Social Business, The Gap Between Intranets and Websites Has Closed
While websites and web solutions have rushed along in recent years, intranets have perpetually lagged behind. Rarely given the resources and attention they deserve, intranets have played the part of the poor cousin to leading websites. This is finally changing. 

Fueled by trends such as the consumerization of IT, the influence of the tablet, the proliferation of lightweight hosted online tools and an up-skilled design and development community, the gap is finally closing between websites and intranets.

The winners of this year’s Intranet Innovation Awards support this point.

The Intranet Innovation Awards, organized by Step Two Designs, are global awards which celebrate the many ways that intranets deliver value for organizations while directly benefiting staff. Uniquely, they don’t judge intranets as a whole, and instead focus on surfacing great ideas that can be applied to other intranets.

Running for the past seven years, the global judging panel includes recognized intranet experts, such as James Robertson (Australia), Martin White (UK) and Jane McConnell (France).  

This year, the Awards showed examples of the closing gap between websites and intranets in three key areas:

  • Intranet design has entered the modern age
  • Internal and external channels are aligning
  • Internal social media is adding business value

Each of these themes is explored below.

Pushing the Boundaries of Intranet Design

A leading example of intranet design pushing the boundaries is Australian financial services company AMP’s the Hub. Based on an integration of SharePoint 2010 and Newsgator, the Hub successfully fuses publishing and collaboration in one integrated environment.

The most apparent unusual feature from a traditional intranet is the vertical rather than horizontal navigation, although apparently this was a “happy accident” made for performance reasons.

Equally noticeable is the prominent use of images, not only in the body of the pages but also in the icons used in navigation. The decision to use images for what AMP calls “visual-based browsing” was a strong theme coming out of co-creation cafes, designed to seek input and engagement from user populations. The site is modern and fresh, clearly influenced by social media and external facing sites, but still feels like an intranet.

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Above: This landing page on AMP’s the Hub intranet uses images in both the body of the page and the navigation. Screenshot appears courtesy of AMP and Step Two Designs.

Aligning External and Internal Digital Channels

Companies interested in narrowing the design gap between internal- and external-facing sites are making the strategic decision to provide closer alignment in the user experience between both channels. Two of the winning entries, PwC Australia and Virgin America, set out with this aim.

In most organizations the corporate intranet and website tend to be derived from the same set of visual identity guidelines, but in practice the internal digital environment often deviates from it, either because it is less of a priority, or robust governance is not in place. Having brand alignment across internal and external offers advantages, helping provide consistent communications and experiences which ultimately helps to deliver better customer-service.

Virgin America’s new intranet VXConnect -- probably the world’s first enterprise-level intranet based on Salesforce’s Chatter platform -- sought to allow employees “to ‘feel’ the brand just as much as our guests do when they step foot on one of our aircraft.” The homepage feels more like a consumer site than a traditional content-centric intranet.

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The homepage of Virgin America’s intranet, VXConnect. Screenshot appears courtesy of Virgin America and Step Two Designs. 

PwC Australia’s intranet PwC Online, was even more explicit in its aim to bring together intranet, website and extranet environment. In fact the company developed requirements for a new iteration in SharePoint for all of these channels at the same time, e.g., sharing a common set of personas covering both employees and clients.

Strategically the firm believed that customer experiences were dependent on the way internal teams interacted together, and therefore “PwC Online was born with a vision to create a consistent end-to-end online experience for every individual regardless of what relationship they currently had with the firm.”

This aim manifested in different ways. For example the user experience is very similar to that of the website, and there is some workflow between internal and external collaboration sites. The influence of consumer-facing sites is also felt in design features such as QR codes appearing on employee profile pages.

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The homepage of PwC Australia’s new intranet, PwC Online. Screenshot appears courtesy of PwC Australia and Step Two Designs.

Incorporating Social Media

Other ways in which intranets overlap with external media is by relaying the external-facing messages and interactions made primarily on social media, back into the internal digital environment. This helps to create awareness among staff not only of marketing efforts, but also customer reactions to them.

For example commended entry Disney Consumer Products relays some streams of its Facebook sites via a tab on its homepage. This helps keep employees informed of key products and updates from various Disney brands such as Disney Baby and Disney Living, as well as giving insights about customer reaction.

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Disney Consumer Products relays a social media stream from Facebook sites on to the intranet homepage. Screenshot appears courtesy of Disney Consumer Products and Step Two Designs.

Platinum Award winner Barclays Bank created a mobile intranet environment for customer-facing staff based in branches. Among the many features, they had an “AppZone” which allowed employees to try out the mobile banking apps which were being launched to customers. This has been highly successful in getting employees familiar with these products and turning them into advocates for them, contributing to a huge uptake by customers of the bank’s mobile banking apps.

Will Internal and External Digital Channels Continue to Converge?

It will be fascinating to see if other leading intranets show influence from consumer-led websites in terms of design, branding and content. We’re already looking forward to the 2014 Intranet Innovation Awards to see what will be entered, but if you have any examples, experiences or thoughts you want to share then please add a comment below.

Title image courtesy of Lauren Pretorious (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from our month-long focus on defining the modern intranet here