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Should intranets be essential to a business? Logic says yes. Intranets should aim to support the most important elements of a business, and thereby become essential. But often found behind such an objective is a desire to drive traffic to an intranet in the belief that high usage constitutes success.

Essential Needs Are Already Met

In reality, essential systems already exist for central business elements, systems dedicated to that workflow — be it production planning (ERP), clinical trials, legal know-how, electronic lab notebooks (ELN) or building information management (BIM). Indeed it is rare these days to find an industry vertical without a software product dedicated to its needs. 

Forcing an intranet into the role requires significant bespoke development and is unlikely to improve on what's already available. Moreover if business needs are met, it generally doesn’t matter whether the intranet is involved or not, so long as the solution is effectively integrated into an organization's digital workplace.

We Need Business Strategies for a Digital Age

By trying to make an intranet essential, we lock ourselves into starting with a solution and then looking for the problems. We need to get away from this mindset. The thinking process should be:

  1. What is the organization trying to achieve?
  2. Where can a digital workplace support or even transform that?
  3. When is the intranet the right tool for the job?

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Sometimes the outcome of this is that the intranet has no role to play at all. As real-time collaboration tools grow, mobile apps fill specific use cases and dedicated systems already exist, the problems intranets used to solve are diminishing. And that's OK.

I was struck by a talk given by Kat Mandelstein from PwC who said, "We don't need digital strategies, we just need business strategies for a digital age." If we start by thinking "how can we respond to the opportunities and threats that a digital era introduces?" then the role of our digital workplace will become much clearer, without the need to necessarily specify an intranet as part of the mix.

Focus on Flow, Not Repositories

This message may worry intranet managers, but it shouldn’t. The value is in the content, not the means of delivery. Large investments in the likes of SharePoint have encouraged us to view the platform at the center. But the focus should be on the flow and not the repositories. 

Repositories are where information stagnates, the flow is where value is derived. 

Therefore, we need to focus efforts on ways in which our digital workplaces help to connect people and information. For example, optimizing access through varied devices and multiple contexts. An example of this is Office 365, which is executing a digital workplace vision rather than a pure intranet one.

intranet in the middle

Don’t see your intranet at the center of what you design …

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… instead, think about how your digital workplace enables the flow between people, information and devices

An Intranet Can Fill Gaps

Where does this leave the intranet? Perhaps its most effective in a supporting role, fulfilling all the other important, but not "essential" processes:

  1. Support roles that don't get looked after by the core system, but are needed: These roles still need to be met and intranets can be a cheap and flexible solution to meet many of the requirements.
  2. The "exception" processes: Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) can support informal collaboration in parallel to a formal process — such as discussions — alongside the heavyweight project management system in a construction company or the customer order that needs expert advice.
  3. The glue between disparate systems: Effective digital workplaces are often about improving employee satisfaction through enhanced productivity. The friction caused by context-switching causes much of the decreases in productivity, and intranets can be invaluable in smoothing this over.

Intranet sponsors may retort: "But we don't care about non-core processes!” To which I’d reply “So why have them at all?” 

Companies are a system where all parts play a role. A car is more than an engine on wheels.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  james_drury