Intranets are "an integral component of an organization’s information technology infrastructure," according to research firm International Data Corporation (IDC). Intranets "enable better information sharing," and "the instant access to real-time information that intranets enable provides a clear competitive advantage."

All true. But heads up: The IDC research report quoted above was released in 1999.

Nearly 20 years later, the company intranet persists. But is it still relevant? (Yes, and no.) What’s wrong with the traditional intranet? (Plenty.) And what should an intranet look like today? Hint: If you’ve asked Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri for help, you’ve already gotten a glimpse of the modern intranet’s potential.

Are Intranets Still Relevant?

Intranets have been around since 1994, not long after the web started gaining traction commercially. An intranet’s goal has always been to keep employees updated about what’s happening within the organization (such as management changes); provide easy access to benefits, healthcare and other information; and offer the ability for employees to discuss projects and share documents with colleagues.

Are those goals still relevant today? Absolutely. But the traditional intranet’s look and feel, and therefore its usefulness, is in need of a refresh.

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What's Wrong With the Traditional Intranet?

For starters, the traditional intranet tends to be static. The user sees the same stuff in the same places — a basic web interface with links, in some cases looking like a website circa 2005. It’s not compelling for today’s users, who are accustomed to asking virtual assistants questions and receiving information in contextually relevant, digestible cards (like those you see on your smartphone). Consequently, if your company intranet is static and dull, your employees probably avoid using it — which defeats the purpose of having an intranet.

In addition, traditional intranets don’t do a good job of surfacing useful information because users must often dig through pages and links to find what they need. It’s another disincentive to use the intranet. Worse, it can be wasting the time of those workers who do access your intranet.

Most users today face a complex web of disconnected interfaces and databases, and traditional intranets don’t unify all the applications and resources users need to be productive. That’s another problem, given that 61% of knowledge workers access four or more systems every day in their work, according to a 2014 IDC report, and 13% access 11 or more systems daily.

And don’t forget mobile users. A successful intranet today must also be highly optimized for, and not just accessible from, mobile devices. According to the CMSWire 2017 State of the Digital Workplace Report, 70.2 percent of respondents said that mobile enablement was a “very” important tool in enabling their work.

In short, the old-school intranet — a static web portal populated with links that connects some but by no means all internal apps and data resources and isn’t optimized for mobile users — is no longer a viable solution to drive engagement with workers.

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The Next Generation of Intranets

To overcome those limitations, today’s intranet must offer a truly unified, updated interface that makes it easy for users to securely access a variety of data resources and systems — including content management, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Organizations can boost productivity and save money with a modern intranet. For example, in the 2014 IDC report, a global company with 70,000 internal users reported saving more than $50 million annually by unifying access to its various systems.

Access to data resources and systems is only part of the solution. Today’s intranet needs to make it easy for users to consume information, too — especially given how quickly the sheer volume of business data is growing.

Learning Opportunities

It's a tall order. But there are technologies already in place that can bring your intranet into the 21st century and make it much more useful.

* Application Programming Interfaces - APIs enable components of one software program or app to communicate with another software program or app. APIs can help integrate your company’s applications and information resources across your intranet, making it easier for users to perform tasks and get information efficiently.

* Artificial intelligence - An AI-powered workplace assistant application can make your intranet more useful by connecting a variety of enterprise apps such as SharePoint, Salesforce and SAP; creating an intelligent stream of actionable insights;providing robust search tools; and reducing the complexity users often face trying to get the information they need.

* Cards - The card user interface is relatively new but has gained traction in the past few years. If you’ve used Google Assistant, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or many other popular services, you’ve probably interacted with a card.

A card presents a bite-sized summary of information and, if relevant, any actions you need to take. Cards are portable, in the sense that they work well on desktop computers as well as mobile devices. And they’re versatile, able to display content from a variety of sources and apps. You can sort or filter cards based on your preferences, or let algorithms do the work.

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It's Time for a Transformation

Many companies are undergoing digital transformations these days, and their intranets — if they’re to continue to be relevant — must be transformed as well. APIs, AI, and cards are the essential building blocks of that transformation. But, where do you begin?

Start by determining which of your current software applications offers, or will offer, APIs. Investigate off-the-shelf software services that can deliver new efficiencies with artificial intelligence. Look for software platforms that can integrate and make more easily accessible all the information your organization produces and needs.

Above all, brainstorm how you can make your intranet compelling, modern, mobile, and, yes, even fun. If you go that route, employees will use your intranet willingly and frequently. They’ll be more productive and better informed. And your intranet won’t just be relevant again—it will be essential.