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The Nielsen Norman Group announced its top intranets of 2018 at the end of January, the 18th time these awards have been presented. As an insight into what is happening in the intranet space, the research also denfines many trends that enterprises with the most effective intranets are incorporating into their design. And according to the report, this year’s greatest feature-influencing trend was the simplification of intranet design. The best intranet teams today have less to prove and more to gain by focusing on foundational design elements such as artificial intelligence, content and page structure rather than on the latest user interface.

Even though organizations know that mobile is important to their employees, Nielsen’s research lists intranets that took a realistic, practical approach to mobile design, as was required from working within very real resource constraints. Many took an incremental approach, in some cases offering only the top tasks on mobile instead of offering everything that is on the intranet.

However, it remains to be seen what the role of intranets is going to be over the next couple of years. Recently, we reported that Microsoft is getting ready to launch a freemium version of its Teams offering a purported Slack-killer. We have also seen Google building G-Suite communication and collaboration capabilities while there are dozens of social network developers that are also trying to push their way into the enterprise.

Related Article: Microsoft To Offer Slack-killer Free? Dropbox IPO Warns About Collaboration Market

Communication Connection

With the rise of the digital workplace, tools like Slack, Yammer and Workplace by Facebook, have become the easiest way to connect remote workers to their colleagues, but what gets lost in these tools is the communication connection from executive leaders when it comes to relaying company news.

While these tools have made peer-to-peer communication easier for employees, companies with deskless workers still struggle to keep their employees engaged in the overall business happenings, particularly in the hospitality, manufacturing, retail and healthcare industries. Whether to communicate about a company merger, benefit enrollment or new leadership, employer-to-employee communications in many of these industries are lagging and cannot be solved with the likes of Slack and Workplace. However, to retain employee interest in the enterprise intranets display many characteristics, flexibility among them.

Flexibility is critical when building an intranet. Enterprises need to identify which business sectors will use the intranet, from which location and what kind of device they will be connecting from. “There are, for example, employees who work from home, remote offices all over the world. Do not forget the third party contracted employees who also required access to specific information while being prevented from accessing other data,” Ian McClarty, CEO and President of PhoenixNAP Global IT Services said.

He added that a reliable intranet needs to be able to deal intelligently with permission and also have an ability to modify those permissions on the fly. IT also need the ability to entirely remove permissions for a specific employee immediately.

Intranets Vs. Social Network

Robyn Hannah is Senior Director of Global Communications at San Bruno, Calif.-based Dynamic Signal. She argues while there are failings in many intranets, there are also problems with social networks. She points out that despite the growing popularity of social networks, intranets have a place in the enterprise as a repository or resource center. However, they are hopelessly outdated when it comes to conveniently delivering targeted, timely information. “Collaboration tools are a step in the right direction, but they still can’t track or measure message penetration and often just add to the noise. Both fall short of meeting the real communication needs of the enterprise,” she said.

“Technology has changed the way we communicate. We don’t crack open the yellow pages to find a phone number, we look it up on our mobile devices. We don’t wait for the evening news to learn what happened in the day, we get news as it happens with push notifications,” she said. One of the biggest problems with intranets, though, Hannah points out, is that companies must engage employees in a way that mirrors how workers communicate in their everyday lives. intranets are a selfish way to communicate. They require employees to interrupt their workflow and proactively seek out information that may or may not be relevant to them, and not every employee even has access to the company intranet.

Social networks are not perfect either. Collaboration tools have their place for smaller teams, but in enterprise organizations, they often add to the noise with no way to prioritize important messages and no way to track who has received what. “In something like Slack, the CEO’s message about 2018 goals might come right beneath a post about the car keys someone found in the bathroom. This reduces productivity and at some point, people just stop paying attention,” she said.

Related Article: Comparing 6 SharePoint Intranets-in-a-Box

Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is key. Stephen Gibson is founder of Vyteo, a San Francisco-based advisory service for start-ups. He says that no matter what system companies decide to work with – intranet or social networks – getting workers to use that system is key.

“The most important thing is that people actually use the system you have in place. Sometimes various teams will each adopt their preferred method for communication. This is bad and leads to disjoint organizations,” he said.

He added that from a managerial standpoint it's important to gather feedback and then dictate which system will be used. Otherwise critical information gets lost in email or some distant system your team doesn't have access to.

Business Needs

For Andrew Wheller, SEO Executive at the Pen Warehouse in the UK, the decision on whether to use social network or intranet should be based on business need rather than hype, or ‘peer’ pressure from competing companies. He said intranets are beneficial to those businesses which have unique or specialist internal needs that cannot be met by an existing turnkey team or project management system.

“The benefits of an Intranet are that they can be custom built to include additional unique features that will help business operations. The costs involved, and development time are the biggest negatives for creating your own Intranet, six to eight weeks is considered a quick roll-out time for an Intranet,” he said.

Admittedly, teams can be setup on team or project management platforms within a few hours, but intranets fill a key role especially within niche organization with unique requirements even if there are cheaper and quicker alternatives available via team & project management platforms which can solve some of the same needs as an intranet.

Reaching Outside

Peter Carson, president of Mississauga, Ontario-based Extranet User Manager, adds that one of the capabilities that intranets must offer to ensure employee engagement is the ability to reach beyond the firewall.

“An intranet is a fantastic tool to maximize your company's communications. It allows all employees access to needed documents without having to use third-party products that have a monthly or yearly subscription. It helps speed the process of document sharing and access that saves a lot of time in the long run,” he said.

By setting up an extranet, though, workers get the same benefits but allows outside sources, like clients, access content as well. “If your business has to share documents with clients and vice-versa, an extranet is a great resource. No more waiting for a few days for critical information needed from a client,” he added.

If intranets have fallen out of grace in recent times, especially since the rise of social networks, the capabilities that charachterise top intranets, like those in this years Nielsen report, shows that far from disappearing intranets are gaining a new lease of life especially with capabilities like external communication and sharing, page creation and sharing, and even collaboration and site building capabilities are keeping intranets relevant and key digital workplace communication network.