered. Marketing people now use Facebook to a large extent because that’s where the journalists are. Now add Blog Friend as an application and the journalists immediately get copies of any friends blogs, making press releases look a bit old hat. Now figure out the impact of this on a large scale across a wide range of business problems.

Andrew McAfee asks a good question: Shouldn’t we take a good hard look at the popular and cheap platforms now available? They’re there and they work. I expect that it’s the challenge in letting go, and moving from an asset-centric view of IT to one that is based on enabling people, processes and ecosystems. This is a challenge that Serena seems to have managed to work its way through, and I expect more companies will follow. Changing how we, the IT industry, view our role in the business is hard though, and is going to take a time. I find it encouraging to see that people are already starting to make the transition.