May 3, 2023
In an era where building a strong online presence is critical to success, many organizations are exploring the possibility of using one community platform for both their employees and customers.
Combining internal and external communication can have significant advantages, but also potential drawbacks. We have not seen a software platform that will easily allow for two sets of rules out of the box to accommodate the unique needs of both groups.
Most every platform we have worked with does have examples of clients that do in fact use one community for both employees and clients. So be careful when you ask the software vendor that question. Just because the answer is "yes" doesn't mean you and your constituents will have a clean experience.
In this blog post, we'll explore the pros and cons of a unified platform, and discuss key factors you should consider when making your decision.
The primary reason a client wants to use one community to serve both their employees and customers is cost. However, going down the customization route could defeat the cost saving you originally intended and in some cases it simply may not be possible to apply custom code to the degree necessary to reach your goals.
By using one platform for both employees and clients, communication can be streamlined, and employees can find it easier to collaborate with clients. Centralizing communication can also reduce the need for multiple tools and platforms, leading to a more efficient and cohesive experience.
A single platform can foster a sense of community and collaboration, as employees and clients can easily share ideas and work together on projects. This can lead to improved innovation, faster problem-solving, and a better overall experience for everyone involved. That said, most companies would NOT view this easy collaboration between all employees and all clients as desirable.
By consolidating platforms, you can reduce the expenses associated with maintaining multiple software subscriptions, licenses, and support contracts. Additionally, employee training costs may be reduced, as they will only need to learn one system.
We have seen it work for small companies and nonprofits. Situations where the client base is orders of magnitude larger than the employee base is a situation where having one community can have more pros than paying for and maintaining two communities. This situation often comes up for non-profits. Many of them have a relatively small employee base, but may have tens or hundreds of thousands of members.
In these cases, the community buyer lives with some of the downsides employees will experience since that cohort is so small they likely would not embark on a separate community just for them.
However, for medium to larger organizations, after reflecting on the various issues regarding content, security, visability, notifications, etc., they tend to opt for two communities as their desired end state.
Although there are some situations where we have seen clients make one platform work, there are some challenges or downsides you need to be aware of before exploring this approach
Most organizations have different communication with their employees and clients. Although there might be some overlap, it is typically a small subset.
A major concern with combining employee and client communication is the potential risk to sensitive data. Ensuring that only the appropriate individuals have access to specific information is crucial, and you'll need to be diligent about setting and maintaining appropriate access controls.
Managing a single platform that serves both internal and external users can be complex. Balancing the needs of each group and ensuring the platform remains user-friendly and functional may require a significant amount of time and resources.
In fact, due to the different use cases of authenticated employees, and non-authenticated customers, the site can become messy, where lots of permissioning is needed, and this usually works against the expected behavior for each kind of user.
When deciding whether a unified community platform is right for your organization, consider the following factors:
The typical community owner that services employees OR clients (not both) are able to architect the environment to not have to think about security and access constantly. Some percentage of the content is safe for all to see. With a community that services both internal and external stakeholders, the content creators will always need to understand the desired audience for a collection or piece of content and apply security accordingly. This can get time consuming and mistakes can happen.
Community software companies don't typically have robust enough security regarding the user profile to accommodate the needs of employees and clients. Community platforms built for a client facing audience have more controls than a platform intended for an employee audience. An example is that we have all seen publicly used websites or apps where the user id does not identify the individual and profile data is not widely available as a default.
The issue is that for the employee user, it would seem odd that other employees are not easily identifiable. It would also seem odd that other employee profile information (email, phone, work location) is not easily discoverable. The software platforms are not built for you to have it both ways out of the box.
Smaller companies with less complex organizational structures may find it easier to manage a single platform. Larger companies, on the other hand, may require more specialized tools and communication channels to support their diverse needs.
Your industry's regulations may affect your decision. For example, companies in heavily regulated industries, like finance or healthcare, may need to maintain strict data separation between employees and clients to ensure compliance.
Assess your organization's technical capabilities and resources. Implementing and maintaining a unified platform requires ongoing support from your IT team, and you'll need to be prepared to invest in the necessary infrastructure and personnel.
We see clear benefits to having a unified platform for your employees and customers for smaller organizations, particularly for non-profits. For our larger or more sophisticated clients, we see them implementing two communities to independently serve their employees (as a company intranet) and a second community for their customers. The cost savings for a single software platform are vastly out-weighted by the additional time, costs, and risks to make one community work for these more complex clients.