From intranet to extranet to collaboration network

Pure intranets are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Even the number of dedicated extranets will decrease. Now, flexible methods to support collaboration across company boundaries are in demand.

Once upon a time….

When I first came into contact with the idea of intranets about 20 years ago, the technology was still in its infancy. A lot of manual work was required, errors had to be corrected all the time and even content had to be hard coded. In particular, intranets were closed environments in practice of which nobody outside the company (or even the department) was aware and were designed to remain hidden. Content was maintained centrally and then displayed to the users. Initially, users were unable to enter or maintain content.

External parties could theoretically access or even change this content, but in reality it did not happen. Apart from the technical hurdles, the companies as a whole, and the managers within regarded this as absurd. Why should external users (i.e. users outside the company) be able to see or even add internal information?

In the 1990s, you could exchange ideas with external parties by post, telephone, fax and, more recently, email. However, the idea of extranets was there (and in some cases the systems actually existed). In 2003 this term made it to the German version of Wikipedia:

An extranet is based on the same technology as the Internet, but can only be used by a specified group of people. Extranets are usually found in large companies that want to provide their customers with up-to-date information (descriptions of products, price lists) without the competition being able to view these documents.

The German government also operates an extranet. Registered journalists can view documents that are not published openly on the website.

Email

In general, however, extranets were irrelevant. As email spread, its weaknesses were relentlessly revealed:

  • Emails land in the user’s inboxes and get buried. Only a systematic search will retrieve them.
  • Emails provide no context for other content except perhaps for any attached files.
  • Attached files are – just like the email content itself – snapshots taken by the user. Changes to the attachments after the email has been sent, are not accessible.
  • Changes made by different users can become contradictory over time. Someone must always consolidate all the changes by different people in a new document and share it by email.
  • Changes and consolidations lead to many questions, answers lead to further modifications and further questions.
  • The group of recipients in an email thread changes constantly. Sometimes a person from the previous group of recipients is forgotten, an email is forwarded to another additional person, and a user accidentally clicks on “Reply” instead of “Reply to all”. After just a few replies, the recipients have a completely different understanding of the situation.
  • Emails are not just snapshots: Newcomers do not have access to the history and background information, they don’t know how the content has evolved over time. If the recipients switch (an employee leaves the company and is replaced by a successor) or if a new person joins the group (perhaps the topic requires the expertise of an expert), then either someone must send a summary to this person (and something is always forgotten), or someone must forward all previous emails to the new person.

Email was quickly recognized as a terrible communication medium within companies for collaboration. And within organizations, intranets were now so advanced (at least, technically) that better options became available (Wiki, CMS etc.). But for a long time email remained the only (if fatal) solution for exchanging information across company boundaries.

Collaboration in transition

Soon the problems in some companies, whose work was very much project-based, were so big that they ultimately started using extranets. In the beginning, these were often dedicated and specialized servers in a demilitarized zone in the corporate network. Access permissions had to be added, often at a great time expense. For a large projects where three or four companies had to collaborate on a joint call for tenders over a long time, this effort was affordable.

But often and more frequently, however, even in smaller projects, the necessity arose to be able to access or edit common information at any time to keep it up-to-date. Especially in service agencies (web design, marketing, communication) collaboration is a constant in their daily work. However, the technology was still quite cumbersome and costly to set up, and the various legal requirements and compliance departments created additional complications.

The employees somehow got through to find a workable solution for their situation. Security aspects were not always thoroughly considered (and sometimes the information was completely public). The most important thing was that the work be done with as little effort, as well and as quickly as possible – even if the collaboration system was just a separate PHP server with a few scripts.

In the meantime, however, I find the term “extranet” obsolete. It is becoming increasingly rare that an “extra network” between company networks is needed. At the technical level, the wording may be appropriate, unseen from the user’s point of view, additional authorizations are needed for external users to access files, directories, content and services. To collaborate, it is irrelevant whether the user is an employee of another company, or several employees from a range of organizations or a group of freelancers. Above all, the assignment of permissions (as well as their withdrawal or modification) should be able to be carried out ad hoc (or “on demand”) by those with the appropriate responsibility.

Many of today’s intranets or applications have already “built in” these possibilities. If you use an application such as Hipchat or Stride, Slack or Mattermost to communicate with a project team or departmental group, you simply add another person when the work requires it. More comprehensive solutions such as Google’s G Suite have integrated such options. Other “suites” such as Atlasian’s software development and collaboration tools (e.g. Confluence) can also be used in such a way that a group of people can work together across company boundaries with ease.

While there will still be companies that will continue to work exclusively with dedicated intranets for some time to come,organizations will increasingly focus on creating a flexible collaboration network that allows their employees to collaborate with other companies’ employees at any time, from anywhere.

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Frank HammFrank 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.

You can find more articles by Frank Hamm in our intranet special.