Social Business, Modern Intranets: From the Wild West to Digital EcosystemsIntranets have been around almost as long as the World Wide Web. During that time, a large body of expertise has grown up around them in the form of countless books and articles. But does this mean we have perfected the design of intranets?

Looking Beyond the Home Page

I recently met an experienced manager in a large company who had been involved in many intranet projects over the years. He was clearly of the opinion that the intranet industry had now perfected their design, so much so he could see little justification for user research or extensive customization.

Creating a new intranet was as simple as changing the "look and feel" to match corporate branding and configuring a site map that reflected their organizational priorities. In fact, what he really wanted to do was build their intranet in the same way you might create a document by choosing from the default templates included in Microsoft Word.

This manager and others like him can easily be forgiven for this attitude when so many discussions about intranets focus on the home page layout or other superficial design issues. Such meticulously crafted intranets may well be very usable, but this is not a guarantee they will be any more valuable than one based on a template or copied from another organization.

I could almost be sympathetic to this point of view, if I thought that an intranet started and finished with the home page and how it appears on a desktop PC. On deeper reflection I realized the problem was in fact more about how modern intranets are perceived, rather than an argument against designing them around specific user needs.

From the Wild West to a Digital Ecosystem

The root cause of this problem, I think, is a legacy of the "Wild West" period of intranets, where best practices emphasized fixing out-of-control content management. Progressively better Web content management systems and more sophisticated governance approaches have solved this problem, but this focus had an unintended consequence: we think of an intranet as primarily a centralized, Web-based content platform. Even today, lip service is made to using intranets for communication and collaboration, when in fact this still means content publishing or document management.

Of course every intranet manager wants to create something that is indispensable to their business and content certainly has a role. But by continuing to frame intranets as primarily a content medium limits our ability to argue for using them in more innovative ways. Instead we are left with few options but to continue refreshing and reinventing what are effectively the same sites over and over again -- they just have different layout and navigational menus. As we are seeing, business leaders are beginning to see through this charade but the risk for intranets is that they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thankfully we are moving away from this narrow, prescriptive view of intranets. Modern intranets should not be defined by a single medium, such as particular internal website, a specific application, such as SharePoint, or even the local area network (LAN). Instead it is time to reclaim the intranet as a digital ecosystem that has been purposefully and proactively created for employees and other users related to them.

What exactly does this mean?

By treating an intranet as a digital ecosystem rather than as a specific destination site we are reminded that it contains multiple moving parts, including users, business stakeholders and of course the different devices, applications and tools they might utilize at different times and places. As an intranet manager you can maximize the value of the ecosystem by understanding how those parts relate to each other and where they are within your scope of control, influence and steer them in the right direction.

From email to line of business systems, it is your job to define the boundaries of your intranet ecosystem and make them co-exist together but not necessarily your role to own every system. For some companies this boundary may even include customers as users. Others have exposed their intranets over the public web, so that front line staff can access them absolutely anytime and from anywhere. The further we push the intranet boundary, the greater the potential for innovation.

This may sound like an unmanageable situation, but ecosystems only look chaotic because they are dynamic and are hard to understand in terms of linear cause and effect. For an intranet this complexity reflects the reality of why users might resist using a particular application or the difficulty of mapping the total value impact of the micro-benefits generated by a particular feature. It also means intranets will never be perfect, but a constant work in progress.

This concept is not theory. In some spheres, the groundswell of this shift is quite palpable thanks to the low barrier to entry created by contemporary web, social media, mobile and cloud computing technologies. Some people called this the Digital Workplace, others a Social Intranet or Enterprise Social Network and I am even hearing a resurgence of Knowledge Management.

What they all have in common is that these modern intranets are being willed into existence by intranet managers who are passionate about wanting to deliver value based on a providing a connected user experience, rather than a destination Web site for staff.

Creating this type of modern intranet will be an exciting challenge for intranet managers but will require new technology skills and a capacity for system thinking and design thinking. Some intranet managers will also find themselves restricted by local technology or policy constraints applied to their ecosystem, but remember a modern intranet is defined as much by technology as it is by how you and others perceive it.

Title image courtesy of Horia Varlan (Flickr) courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Editor's Note: Read more of James's thoughts on intranets in A Brief History of Social Intranets