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Intranets aren’t essential (but a digital workplace can be)

Intranets aren’t essential (but a digital workplace can be)

Should intranets be essential? Logic says ‘yes’: intranets should aim to support the most important elements of a business and therefore be essential to that business. But hidden behind such an objective is often a desire to drive traffic to an intranet in the belief that high usage constitutes success.

Essential needs are already met

In reality, the central elements of a business often already have an essential system, one that is dedicated to that workflow – be it production planning (ERP), clinical trials, legal know-how, electronic lab notebooks (ELN) or building information management (BIM). Indeed it is rare now to find an industry vertical that doesn’t have a software product dedicated to its needs.

Making an intranet fill the role instead would be a significant bespoke development and unlikely to what’s already available. Moreover if business needs are met, it generally doesn’t matter whether the intranet is involved or not, so long as the solution is effectively integrated into an organisation’s digital workplace.

We need business strategies for a digital age

In trying to make an intranet essential, we lock ourselves into starting with a solution and then looking for the problems. We need to get away from this mind-set. The thinking process should be:

  1. What is the organisation trying to achieve?
  2. Where can a digital workplace support or even transform that?
  3. When is the intranet the right tool for the job?

Goal circles

Sometimes the outcome of this chain of thinking is that the intranet has no role to play at all. As real-time collaboration tools grow, mobile apps fill specific use cases and dedicated systems already exist, the problems intranets used to solve are diminishing. We should acknowledge that this is fine.

I was struck by a talk given by Kat Mandelstein from PwC who said “We don’t need digital strategies, we just need business strategies for a digital age”. If we start by thinking “how can we respond to the opportunities and threats that a digital era introduces?” then the role of our digital workplace will become much clearer, without the need to necessarily specify an intranet as part of the mix.

Focus on the flow not the repositories

Intranet managers may be worried by this message but they shouldn’t be. The value is in the content, not the means of delivery. Our traditional large investments in the likes of SharePoint have encouraged us to see the platform at the centre. Really we should think about the flow and not the repositories.

Repositories are where the information stagnates; it is the flow where the value is derived.

Therefore, we need to focus efforts on ways in which our digital workplaces help to connect people and information. For example, to optimise access through varied devices and multiple contexts. This is where Office 365 for example, is executing a digital workplace vision rather than a pure intranet one.


Don’t see your intranet at the centre of what you design…


… instead, think about how your digital workplace enables the flow between people, information and devices.

An intranet can fill the gaps

Where does this leave the intranet? Perhaps the role of it is all the other processes which are important but not ‘essential’:

1) All the support roles that make up a company but don’t get looked after by the core system. These roles still need something and intranets can be cheap and flexible enough to meet many of the requirements.

2) The ‘exception’ processes. Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs ) can support informal collaboration in parallel to a formal process, such as discussions alongside the heavyweight project management system in a construction company or the customer order that needs expert advice.

3) The glue between disparate systems. Effective digital workplaces are often about improving employee satisfaction through enhanced productivity. Much of what decreases productivity is the friction that comes with context-switching, and intranets can be invaluable in smoothing this over.

Intranet sponsors may retort: “But we don’t care about non-core proceses!”. To which I’d reply “So why have them in the company at all?”. Companies are a system where all parts play a role. A car is more than an engine on wheels.

Originally published at CMSwire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

  • Posted at 2:14 am, 22 August, 2016

    Nice article Sam, but I really do think that intranets are essential in a digital workplace. We all know how it evolved since companies started using intranets. Until now, they are widely used all over the world and are having upgrades and changes from time to time. Just by knowing that intranets are still being used and are having upgrades and changes mean they are still “a hit.” It really just depends on how the company runs it. A digital workplace, for me, should include an intranet. Here is an article that might be helpful in what I am saying: http://www.simpplr.com/blogs/2015/09/the-intranet-is-the-gateway-to-the-digital-workplace/. Give it a read!

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