How do you define something in a state of flux, that supplies different features and functions for different organizations and whose success depends on how well an organization's business strategy is reflected in its stated requirements? That is the challenge of defining the modern intranet.
People commonly consider intranets to be part of the Digital Workplace. For any business beyond the small end of the small to medium business sector, an intranet acts as an ecosystem of various platforms delivering (at an absolute minimum) web publishing functionality for one to many (dissemination of information) and collaboration functionality for many to many (information sharing).
While intranet maturity models exist, we can pretty much agree that the earliest intranets --internal “websites” allowing a small number of users to publish “official” content for the rest of the organization to consume -- don’t cut the mustard anymore. If we see the intranet as the part or parts of a digital workplace that are delivered using internet technologies and using the web browser as an interface, what sets a “modern” intranet apart?
Modern Use Cases
Any definition of a modern intranet must include what you want to achieve with it. Whether it's old style publishing of corporate communications types of content; through highly personalized portals; to replacing those old fashioned “websites” with workspaces within your social collaboration platform; or mobile access to business intelligence information; your business needs will define what constitutes a thoroughly modern and highly performing intranet for your particular organization.
While we can all benefit from certain functions and within industries there may be similarities in intranets, I would caution against buying a Nielsen Norman Group “Top Ten Intranets.” Remember that what one organization can pull together and make work well for them -- under a particular governance structure in the context of a unique organizational culture -- may not work in the same way for you.
A framework I find useful for thinking about intranets' evolution is “the four things an intranet should do,” developed by my friends at Step Two Design in Australia. You can listen to James Robertson describe the four main purposes of an intranet in the audio commentary to this slide show:
The modern intranet should of course still be a place to publish and consume content of all sorts. Rather than posting content as text on web pages, or adding some documents to those pages, today we are more likely to have anything from a web interface to a full on document and records management system, or a portal giving us access to multiple content repositories. Although I don’t believe that "browsing" for content is really dead (even if Gen X buys into the “Google it” myth), there is certainly a lot to say in favor of search-driven, content-centric applications.
A modern intranet should also provide features and functionality for other types of content, such as audio and video files, in the forms of podcasts and an “internal YouTube.” Video as a medium is increasing in popularity, particularly for delivery of training and educational content. Such “high bandwidth” content does bring its own challenges, whether delivering across a single building LAN or a global WAN. Providing functionality to enable “user generated content” might not be that difficult, but does your corporate culture allow you to go down this path ?
The official communications content continues to be important in many organizations: news stories focusing on how the wider world perceives your organization, how your local offices help out in their communities, how the market responds to your products, etc. Just like the other forms of content mentioned above, communications are less likely to be text-based on a modern intranet: How to write for the web is slowly giving way to how to make a good movie. In the communications context, dealing with user generated content might be about allowing employees to post or submit news stories from their choice of mobile device, including photos and videos.
There modern intranet can enable and facilitate many forms of collaboration. The popularity of document-centric collaboration in the form of SharePoint Team Sites or other similar web-based workspaces continues, but in many scenarios they are giving way to the conversation-centric collaboration taking place in enterprise social platforms (more on this later).
Collaboration platforms of any variety should be underpinned by solid information management foundations; your collaborative content may need to be put under retention, be made available to the Legal department for "discovery" and of course, made available for consumption and re-use. This brings us back to the need for a good search functionality or even better, integration into your enterprise search environment.
I remember the first time I saw James Robertson present the “four things” at an intranet conference. He asserted that a valuable intranet was not just a place to read the cafeteria menu, or comment on the latest draft policy document, but somewhere where you go to actually get work done. A truly modern intranet should therefore provide you with access to the tools you need to get your job done; if not in its entirety, then at least the important common tasks shared by the majority of staff: submitting expenses, signing up for benefits, checking your pay, recording your hours, etc.
True business benefits will come from providing specific tools to those who need them, be that the CRM, a program / project management environment, product databases or other specialist line of business applications -- the list is endless.
The New Dimensions
So if we consider the Step Two framework to be a starting point, we must also consider that there are new dimensions that impact the "modern" intranet:
- Social -- collaboration functionality
- Mobile -- anyplace, any-device access
- Big Data -- business intelligence and decision support
- The Cloud -- provision of services that are hosted somewhere other than your on premises data center
Each of these new dimensions can be considered from an integrative perspective:
The evolution of the "social intranet" is seeing the integration of social collaboration features and functionality into all elements of the intranet, providing commenting, content rating, gamification, automatic updating of newsfeeds and other elements outside of the walled garden of a specific tool like Jive, Connections or SharePoint. The content, communication and collaboration dimensions are fairly familiar aspects to most of us for the integration of social functionality, but what about the tools and applications that provide the ability to undertake activities – are you building social functionality into front office business tools?
Mobile access is as much about integration into strategy as it is into IT platforms. Depending on your organization, how many mobile workers you have and what they do, will decide whether mobile access to the intranet is based around corporate devices from phones and laptops to special mobile devices (hand held data terminals with bar code readers, etc.), Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or providing executives or HQ "corridor warriors" with tablets. And then you can get into the Apps versus HTML 5 / Browser debate ....
Big Data, BI and Analytics
From providing decision support tools to end users to slice and dice big data via their web browser on the device of their choice; to presenting via the intranet advanced analytics on the consumption and use of information and tools, this is a space where we can leverage the tools (and perhaps investments) already made for our organization's public web presence. As the different elements of these aligned toolsets mature, I foresee them becoming a more important element of organization's intranet ecosystems.
Can you run your intranet in the cloud? It depends on your organization, the focus of your intranet, the regulatory landscape for your industry, plus the complexity of your digital workplace and intranet ecosystem. The answer is a qualified “maybe.”
Private clouds, hybrid models with integration between cloud-based services and on premises hosted tools, and integration between cloud-based services from different providers all hold promise for a fully cloud-based intranet, depending on the size of your organization and your business continuity requirements. If your service provider, hosting partner or telecommunications providers can’t supply the Service Level Agreements you're looking for, it might not be the right time.
I have attempted to capture all of the above in a single diagram to help us visualize all of the elements:
The Modern Intranet is a steady evolution of what we have been working on and with for years. I don’t see any truly revolutionary development in the last couple of years, nor does my crystal ball detect any just beyond the horizon. However, my crystal ball is well known for offering a less than full HD picture of the near future, so if you have a different view of what constitutes a modern intranet, and what is just around the corner for us, please let us know in the comments section below.
Editor's Note: Read more of Jed's thoughts on intranets in his How Analytics Can Support Intranet Management