The intranet started its triumphant progress about 20 years ago. However, it's only recently that corporations started to focus on their intranets' true stakeholders: the employees.
Not long after the emergence of intranets in organizations, those responsible for them started to ask what a modern intranet actually is. After all, no one wants to set up an outdated system that employees don't want to use. Today, in the times of digital transformation and Generation Y, intranets are at least as important as 10 or 15 years ago. But what is a modern intranet nowadays? Is a 'social intranet' with user profiles, status updates, communities and chats sufficient?
Many find it difficult to even answer the question what an intranet is. As a starting point, the German Wikipedia entry offers the following explanation:
- can be used independently of the public net,
- is not publicly accessible,
- offers other, additional or restricted functions.
The English Wikipedia entry brings it to the point with just one short sentence:
An intranet is a private network accessible only to an organization’s staff.
Most articles are about intranets in corporations, even if they're only about the characteristics of the organizations. In the nineties, IT departments often recognized the possibilities that internet technologies offered for application within a corporation. Initially, it was mostly grass-root initiatives, where employees tried to simplify tasks. Those that built intranets were also its users. That's why they also 'built' intranets to be useful for their own work.
Intranets: advertising pillars and corporate communication
Then corporate communication departments (mostly) found the concept of the intranet. What happened thereafter can be guessed when reading the German Wikipedia article about intranets:
Unlike with the internet, the network operator defines the objectives for its use,...
The 'network operator' was the corporate communications department, an organizational unit with its own objectives. Similarly, there were other organizational units that demanded their share of the intranet (and mostly got it during budget negotiations). Each organizational unit set their own objectives - and they were generally quite self-oriented. Organizational units wanted employees to receive their respective letters, newsletters and company information. Context consisted of information that the organizational department decided was 'important' for employees. And at the same time, these units also presented themselves on the intranet. They filled the intranet with updates, campaigns and information. Intranets became the advertising pillars of self-importance. And the employees... didn't care. In reality, many thought, intranets were the secret 'toilet walls of corporations'. (To better understand this phrase, have a look at the German blog article by Jean-Remy from Matt from ten years ago.)
Employees generally didn't care about intranets, they had no use for the system. Of course, some information was important, but it was rarely relevant for employees. Intranets served the corporations, not the employees. Especially the corporate communications department constantly wrote 'on the intranet' - and mostly even on the landing page. Employees generally thought of it as spam that distracted them from doing their jobs. In fact, the pursued intranet objectives often contradicted those of employees. Because employees wanted - and want - to complete their work quickly: fast, with the least possible effort and preferably with a bit of fun. Intranets rarely fulfilled any of those criteria. And unfortunately, in many corporations it's still like this today .
Even today the only exceptions in such intranets are, at best, the menu and the seek/offer forum.
Employees at the center of modern intranets
A modern intranet is an employee-centered intranet. An intranet is software that offers organizations, such as corporations with employees, the possibilities to:
- receive information,
- communicate and
Intranet 1.0: Publication and provision of official information by the organization or organizational units.
The traditional intranet function to cascade information from top to bottom ('Intranet 1.0') by the organization and its organizational units, also functions with a modern intranet. However, when writing in modern intranets, you should always consider the relevance for the employees, i.e. so that the employees attach importance to the context. The German Wikipedia states:
Relevance (lat./ital.: re-levare 'to raise [a beam or a matter] again or repeatedly') is a description for the significance or importance, that someone attributes to a specific context.
The much bigger and, especially for employees, much more important function is bottom-up and network-oriented communication ('Intranet 2.0'):
Intranet 2.0: Communication and collaboration between employees and functionaries, independent of position and role in hierarchies and organizational units, also for task-oriented work.
In a Taylorist sense, it's less and less maintainable for leaders and managers to centrally plan and especially to predetermine collaboration between employees. Fewer supervisors are able to oversee, understand and support the expert content, connections and requirements of specialized employees.
Meanwhile, many corporations have added one special feature that rarely played a role in the past: Communication and collaboration between own employees and employees from other corporations. These can be suppliers, collaborators or even customers, often to support small and short joint projects. But sometimes it's also to support regular information exchange, such as corporate communication with an agency. A modern intranet should thus also support the use of an extranet.
Altogether, an intranet should have a bundle of capabilities:
- To inform employees about important decisions and news.
- To illustrate structure and processes.
- To illustrate and enable internal communication (communication, interaction, networking).
- To enable search and knowledge management.
- To support organization (e.g. appointments, tasks) and collaboration.
- To support project management.
But each corporation has to analyze in detail, which capabilities their employees require of an intranet.
This article is translated from the German article written by Frank Hamm.
Frank Hamm is a consultant for communication and collaboration who supports companies in their digital transformation. He has written for INJELEA-Blog about social business, intranets, enterprise 2.0 and company communication practices since 2005. Frank is an avowed nexialist and writes about this at Der Schreibende. If you are interested in other articles Frank has written for us, check out our intranet special.