Today’s intranet is suffering from an identity crisis.

And we have only ourselves to blame. 

It’s how we talk about the intranet, the words we choose to describe it, the metaphors we deploy as we struggle with the modern intranet’s seemingly endless possibilities for our organizations. I’m surprised I haven’t come across an intranet named Panacea yet -- given the modern intranet’s perceived cure-all, life-prolonging capabilities, it would certainly seem like an obvious choice.

So what’s the source of the confusion? Let’s take a walk through a number of different perspectives on just what the modern intranet means.

It’s Technical

Before Enterprise 2.0, before Social Business, before the Social Intranet, there was a collection of HTML pages and PDF files hosted on a web server, parked behind the firewall and managed by IT. As software and our interactions with it have receded into our ambient awareness, it’s still a very real fact that our intranets are bundles of code talking to databases running inside of an operating system, serving up content and features to browsers (some desktop, many increasingly mobile) across the enterprise.

It’s a remarkable feat of engineering, something that’s taken billions of dollars of global IT investment in hardware, software and network connectivity to pull off. Infrastructure may have become increasingly hidden as user interfaces and software reliability have improved, but if the folks from IT are in the room or suddenly your single-sign-on stops working … the intranet’s technical nature is brought into focus.

It’s Biological

Anyone involved in launching a new intranet in their organization can at times feel as though they are literally bringing something to life over a lengthy and sometimes uncomfortable gestation period. The modern intranet often replaces an aging, decaying intranet from a remarkably recent but seemingly pre-historic time (“Hey look, a PDF file of photos from the 2004 office Christmas party!”).

The old intranet: its time is up, its peak is well behind it. The modern intranet has that spring in its step, an agility that the old intranet had simply lost thanks to the years, the organizational neglect and the chronic content gain and resulting information bloat that rendered its once adequate search capabilities now useless. The modern intranet may not yet have figured out the mystery of organizational longevity, but it certainly has youthful exuberance and fitness on its side.

It’s Cultural

When we use the modern (social) intranet and are increasingly exposed to the voices of our co-workers as they blog, comment, like, favorite, suggest ideas, ask questions and express themselves in their own words, we are reminded that the intranet is a mirror.

It’s us: the people I see in the halls and receive emails from, the people I sit across the table from in the meeting room, listening to on the conference bridge. It’s the electronic equivalent of the safety posters above the water cooler, the latest corporate newsletter from communications, the charity initiative I donate to every year, the out-of-focus photo of my spouse and my dog on my cluttered cubicle wall, the slightly off-centered use of comic sans in a presentation from HR that violates every brand standard we have and the way we talk to each other day in and day out, all tangled up in one giant symbolic bundle.

The modern intranet is my organization’s culture -- good, bad and ugly.

It’s Political

The modern intranet’s ability to expose me to work and to people from across the organization -- regardless of what division or department or location I may be in -- reminds me of the fact that there’s a lot going on where I work. Maybe I wasn’t aware of as much of that work before, as my visibility was hampered by the org chart, the flow of information controlled up and down the hierarchy through my boss, my boss’s boss and so-on. But now I can see across the organization and perhaps I’ve even been invited to share my opinion, participate in the decision-making process that was once out of my reach.

Where there are differences of opinions on what should be done, there are politics. Where there are politics, there is conflict. Where there is conflict, there is power. You may not recognize it, as it’s often conflated with the term “collaboration" on the modern intranet, but resolving the tension of the multiplicity of voices inside an organization on what to do next is one of the greatest possibilities and greatest threats to realizing the benefits of this new socio-technical arrangement we’ve got on our hands.

It’s Ecological

While the old intranet was destined to be born, live and die like an organism does, the modern intranet’s diversity and interplay of actors (people, features, content, purposes and even algorithms) means that it possesses an ecological quality: the combination of many types of organisms and their relationship with the surrounding environment.

Ecosystems are much longer lasting in time than any one organism by itself, and if the modern intranet can be conceived as such, then perhaps it might give the organization a more resilient immune system. As Esko Kilpi points out, by shortening the distance between any two randomly picked people inside of the organization and by helping more people to know each other, the modern intranet improves what Rob Cross describes as the organization’s ability to recognize opportunities and challenges and swiftly coordinate appropriate responses.

So let’s not feel too sorry for the modern intranet -- after all, an identity crisis is a common feature of adolescence and I get the sense that the modern intranet is about to emerge on the other side as a confident and mature young adult, ready to take its place in the world and surpass even our most optimistic expectations.

Today’s intranet is more important than ever to organizations in its ability to be productive, adaptable, meaningful, rational and resilient. And what better timing, as we certainly could use some of its energy and skills. Watch out world, here it comes.

Note: Special thanks to Gareth Morgan for his pioneering work on organizational metaphors.

Editor's Note: Read another perspective on the modern intranet in Modern Intranets: From the Wild West to Digital Ecosystems