footprints in sand disappearing into horizon
Intranets place in the digital workplace has come into question again and again. The threat du jour? Bots PHOTO: Andrew Malone

The intranet has long given us an access point to tools, content and people, proudly standing as the centerpiece of an organization's internal functions. Yet this position as the go-to place for employees has become increasingly tenuous. Enterprise social networks are taking away much of the intranet's place as the starting point, and now bots are becoming the threat de jour.

Early intranets focused on providing essential content and little else. And for some workplaces today, that is still the case. However, this is changing, and it's not just bots forcing the change. As employees increasingly clamor for knowledge on demand, the power of networks grows in value and we seek to replicate social communication trends. Intranets designed and built around document libraries, one-way communications and links to deeper knowledge are no longer the proud, highly esteemed centerpieces of old.

The Changing Definition of Intranets

What exactly is an intranet? A good starting point is a definition from the prime years of intranets. In 2010, the BBC published the following guidance"An intranet is a private network, operated by a large company or other organization, which uses internet technologies, but is insulated from the global internet." The article went on to add that, "It [the intranet] becomes a portal that provides access to all the things workers need."

That definition largely stands true seven years later, but the "things that workers need" have since changed. What do we actually need to do our jobs, and how does the intranet provide this? Whilst we still need artifacts (templates, guidelines, procedures, etc.), this has become less of an imperative. A functioning intranet has become more about people: Finding people, interacting with people, building relationships and networks.

As larger organizations grapple with how to become more responsive in a less predictable marketplace, the social side of intranets is becoming more essential. Social enterprise networks are yet to hit the same levels of enthusiasm in IT departments we saw happen with SharePoint in the mid-2000s, however, they are growing in influence. Often organic, they represent a desire to interact with the business and people in real time. And it's this word, interact, that represents the changes we are experiencing.

Decision making needs and the drive to improve the customer experience require a more fluid and faster intranet than one that is essentially a library. We need to interact with our knowledge rather than simply look at it. Enterprise social networks provide us with such a means. Knowledge is instantly available, discussed, shared and fully used in the time it takes to add metadata to a document.

The Rise of Bots

And now bots have started appearing in the digital workplace. Sounds ominous, but don't worry. Bots will serve as a first layer of interaction, providing more of a community support service. 

Bots step in to interact with many of the artifacts of the first generation of intranets: quickly gathering and moving knowledge, validating, processing and orchestrating simple requests. They will not replace human interactions with our digital tools. And they shouldn't. 

Humans have unique abilities to connect the seemingly unconnected, to think laterally and to be spontaneously creative. All bots have to do is to give us a boost, and to perform the more mundane duties less reluctantly. External bots that interact with customers are simply following a workflow or a set of rules and datasets: providing a quick way to validate a situation. This will become more the norm, since we should focus our abilities on more intelligent activities than simply referencing notes. So let's leave that to the automatons.

So rather than searching document libraries, we can ask the bot. It won't always have the answer, but can connect you with resources, including relevant people. This becomes even more beneficial when the bots proactively provide suggestions of people to connect with, or recently posted content that may be relevant.

Where the Intranet Fits in the Modern Workplace

By it's very definition above, the intranet will continue to exist. It will remain as a portal to access all the things that we need. What will change is how we access these things. We will spend our time on better pursuits, like having conversations across platforms, focusing on decision making and problem solving, with the intranet playing a supportive role in that.

With bots providing us with the first layer of interaction, our time is saved for the important bits: having a conversation, networking, sharing. The bots can help provide context, some suggestions and a faster way to find things. All of which should give us the opportunity to save our intellectual capital for problem solving, project delivery and innovation.

The intranet just becomes a bit more social, a bit more interactive and a lot more proactive. The intranet won't go away, it will just start talking to us more.