What is an Intranet?

What is an Intranet? - Intranet Definition

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What is an intranet?

Back in 2007, James Robertson, an authority on Intranets, defined an intranet as:

A place where employees can share content, communicate, and do stuff.

A year later, he updated the list to include collaboration and recently, he added culture as another purpose of the intranet.

So, the official definition is:

An intranet is a place where employees can create content, communicate, collaborate, get stuff done, and develop the company culture.

What is an Intranet? - Intranet Definition

This is a pretty simple, lasting intranet definition that will remain despite the changing use of intranets within and beyond the workplace.

Just like everything else in tech, intranet software has evolved and continues to do so — largely due to how they are used in the workplace. The emergence of social networks has also played a role in the development of intranets and what features and elements they ship with.

Let us take a look at intranets and what you can expect from them today.

Company Intranets are Business Social Networks

The ability and need for employees to author content, communicate with each other, collaborate on projects, and access organizational knowledge has given birth to the term “social intranet.”

It takes just three things to create a social intranet:

  • People
  • Process
  • Technology

Look at social networks like Facebook and Google+. They all have people who connect with readers and other writers, in a traditional sense. They have processes or certain ways of doing things that are built into the software that allow people to communicate and connect with each other in a meaningful way. And then they have the technology, the software or platform that handles all of this connection and interaction.

Social intranets are very similar to public social networks.

Intranets allow employees to author content, share it, and let other employees comment on it, consume it, and use it to do their job.

This is the essence of a social network. By having this “people layer” in every piece of content that is created, authored content is made more personal and human.

When you look at how social networks have evolved, their usage has become an underlying factor in their development. Intranets have not deviated far from this as well and their use as communication tools has seen them evolve as key communication mediums within organizations.  With many companies now having virtual workspaces where remote and on-site employees need to collaborate, intranets have stepped in to enable such interactions.

Here at Axero, we use our intranet for all sorts of collaboration. Our employees use it as their homebase, the first place they login when they get to work. Everything takes place in real-time which enables everyone to keep working on common goals.

Social intranet software is a trend that organizations will need to address, if you haven’t already. It is growing and affecting how people expect to communicate. It’s not enough to simply draw a line on internal usage alone.  Organizations will need to take the plunge and allow the use of social intranet software not only in communications within the organization, but also beyond, with customers, partner, suppliers, vendors, etc. 

Intranets are Moving Beyond Businesses

What is an Intranet? - Intranet Definition

It used to be that social intranets were only reserved for business and were thus developed to accommodate business needs. Times have changed though and almost any organization today, whether educational institutions, religious, not-for-profit, user and affinity groups, are employing intranets in-house.

According to DZone, 62% of social intranets are in business, 10% in educational institutions, 10% in healthcare, 9% in religious institutions, 7% in non-profits, and 2% in other areas that cannot be easily classified. Intranets are valuable for connecting employees and connected employees are 70% more likely to meet client needs.

Social intranets are also radically changing higher education from what it has been for hundreds of years. The organizational structure and culture of these institutions have been transformed by use of the campus portals that extensively use social media to break down silos, improve efficiency, leverage institutional knowledge, and improve training. These intranets are becoming a collection of institutional knowledge where dialogue takes place within a vibrant community.

The Intranet Trend is Towards Mobile Accessibility

When thinking about the intranet definition, the emergence of the cloud intranet has brought with it more possibilities in terms of access. The idea is to go where users are and make it easy and simple to do that. A mobile social intranet is one that can be accessed from any mobile device and is responsive to the type of device.

With the realization that employees are always on their devices, intranet mobility no longer becomes an option, but a necessity. With 60% of employees accessing the intranet over the weekends, it is very likely this takes place on mobile devices. The mobile version of the intranet however has to be beautifully designed, fun, and engaging in order to invite usage.

You can read more about intranet trends in my other post, 13 Hot Intranet Trends for 2015.

Common Social Intranet features

What should you look out for when shopping for your organization’s social intranet?

Some common features to look out for include:

  • Personalized Activity Stream – This is a list of scrollable updates on all of the activity within the intranet. It includes postings, message replies, comments, and activity from others on pages or groups you follow or are connected to. It brings all of the new, important information directly to you.
  • Status Updates / Questions – This is where you get notifications on projects you are working on, questions from your collaborators, and other important system information broadcasted to the team. These often show up in the personalized activity stream with options to #hashtag information so it can be easily categorized and grouped for efficient search. @Mentions are also an important feature since they allow you direct your status updates at particular people, to make sure they see the updates.
  • Instant Messaging / Real-time Chat – This is a personal space where you communicate with other team members privately. This form of communication is only visible between you and the other party. Similar to your typical instant messaging software like Skype, but integrated within the intranet so the chats can be searched and referenced at a later date.
  • Instant Notifications – This is a summary of activity across your pages that alert you when a conversation is happening around content that you have posted or already interacted with. This keeps you in-the-know, so you can react quickly to updates.
  • Knowledge Management – This is a knowledge-base that contains company information, a Q&A, and any other pertinent information that can be referenced anytime. Knowledge is built organically through discussions and conversations.  Being able to quickly document this knowledge into a searchable format makes it a helpful resource into the future.
  • Company Directory – This is a list of various departments, people, phone numbers, contact information, expertise, and management.
  • Wikis – These are pages where you can collaborate with others on the same document or project concurrently.  You can add, delete, and modify content in a wiki in collaboration with others in the team and the history of each edit is recorded (much like document tracking in MS Word) so you can always go back and see the evolution of the document.
  • Personal, Project, Team & Departmental Blogs – These are dedicated pages where team members can contribute related content in form of blog posts that are shared across the intranet. Often used to keep people updated on the status of a project, whats going on inside a company department, of for sharing ideas to solicit feedback and input from the rest of the group.
  • Document Management & File Sharing – This is a space where collaborators can transfer files across the intranet to each other and manage all document activity. Some intranets integrate document management and file sharing features directly into the activity stream so you can see when new files are updated and shared. 
  • Scheduling, Calendars, and Meetings – This is where you organize your activity via an internal calendar. The calendar allows you to add events, meetings, and other activities … and schedule such by either sharing your calendar with others in the team or sending notifications to others and alerting them of your calendar schedule. Much like your typical Outlook calendar, but directly integrated into the intranet.
  • Full Text Search – This is a feature that allows you to search for documents throughout the entire intranet, by inputting relevant words found in that document. Search capabilities differ and may be customized to allow for extensive or much narrow search options. Intranet search these days is becoming smarter and smarter, often knowing what information people are allowed to search while keeping sensitive documents unsearchable.
  • Customizable Homepage – This is the ability to change the default homepage to your own preferences. You may customize the homepage to show the Activity Stream the moment you log in or to bring up your calendar. You can show company wide news, image galleries from the latest company retreat, provide links to the most accessed HR documents, links for your people to submit IT Help Desk cases.  Having a customizable homepage gives you the flexibility for growth and change.
  • Individual “Spaces” for Departments, Teams, and Projects – These are section or groups that you create as a user on various departmental pages. They are pages within pages that allow you to add or remove collaborators when working on projects. They often have their own activity streams and apps within them, and you can control whether these are public to everyone in the intranet, or are private to only people that have been invited.  

The Intranet Definition Evolves: Intranets are Also Collaboration Networks

You’ve already asked the question, “What is an intranet?” … and hopefully you understand the intranet definition. Now let’s get into what they are looking like into the future. Intranets are taking on a new shape and they are constantly evolving. Most of these intranets have adopted what has commonly been only available to the public internet. File sharing, activity streams, wikis, and blogs have been reserved for more highly-advanced social networks and online services. However, these features are becoming mainstream on intranets. Team collaboration software tools like wikis and blogs are now getting integrated and offer employees, as well as customers and partners, an inside look into company culture and activities without having to make this information freely available on the public internet.

Most employees are familiar with the use of the public Internet. It comes as a no-brainer therefore to craft enterprise tools in a similar way to enable employees to easily find their way around just as they would on a social network like Facebook. This move has thus seen the spread of Web 2.0 to Enterprise 2.0.

According to a research study by Nielsen across 14 companies; younger workers naturally expect similar tools from social networks like Facebook within the enterprise. This includes open communication, content generation, and collaboration.

The line between, and the difference between intranets and extranets is also becoming more and more blurred everyday. An extranet is typically a software application that helps employees of your company work with and communiate with customers or partners, people close to but outside of your company. With the top intranet software today, the features that are included allow you to create these outward facing (but still private) extranets. 

How Intranets are Typically Hosted Today

Intranets are versatile and agile. They can be hosted in-house or in the cloud. In-house intranets live on your network and usually on yor own managed servers. You are responsible for managing them and ensuring they are accessible at all times.

Cloud-based intranets run on the public internet and live on third-party servers. It is the responsibility of the third-party to ensure the intranet is always accessible, which frees you from server management responsibilities. In addition, this gives you cloud economics similar to what you get with SaaS deployments. 

Why You Need a Social Intranet

The above Nielsen study found that successful social media initiatives emerge from the ground up. Rather than force all employees into a standard desktop build, which are mostly off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools, successful organizations allow the users to define the vision since they are more likely to translate that value to an internal use.

An intranet enables a communication shift that is more effective and productive for businesses.

“What is an intranet?” is no longer the question.

“When are you implementing an intranet for your business?”… is my question for you.

In addition, you don’t have to convince younger workers to use these tools. They expect, demand, and desire to integrate them into their work lives just as they have in their personal lives. This approach cuts down on the big brother policing approach as most turn out to be more effective than traditional communication models.

When you think about it, an intranet is better than email or a notice board. It cuts down on multiple emails for project clarifications or document edits, clears doubts on whether the email was received, and let’s face it, is much easier to see those threaded replies as opposed to back and forth emails. It’s even possible to customize and design to your specifications.

The return on investment on an intranet is only discernible on a long-term view. The employees will love the familiar style of communication and collaboration and you get the added benefit of adding or removing what works and what doesn’t anytime during the product lifecycle.


How to Know if Your Company Needs an Intranet


Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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