A businessman traveling, while checking his company's intranet to find a necessary contract for an upcoming meeting.
PHOTO: Bruce Mars/Unsplash

Every year the Nielsen Norman Group publishes a list of the top intranets based on expert reviews, design and usability. The report, the Intranet Design Annual: 2019 (subscription required), followed any company that was looking to develop a digital workplace strategy, or was looking for a familiar place to develop new collaboration capabilities. According to the author, each design has unique goals, accomplishments, features and styles, all of which are central to keeping a digital workplace moving.

Intranets and Collaboration

The trends the research identified are as important as the intranets on the list. At the beginning of June the process of teasing out those trends continued. In a blog post by Kara Pernice and Patty Caya four trends that winning intranets address are:

  1. Making a big deal of the intranet’s launch.
  2. Including core functions (not just administrative ones) on the intranet.
  3. Creating a cutting-edge search experience.
  4. Consciously and strategically embracing tools and applications on the intranet.

All are, or should be, major considerations for digital workplace leaders. However, in terms of enabling collaboration and work, No. 4 will be familiar to all. Consciously applying new tools to new work situations is a common theme in enterprises at the moment. “Winning intranet designs become the hub of the digital workplace by strategically including tools that are important to their users," the post reads.

How these tools are integrated with the intranet vary greatly, the blog cites these examples:

  • A toolbar with custom favorites and tools appears on every page of the 3M intranet.
  • Every page on the Norwegian Government Security and Service Organization’s intranet offers a waffle menu that leads to essential applications.
  • Anthem’s dashboard includes icons that link to key apps.

By the looks of things, intranets have many of the tools employees need in the digital workplace. But are they effective for collaboration?

Related Article: 7 Ways to Measure Workplace Collaboration and Productivity Tool Efficacy

Digital Ecosystems and Intranets

Maryanne Steidinger of Webalo argues that a digital ecosystem is a foundation that allows you to build an infrastructure to capture, enforce, share and proliferate your content. These newer platform technologies creates a 'digital ecosystem' that allows companies to build those purposeful apps that are associated with production workers (also called frontline workers) and the tasks they must deploy.

The digital ecosystem has an infrastructure that integrates all relevant plant and enterprise data sources, which provides the tasks with the information that is required (with context) for the workers to make informed decisions. It also creates a closed loop workflow to ensure tasks are completed/authorized/released according to procedures. “Without being too 'commercial' the idea of the digital ecosystem is to connect the relevant information, from their respective applications/databases, and configure it in a way that will help the workers be more productive, informed, educated about their process, allow them to make decisions that are in compliance with the company/outside regulations, and maintain the quality and production targets that the organization requires to maintain their competitiveness,” she said.

What About SharePoint?

Microsoft has been working on something like this for a very long time. It’s called SharePoint. The problem is that for many organizations, the how and why of SharePoint deployments is often not very clear, according to Clayton Conway, co-owner and general manager at Puget Tech. Microsoft’s original idea in releasing SharePoint was to enable intranets to play the role of collaboration hub in the enterprise. “I believe this was the original intent of Microsoft's SharePoint product, however, most non-tech organizations didn't fully understand the value — and even if they did, they lacked the personnel and resources for proper implementation and integration with widely varied and undocumented workflows and systems,” he said.

Eventually web API's helped fill this void by making it easy to integrate just about anything with communications platforms like Slack, making it wildly successful and useful as a collaboration hub (we use it constantly).

Now, he pointed out, there is competition. There are innumerable options when it comes to collaboration tools. “At first glance intranets seem like a more secure option. However, in actual practice they're likely not secure at all since on-premises hardware is rarely well managed or maintained. Using cloud-based hardware for an intranet defeats the purpose entirely,” he added.

There are some collaboration tools, like jostle.me, out there labeling themselves as cloud-based intranets, but by that definition Office 365, G Suite, Salesforce, Zoho, etc. could all be considered intranets. “It seems dishonest to call [these tools] an intranet — to me this seems mostly like a marketing ploy to get the attention of customers that are cloud averse, of which there are many,” he said.

That said, intranets can most definitely play a role in collaboration. Bedrock Cloud Solutions uses the cloud to connect its workforce, and helps other companies do this, said Shannon Giedieviells, business development manager at Bedrock.

She said the hardest thing about using an intranet as a collaboration hub is enterprise culture. “The tools are there and you can customize tools, like an intranet, to do what you need it to, however, it's a culture thing,” she said. Questions digital workplace managers need to ask include:

  1. Are employees and leaders willing to make this shift?
  2. Are they willing to train employees on how to use the tools?
  3. Do they understand how they want to collaborate in their intranet?

Related Article: 4 Best Practices for Real-Time Collaboration and Communication

Enterprise Communication

Intranets have been — and partially still are — a powerful internal communication hub for enterprises, providing employees and management a method to share files and communicate smoothly in a secured way, according to Dvir Ben-Aroya, co-founder and CEO of Spike.

He points out that intranets were important in the preliminary phase of many existing team collaboration platforms available today. But there is one major difference between the old (intranets) and the new (workplace communication and productivity platforms), access. Intranets are only available internally within an organization and don't allow access to and from outside partners. Such limited external access can directly impact employee productivity.

“Today, some of the newest collaboration platforms and apps available to enterprises offer innovative ways to bridge intranet access issues. Modern methods of intranet communication can automatically connect all enterprise employees and management, providing access to the relevant data and content files located on an intranet,” he said.