As a teenager this Bob Dylan track, released in 1964, seemed to me to capture the changes that were taking place on the political and social landscape. Over the last few months I have started to feel it is more like an anthem for doomed intranets.

When your business is called Intranet Focus Ltd. raising the issue that intranets are doomed may seem like commercial suicide, but I think it is time for a dose of reality. There are many excellent intranets in the world, and when I see the outcomes of the Intranet Innovation Awards and the Nielsen Norman Intranet Design Annuals I envy the employees of the organizations that have been recognized for intranet excellence. Sadly probably the majority of the million or so intranets in the world stumble along with inadequate vision, support and resources.

Intranets Have Not Come That Far

The intranet business dates back to the original business plan for the Netscape Navigator browser in the mid-1990s, with its initial focus on enterprise sales. By the end of the 1990s arguably most of the good practice in intranet development had been identified. In front of me as I write I have a report I wrote on intranets in 1997 which documented this good practice, and I could release it today by updating perhaps 20% of text. Most intranet managers know what they need to do, but after a decade or more of evangelism by James Robertson, Jane McConnell and Toby Ward we’ve not moved much farther forward, and now James and Jane are asking important questions.

Understanding the Value of Information

The main reason for this lack of adoption is probably because organizations fail to see the value of information as an asset, as has recently been well argued by Stephan Schillerwein. Jane McConnell has introduced the Digital Workplace concept into her well-established and invaluable Intranet Trends Survey, and the Intranet Benchmarking Forum has put a lot of effort into developing a Digital Workplace Maturity Model.

I see signs that in the information management arena the times are changing. The publicity around Big Data is raising the awareness of the amount of information that organizations possess and the potential value of this information. Enterprise search and business intelligence will start to converge as organizations discover that search applications can take structured data and unstructured data apart semantically and integrate the results, and search-based applications will support effective task completion.

The need to support smartphone and tablet devices in an enterprise environment will result in some significant developments in 2012, and I would expect a substantial commitment to mobile in the next (2013?) release of Microsoft SharePoint. The continued growth of the SharePoint installed base will also raise the awareness of the benefits of managing information on an integrated enterprise basis.

Mobile to Take the Intranet's Place

In search of a metaphor perhaps intranets are now at the point that stand-alone word processors were at in the early 1980s. Many companies were still saying that a multipurpose PC would never be able to offer the functionality of a word-processor. But then came VisiCalc and this application pretty well killed off the word-processor. I have a strong feeling that enterprise mobile applications will do the same to the intranet, as it forces organizations to focus on tasks and on the integration of business-critical information contained in many different applications. In effect the mobile device becomes a portal.

Goodbye Intranet, But Not the Intranet Manager

The gradual demise of intranets should not be seen as the demise of intranet management as a career, if only because intranet management has never been a career. Intranet managers know better than anyone else what information is important, and how it is used. I keep bleating on about the importance of search analytics as a way of finding out what people are looking for but not finding, but my entreaties usually fall on ears that may be aware of the value but have no resources to mine this value.

For a decade intranet managers have been beating on closed doors. Changes in technology and more importantly the business climate are starting to just push the door ajar, and intranet managers need to be informed enough about the business to push the door of senior business managers and IT managers open with a mission statement about the importance of information management. A course in information management speed dating might be a good investment.

Final Thoughts

The changes will not be dramatic and the battles could be quite fierce, but they will be worth fighting for all sorts of organizational and personal reasons. Look back at where your organization was in 2008 and make the assumption that over the next three years the rate of progress will double. What will the digital workplace in your organization look like in 2015, and how can you help to achieve it and ensure that your organization survives the competitive challenge from those who have heard the message of Bob Dylan?

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