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As more brands focus on improving employee experience, investments in digital collaboration platforms, in all forms, have risen. According to Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends, the collaboration platform adoption rate has increased to 70 percent.

For many brands, the answer is to have an intranet system in place as a bare minimum. After all, an intranet provides a collaboration platform and allows users to share information and files in a secure manner. But should brands go the extra mile and incorporate an extranet into the mix?

With the help of leading industry experts and practitioners, we differentiate between intranets and extranets and make a case for why brands should invest in both.

What is an Intranet?

“An intranet is a secure and private online portal for your employees, situated within your business framework, that lets staff connect and collaborate in a secure and productive environment, facilitating open communication, efficient information sharing, and streamlined processes in one private and central space,” said Nigel Davis, Founder of Claromentis. Some intranet systems allow for the facilitation of common business processes through the use of workflows and even provide staff with self-serve capabilities for booking holidays and reclaiming expenses.

Since being first introduced back in the early 1990s, intranets have evolved into intranet portals, which is an intranet platform that acts as a gateway for staff to access other sites, applications or services linked to the platform.

Thanks to the advent of headless content management systems that provide an API-driven environment, brands can now create intranet portals that enable them to seamlessly integrate with other applications to create a “complex” intranet system that also acts as a digital experience platform for internal colleagues. Natasha Ambo, founder and business systems integrations consultant at BiRFT, shared an example of what a complex intranet system would look like. “A more complex intranet may integrate with your HR system allowing employees to submit data like requests for vacation; your BI portal, allowing employees to access operational data reports for the organization,” said Ambo. “It [could also] contain a knowledgebase area with tutorials/wikis and training videos; access to submit tickets to the company’s helpdesk; a document center delivering organization documents; department sites where employees can collaborate within their department.”

Related Article: 7 Free Enterprise Intranet Solutions (That Aren't Really Free)

What is an Extranet?

An extranet is similar to an intranet but permits controlled access to authorized external users. As Ambo explained, an extranet can be seen as “an extension to a company’s internal website (its intranet). It is a portal set up by an organization which allows access, usually limited, to people outside of the organization.”

Extranets are mainly used to share confidential data and information with an external party in a secure manner. "Extranets have been used in ecommerce to enable suppliers to manage their orders and inventory, and they have been used in collaborative industries like healthcare in which an extranet is used to bring different care providers and trusts together," Becki Hall wrote in Interact’s blog.

“Extranets can be accessed externally by customers, suppliers or partners, providing a secure environment for your business and third parties to work together and share information,” said Davies.

What Are the Similarities and Differences Between Intranets and Extranets?

“Both an intranet and an extranet offer centralized data storage and collaboration tools. As compared to the intranet, the extranet creates a collaboration space not only for employees but also for customers, vendors [and] partners,” said Sergey Golubenko, team lead and solution architect at ScienceSoft.

Essentially, the main difference between the two platforms is who is able to access the system. Intranets only allow for employees to use the system. An extranet, on the other hand, goes a step further and opens up access for external users. Additionally, the data and content stored in an intranet is only available to internal users, whereas, in an extranet, brands can pick and choose which data can be made available to external users.

Both systems provide user permission settings to control what each user has access to, preventing any unwanted mishaps. And depending on the type of platform that is used, both systems can offer the same type of features and content.

If you opt for a headless content management system that provides multi-tenancy, you will be able to operate both an intranet and an extranet platform and share content with both systems. “Actual content can be shared within an intranet and extranet. For example, an organization may choose to expose the same documents on both its intranet and extranet, if there are external users who need access to specific internal documents. Same goes for reports,” said Ambo.

Why Brands Should Use Both Intranets and Extranets

A well-designed and equipped intranet system can play a pivotal role in helping brands improve their employee experience, which in turn can also boost the customer experience. An intranet system provides a strict separation to what your clients can and can’t see. “A benefit of the division [provided by an intranet system] is that external partners will not be privy to confidential internal matters,” said Davies.

As for extranets, investing in this platform shows “a sense of commitment” from your brand to your customers and also provides a space to foster strong customer relations. “For business partners or suppliers, extranets allow for easy data transfer and knowledge sharing, as well as an efficient way to collaborate and brainstorm on common tasks, saving time and eliminating the need for endless emails,” Davies said.

“Initially, intranets and extranets were separate units of software, but this is no longer the case,” said Davies. “Both now inhabit the digital workplace, where they work together in harmony. This means there is no longer a need for complicated custom integration between the separate entities, yet the benefits of each are still present.”