Intranets are dead: Long live the intranet!

  • Posted on June 1, 2020
  • Estimated reading time 3 minutes
Intranets are dead Long live the intranet

This article was originally written by Avanade alumn Shawn Shell.

Intranets, internally facing employee hubs common to most companies, have been around for nearly three decades. The term was created around 1994, shortly after the advent of the broader World Wide Web and were based on the same technology. In the intervening years, little has fundamentally changed. Intranets still largely serve three purposes: connect employees, provide facilities to find content, and serve as a sometimes-integrated platform, though more often a launch pad, for other enterprise applications. Has this web-based, internally facing, concept outlived its usefulness? The time is now for companies to think differently about the role the traditional intranet plays and redefine what the term means.

Monolith vs “composite”
Intranets are and have been “monolithic” entities — web-based, desktop PC-compatible web sites that house content, search, application links, and more recently, collaborative application features. As consumer and enterprise technology have advanced, with enterprise systems moving toward cloud-native status and mobile devices all but ubiquitous, intranets have become more complex. 

Unfortunately, companies struggle to keep intranets integrated and connected. Intranets, especially in large enterprises, follow cycles of bust and boom — periods of low or no investment, followed by often expensive migration, design, and integration efforts. They often suffer from content or feature sprawl, which further exacerbate typical governance challenges.

Now is the time to make the strategic decision to simply accept a multi-application approach – call it a “composite” intranet. It should be expected that employees use more than one application to satisfy needs that may have traditionally been served by the intranet. 

For example, Office 365 (O365) contains at least 24 distinct (and largely) web-based applications, though many applications have some device-centric, installed version available. As a result, consider the application collection as the intranet. Create governance that isn’t focused on a single monolithic application. Rather, focus on an employee’s use across applications to help them complete their work. Intranets can and should continue to serve basic functions, like a centralized launch pad, a focus on content search facilities, or a “single pane of glass” for application functions or data. However, there should be an intentional recognition that employees will need other fit-for-purpose applications to get work done. In this way, the enduring intranet application could become more streamlined and focused.

Ironically, an intranet’s role in finding content starts with search. Often maligned and consistently identified for improvement, search challenges have remained. Nielsen Norman Group (NNGroup), a leading firm in user experience research, continues to cite intranet search as a challenge. A recent NNGRoup article stated that improving employee search could save firms hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simultaneously, NNGroup also highlights innovative intranets for pursuing new and novel findability techniques in every “best intranets” research report. Can we think differently?

Consider removing “search” from the enterprise vernacular. Instead, use “find.” Finding content allows for a wide array of possibilities. For example, Microsoft Delve uses a combination of machine learning and O365 workplace analytics data to uncover employee-relevant content. Some intranets feature tuned “popular” content lists. 

Finally, chatbots can connect employees with more complex data structures by providing a conversational user interface with synthesized responses – e.g. finding the “answer” to a question rather than the document where the answer resides (think Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google in the consumer context). In the end, it’s about finding content, not searching. Ultimately, companies should employ numerous mechanisms for proactively surfacing needed content, like Delve or through content affinity with the employee attributes, without “search.”

Enterprise services
Throughout the day, employees need access to many systems and the associated data. Whether it’s access to an ERP solution, timekeeping, business intelligence tools, or a bespoke line-of-business application; it’s nearly impossible to get away from application switching. Intranet managers have historically sought to either provide a “launch pad” or light weight integration. However, in many cases the integrations were purpose-built and not easily transferable. As organizations consider a “composite” intranet, so too should they seek out modern application architectures that allows for integrations across productivity tools.

Service-oriented architecture, or a more-current “modern application architecture” approach, prescribes decomposing applications into atomic services. These services can be composed and recomposed into many applications. As companies consider how to inject workplace innovation into their organization, consider creating a series of key enterprise services. 

From SharePoint, to Teams, to Outlook, Microsoft has enabled application integration to allow employees to stay productive “in place” — instead of seeking a purpose build application, those features can be integrated where the employee is working. Need to enable finding answers to technical questions? Try integrating your bot service into Outlook. Are you working from your web-based intranet? That same BOT can be integrated there too. Need to find out what service calls your customers have placed? Just go to Teams to see the service call data surfaced as a “app” connected to a team. Importantly, while employees are expected to switch between apps to get their work done, companies have the opportunity reduce the complexity by integrating extra-application productivity features.

Thinking differently
Advanced enterprise system, market disruption, technology consumerization, and accelerated innovation in many businesses creates challenges for employee productivity solutions like intranets. The monolith legacy intranet has little life left. The teams supporting these legacies should refresh what “intranet” means to their companies. Think composite, multi-application approach, with the supporting change management to engage and encourage employees. Get rid of search and focus on find. 

Finally, disconnect employees from the poor experiences that pervade company intranets and embrace feature integration across the productivity suite landscape. Keep in mind, though, the best and more elegant technology solution will still require governance and active management.

Don’t know where to start? Review our work on the elastic digital workplace. Check out excellent content on organizational change programs for productivity. Need more assistance? Contact us.

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