What is an intranet? As we discover, the history of an intranet – the key communications tool of an organization – has a compelling history.

In 1975 Bloomberg Businessweek published an article called The Office of the Future. In it, they quoted Xerox’s then Head of Research, George E. Pake, speculating that within the next 20 years he would have a television monitor at his desk.

“I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,” he said. “I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy I’ll want in this world. It will change our daily life, and this could be kind of scary.”

It’s easy to see how Mr. Pake might have come to his conclusion, with television already revolutionizing so many other areas of life at the time. The reality of work contained many inconveniences, cruel step stones placed in the path to productivity. It’s no surprise that people were hopeful about the power of a new technology to overcome them.

Prophetic or not, his predictions came to pass, as we all know. Computers are now synonymous with office work. Pake also predicted the prevalence of email in his Businessweek quote, though the first email was actually sent four years before that article.

We’ve come a long way since 1975 and even since computers became commonplace in businesses around the world. Today, it’s impossible to keep track of all the digital tools available to us.

These tools make our lives easier in just the way that Mr. Pake predicted.

Documents, messages from colleagues, and more are available with a few clicks. Beyond simple email and word processing, we can now collaborate on projects from across the globe, share and preserve knowledge, and strip away all the inefficiencies that impede productivity.

In that journey toward digitizing work, intranets have played a large role. They’re not always recognized as much as their more famous or flashy colleagues, such as email and the current round of social networks, but they are as relevant now as they were decades ago, if not more so.

The history of intranets is a winding path that spawned many other technologies and internal communications tools along the way, but it’s defining features have remained constant since the beginning. Those include connecting and engaging employees, enabling knowledge sharing, and reducing inefficiencies.

What is an intranet?

The question of “what is an intranet?” is a difficult one to answer, so let’s start by examining it from a purely technical perspective.

When looking to define intranet platforms, Wikipedia refers to them as “a private network accessible only to an organization’s staff. Generally, a wide range of information and services from the organization’s internal IT systems are available that would not be available to the public from the Internet.”

Here we see the words “private” and “public,” and this gives us an important starting point both in defining intranets and tracing their history. As most people know, the internet is something of a wild west of content. You can post nearly anything, and most people in the world have access to all of it.

Intranets, by contrast, are designed only for use by computers that are connected to a shared network. No computer that isn’t on that network should have access.

Right off the bat, that shows us how lifespan intranets can be useful to businesses. Once they were introduced, companies had a way to host information for only their own employees in a medium that also wasn’t cluttered with the rest of the content from the general public’s internet.

In their first incarnation, company intranets were very simple. They didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity presented by a shared private network. Mostly, they consisted of a single page of general information applicable to everyone at the company. As you might imagine, this didn’t make inspire employees to check them on a regular basis.

Soon, however, that all would change.

Intranet Genie

The year was 1996. Ask Jeeves, one of the internet’s early day question-answer and search platforms, was launched. Nintendo introduced the Nintendo 64 in Japan. And a little company called Frontier Technologies changed intranets forever.

Frontier Technologies’ product, Intranet Genie, was not just another company homepage. It featured applications for document sharing, messaging, and more, designed to facilitate corporate communication and collaboration among employees.

In a sense, this was the beginning of intranets as we know them today.

Yet, you wouldn’t recognize it as such.

Intranet Genie was a bundle of applications that were shared among computers in a company. It technically took place “online,” but it wasn’t accessed through a web browser in the way that lifespan intranets of today are.

Intranets evolving

By all accounts, Intranet Genie was not an attractive solution. It was difficult to install and offered an unfriendly UX.

Within a decade, however, the World Wide Web would be vastly expanded and used for a growing list of everyday tasks, both in and out of work. The internet boom had a long-lasting impact on intranets.

As online applications overtook desktop ones, intranets kept pace by moving to the web to the point that “intranet” now is synonymous with a program that is used through an internet browser. The days of application bundles like Intranet Genie are now behind us.

The functions that Intranet Genie brought with it, though, have hung on. Those include document management systems, forums, and all other manner of collaboration and communication tools. In fact, those make up the bulk of what a company intranet now is, rather than the bare bones dissemination of corporate information that once characterized them.

intranet definition evolution

Tools for the modern era

Intranets have spawned a variety of tools that represent smaller parts of their functionality and which have recently become very popular. As such, the definition of intranet software has evolved – and occasionally become mistakenly synonymous with other tools., which don’t necessarily do all that an intranet does.

Enterprise Social Networks, or ESNs, are a great example. ESNs are much newer than intranets and can be viewed as stripped down versions of them. They arose with the recent popularity of social media and attempt to replicate that technology for purely corporate purposes.

ESNs typically include many of the social features of an intranet, such as timelines and “like” or comment buttons, but they do not include any of the other features. They are excellent engagement tools but are limited in their collaborative capabilities as most do not offer document management systems or tools for carrying out other HR and business processes. Facebook’s recently launched Workplace is one example.

Task and project management systems are another type of tool that has become popular, and we’ve seen a surge of products of this nature from Silicon Valley. They allow managers and teammates to create projects and assign tasks to one another, creating chains of responsibility and transparency, as well as helping workers stay organized. What they don’t do, however, is allow for much of a social component.

As we can see, intranets have spawned ideas for numerous helpful products. ESNs and task management tools are undoubtedly improving productivity and engagement in the working world. Unfortunately, using them in isolation will never be a substitute for the whole package.

Toward an updated intranet definition

We live in a world where new social tech tools come out every single day. They all have slightly different uses and purported benefits, even those whose platforms are strikingly similar. Because of that, we’re fast approaching a world in which businesses can fill every niche need and process with different tools.

Yet a world of multiple sign-ins and information living on several disparate platforms ultimately leads to more clutter than it’s worth. The tipping point comes when businesses begin to lose knowledge and information rather than manage it, or they begin to slow processes rather than streamline them.

The key benefit of an intranet is that it doesn’t cause you to run into this problem. Intranets are more than just a tool – they’re a toolbelt. They have everything you could need for your digital workplace – or serve as the centralized gateway to all your applications.

That’s why intranets are best defined not using the technical definition we utilized above but as a sum of their parts. Intranets are defined by the range of features they can include or applications they can integrate with, as well as what those features or applications can do for you as a worker.

The social features of an intranet are becoming one of its hallmarks. Blogs, forums, and timelines connect employees and keep them engaged. More than that, they help share knowledge and equip everyone at an organization to excel in their positions.

Document management makes seamless collaboration another integral piece. Rather than sending edited documents back and forth over email, version control on intranets lets teams keep a single version of the truth.

HR and business processes now exist on intranets as well. The more time-consuming portions of HR, such as getting employees to fill out forms, are now automated, and Human Resources is free to concentrate on nurturing talent and improving retention.

The latest generation of intranets now utilize data from users’ search and browsing behavior to create what are called intelligent intranets. These display helpful content to users on an individualized basis, furthering the knowledge sharing component that has long been a part of corporate digital tools.

The best intranets are those who do their core functions well, but don’t necessarily seek to be a ‘jack of all trades’. Every business uses a multitude of applications or systems to perform everyday functions. You may have a dedicated HR or payroll system, for example, or use external cloud storage providers to host documents. Intranets now typically offer integration functionality with third-party applications, enabling them to serve as a central point for the modern-day digital workplace.

In conclusion

Intranets have been a quiet, yet resilient component to the technological development of businesses for the last 30 years or more. The further we move into the future, and the more mature our technology becomes, the more intranets evolve to suit our needs. They have proved adaptive and useful at every turn.

What is the intranet of the future? With developments like intranet intelligence and data analytics, we have a glimpse into where intranets are headed. They are sure to continue their journey and help companies in ever more impressive ways. Only one thing is for certain: intranets are here to stay.