They’ve evolved from Teletext-style pages of links to become highly sophisticated, integrated digital workplace solutions. But at its most fundamental level what, exactly, is an intranet?
An intranet is a private enterprise network, designed to support an organization’s employees to communicate, collaborate and perform their roles. It serves a broad range of purposes and uses, but at its core, a business intranet is there to help employees.
Intranet software may mean different things to different organizations, and even the unique teams and individuals within them, depending on that company’s objectives, sector, and structure. This means that sometimes, there can be confusion about what even constitutes an intranet.
Is it a website? An internal communications platform? A collaboration tool? Is it the same thing as an enterprise social network?
In this blog, we set out to provide an intranet definition that will answer these questions – and provide a top-level explanation of what an intranet means in the modern-day digital workplace.
Intranets: a history
Intranets have come a long way since first creeping onto the digital scene back in the 1990s. To understand the role they play today, it helps to look back at the earliest versions and see how they’ve evolved.
1990s: The World Wide Web explodes into wide commercial use. This period also makes the earliest appearance of the intranet, traditionally as a singular welcome page with essential, basic company information. Flat, text-heavy with the traditional blue hyperlinks, they served to deliver basic company communications before developing to a clunky document management system (DMS) by the mid-late 1990s.
(Princeton University’s earliest intranet, dating back to 1996, embodies the look and feel of the simple, flat and rather dry versions of the first intranets. They feature this screenshot in a blog discussing the re-design of their website.)
2000s: Technology was developing, and the intranets followed suit. Help desk features were introduced, enabling users to perform transactional processes such as finding colleagues on the employee directory, performing basic HR functions such as booking absences or searching for information.
Platforms began to integrate the company brand and identity with content and applications designed to support employees in their day-to-day roles. While still heavily weighted as a company information tool, company intranets could deploy better search features, allowing employees to access the information they needed quickly and effectively.
2010s: Entering the public domain is the phenomenon that became social media. Recognizing the value of these tools, many intranets began to follow suit and integrate basic social functions including limited blogging tools, wikis and discussion forums. Now, the business intranet was no longer about one-way communication from the top down: it was a place for conversations.
Intranets also swept up developments in document management, offering better access to centralized information. Communities began to appear, as early forms of collaboration emerged. Forms also saw improvements, meaning intranets could serve a cross-functional role in business: helping employees to self-serve and making some basic, common workflows more efficient.
Recent years: Sweeping up developments in social media, business intranets now give precedence to user profiles and incorporate an array of social features, such as @mentioning, #tagging, microblogging or commenting. Activity streams provide real-time insights and information, while increasingly sophisticated algorithms and data analytics allow for greater personalization, pushing recommended content to users.
User experience is given greater focus and investment, with developments in design, accessibility, performance and user journeys. Integration functionality is now common, with intranets designed to work in partnership with other applications.
Intranets, as we know and recognize them today, are far removed from the earliest versions in the corporate market and show great flexibility to evolve and change with wider technological trends.
What are enterprise intranets used for?
As we’ve explored in the history, internal communication platforms can now embody a vast range of features and functionality, allowing them to serve a huge variety of purposes.
What a specific intranet is used for will be dictated by the individual organization and its objectives, experiences, and culture. However, the most common uses of intranet software will include:
- Accessing information: with a content management system (CMS) and frequently integrated with an organization’s document management system (DMS), intranets can be used to centrally host and access documents, policies, and information employees require to perform their roles.
- Connecting people: globalized organizations and those with employees working remotely, on the frontline or across a range of office locations face challenges connecting their staff. A company’s intranet helps colleagues find one another, connect, and communicate: building a virtual culture.
- Employee lifecycle management: with the ability to present tailored information and homepages alongside permissions management, HR functions can effectively preboard and onboard new employees, delivering an exceptional employee experience to address the 40% turnover rate within the first month seen by many organizations (Equifax Workforce Solutions).
- Knowledge management: alongside formal information and documents, organizations typically hold vast levels of knowledge amongst their employees. Through forums, discussion areas, idea boards, and team areas, employees can ask questions or tap into the knowledge of their peers – and best of all, that knowledge is captured and retained by the business on a searchable platform, even after that individual leaves the organization.
- Completing tasks or workflows: combining forms or transactional applications with hosted information, business intranets enable employees to self-serve and complete common processes- such as booking a leave of absence, submitting expenses, or undertaking internal training.
- Internal communications: through social and communication tools such as blogs, wikis, forums, and discussions, an intranet can be used to facilitate effective two-way internal communications between management and staff.
- Measuring and improving employee engagement: it’s known to have a critical impact on business performance, yet presents one of the greatest challenges for business leaders. With the introduction of integrated pulse surveying tools to measure the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) or simply through empowering staff with a voice through forums, blogs, social tools and more, organizations can tap into employee sentiment, benchmark, and address concerns.
- Supporting strategic business objectives: intranets can play an active role in support high-level business objectives such as building, embedding and communicating a common culture, improving employee engagement or improving staff retention rates.
This list is far from extensive: but when considering an intranet project, these are typical objectives that make it onto the intranet business case. Fundamentally, a business intranet is designed to be the ‘go-to’ and trusted area of a business for employees.
Popular features of the modern-day intranet
How do intranets achieve these objectives?
The features and functionality of intranets vary according to provider or build. However, in recent years there has been a distinct shift in priorities for enterprise collaboration platforms to move from clunky, text-heavy document management systems, such as in-house built SharePoint intranet solutions, to centralized gateways to the digital workplace and facilitators of the digital employee experience.
Here, we explore the associated features of the modern-day intranet that have seen increased popularity in recent years.
Communication tools, with social built-in
The rise of social media has transformed the way we connect and communicate in our personal lives. Now, it is also playing an increasingly vital role in enterprise communication.
Where intranets historically were seen as a means for top-down communication from management to employees, there is now a surge of development in two-way, instantaneous forms of communication. Common features under this category include:
- User profiles attached to the company directory, often with connectivity to, or integration with, external profile sources such as Active Directory or Azure Directory, or LinkedIn and Twitter
- Blogs and content areas
- Forums, discussion areas, and question banks which offer an intuitive and informal basis for collaboration and ideation between employees
- Communities dedicated to specific departments, projects or even common interests, where grouped individuals can meet ‘virtually’ to share ideas, ask questions, or simply communicate with one another
- Microblogging and instant messaging: through use of newsfeeds or integration with enterprise messaging tools (such as Skype, or Yammer)
- Social interaction features such as the ability to Follow users or @mention people and content, alongside Liking, Sharing, #tagging or Commenting
Mobile and accessibility
We group together two trends here which reflect the shift towards an ‘always on’ culture, both in our personal and professional lives.
While historically fears around privacy and data protection saw many enterprises nervous about making corporate systems readily available for employees off work premises, we now appreciate – more than ever – the need to provide ease of access for staff, at a time and in a way that matches their own preferences and way of working.
Usage data from Interact’s State of the Digital Workplace research shows that 23% of user activity occurs outside of core business hours. Failing to provide the flexibility of access for users stands in the way of a truly collaborative culture.
Alongside this, remote working and globalization have increased dramatically. Offering restricted access to systems from a single location is no longer an option. As a result, we’ve seen the growth of intranet solutions that offer:
- Mobile app versions, for quick and easier access on-the-go and the ability to ‘push’ information to employees, regardless of location
- Responsive intranet sites for accessibility across multiple mobile devices
- Comprehensive security features and testing for complete peace of mind, covering everything from data encryption to compliance certification, penetration testing and more
- Integration with cloud-based systems, including cloud storage, Office 365, and SharePoint for efficient document access and management
When considering an intranet solution, it is important to consider the ways in which people within your organization work, and ensure that your intranet can serve them effectively.
Integration and connectivity
The enterprise software market has undergone tremendous growth over the last decade. Where once the Microsoft Office suite formed the beginning and end of the business technology stack, we now have a tool or application for every niche task, department or role possible.
While this has been a positive development in many ways, it has also come at a cost.
Completing work across multiple systems that don’t talk to one another can result in a duplication of effort, information becoming lost or outdated, and ultimately results in poor employee – and customer – experiences.
In addition, multiple applications requiring different logins and passwords can make for a clumsy and time-consuming digital experience – impacting the ability for employees to work efficiently.
76% of network intrusions exploit weak or stolen passwords. Configuring your intranet as an identity provider and integrating with your other business systems with Outbound Single Sign-on (SSO) allows employees to choose one, secure password for all their business needs, reducing vulnerability.
An intranet in the modern-day workplace, therefore, must work seamlessly within and alongside existing and future business tools and applications – rather than operating as an isolated and closed platform.
For this reason, the most successful intranet platforms are those that include a public API or third-party integrations, allowing that organization to connect seamlessly with other applications and platforms.
What is the perfect blend?
Features and functions of intranets can be loosely grouped into one of four purposes:
- Business Processes
The ‘ideal’ intranet will embody a blend of these four, tailored to both the organization and its requirements, and the individual employee. The process of defining what this looks like falls into your intranet strategy, and will often benefit from specialist support from your chosen partner or a third-party expert.
In the commercial world, we are increasingly accustomed to receiving information that is tailored to our preferences, experiences and previous interactions. The most successful intranets, therefore, are those that are able to personalize the information pushed to each user, using built-in intelligence and usage data to push relevant and timely content.
A word about intranets vs. extranets vs. intranet portals
When researching ‘what is an intranet’, you may run into several different terms or variations. Some of the most popular include extranets and portals, which are often used interchangeably – causing confusion.
We explore fully the difference between intranets, extranets and intranet portals in our previous blog post, but for a quick recap:
- Extranets permit controlled access to authorized external users to a company intranet. For example, your organization may choose to allow selective access to certain vendors, partners, suppliers or even customers to your company intranet, to facilitate certain business processes such as inventory management.
- Intranet portals act as a gateway or centralized ‘doorway’ to other sites or applications within the business. For example, users can log into the company intranet and from there, gain seamless access to the company HR or payroll systems.
As we explore in the previous post, many market-leading intranet solutions now offer these different forms of functionality as standard. While these may have historically been distinct applications, the flexibility and capacity of modern-day intranets are now increasingly making these definitions redundant. In effect, they are now all one and the same.
What are the benefits of intranets?
As we’ve already explored, an intranet can wear many hats within an organization and serve a broad range of communities, departments and objectives. The benefits, therefore, are just as broad – and probably too extensive for us to do justice here.
However, when researching intranets you will come across some commonly cited benefits that organizations report following the implementation of a successful intranet project, including:
- Improved communication
- Increased productivity
- Higher levels of employee engagement, with a subsequent decrease in staff turnover
- An enhanced employee experience, with a domino effect on the customer experience
- Business efficiency, alongside time and cost savings to the organization
- Greater company-wide collaboration, resulting in higher levels of innovation, productivity and effective problem-solving
- A common culture, with greater visibility of the company vision, values, successes and direction – even for remotely-based employees
- Streamlining and enhancement of the business computing architecture, resulting in improved digital experiences and an efficient, user-orientated technology stack
Traditionally, the benefits of intranets have been challenging to demonstrate as they fall under the bracket of ‘soft measures’, which can be hard to quantify. Research, telemetry and usage data now demonstrate the irrefutable role intranets have to play in shaping the employee experience and, ultimately, driving positive business outcomes.
Intranets: the heart of the digital workplace
If the history of intranets through time can demonstrate anything, it’s their capacity to adapt and evolve according to demand and trends. As soon as we begin to delve into what an intranet is, it becomes clear just how diverse and comprehensive they can be as a valued business tool.
When defining an intranet, therefore, it’s important to consider not necessarily what it is in isolation or at this point in time, but what potential it holds – and the role it plays in the broader context of the organization. In reality, your intranet is defined by you.
Support staff togetherness and increase company culture
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