What ever happened to Intranets?

Back in the mid-1990s when the Web was young, we had corporate Intranets popping up all over the place. These were typically internal projects that were used to disseminate information to employees about projects, products, and customers. They were quick and dirty efforts that often involved off-the-shelf parts and little (if any) programming. The idea was to produce a corporate Web portal that was just for internal use, to enable staff to share documents, best practices, customer information and the like.

But they are mostly historical artifacts now. What happened? Well, for one thing, TCP/IP happened. Back in the mid-90s, corporate networks were a hodge-podge of protocols, including SNA and Netware. No one talks about these anymore. Having an all-IP network made it easier to adopt more Internet-native technologies. Remember when sending emails from one company to another was a chore and not always successful? Now we take it for granted that we can communicate with anyone.

Secondly, the tool sets got better. Many companies migrated their Intranets to Wikis or WordPress when it became clear that these products were easier to maintain and use. And then a whole class of products now called enterprise social networks arrived which have ready-made discussion groups, microblogs, news streams, and social media. For example, you can share files with comments attached to them, such as if a team is collaborating on a presentation slide deck. Or use them for customer support actions. Or tracking competitors. All the things that we once used Intranets for.

Then Twitter took off, and many of these products modeled their user interface on the simple 140-character “what are you doing now” dialog box. That made it dirt simple to add content and for a work team to collaborate together.

The final nail in the Intranet coffin may be the announcement this week from Socialcast. They are offering a fully-featured version for free and forever for up to 50 seats of its software. Expect that others will jump on board this model.

These enterprise social networking tools mean more than a “Like” button on a particular page of content: it is a way to curate and disseminate that content quickly and easily. Let’s look at a few of the distinguishing features for this class of products.
• Team workspace. You can segregate your work teams by project and have all the materials for that project in a single place for easy access. These spaces can be persistent to serve as an archival record for completed projects, too.
• Activity stream. The Twitter-like stream is useful to keep track of what your colleagues are doing in any given day.
• Presence detection. Like corporate Instant Message tools, you can keep track of when your co-workers are in the office or ask them quick questions via text or video chats.
• Document collaboration. You can edit documents in real-time to shape a particular deliverable for a client without having to do serial emails.
• External services connections. Many of these products can search and interact with CRM systems, SharePoint servers, Salesforce, emails, and other external services.
• Mobile clients. Most products have specialized clients that have been optimized for iOS and Android phones.
• Public or private deployments. You can start with a public cloud deployment of the product to try out, and then move your system to your own server behind a firewall for the ultimate security.

So say goodbye to Intranets. It was nice to know them. Certainly, the new breed of social network products makes it easier to communicate and collaborate. Now we just have to use them.

5 thoughts on “What ever happened to Intranets?

  1. No argument that the tools companies are using keep pace with what’s available. Arguably, many of these are still “intranets” — i.e., restricted to within the company, or employees and customers, business partners, etc. This was often historically called an “intranet” because it was within the company network, perhaps firewalled off, and/or portal-accessed via password. So arguably these things are still “intranets,” although when they’re cloud/SaaS-based, the term isn’t as good a fit.

  2. From a collaboration perspective, you’re right. Wiki’s are a much better way to organize knowledge and best practices. Socialcast is great to get employees to collaborate, share what’s happening and discuss ideas, especially when teams are geographically dispersed.

    However, there is a class of applications that still live in the Intranet in many companies.
    Things like that employee directory app (that is integrated with SAP’s HR module and active directory and bring all employee data under one single place to access and manage), or the expense submission and approval, the evaluations and appraisals or event the vacations tool.

    Things tend to evolve and change, but I think it’s a little too early to say the intranet is dead.

    Additionally, I bet that even if the intranet dies now, it will rise again some time in the future.
    Here’s the scenario: you start replacing all these intranet apps with new web tools that pop up left and right; you’ll eventually get to a point where the number of tools being used by a company to manage their internal processes is so diverse that someone will have to figure out how to get all of them back in synch; you’ll need to make them communicate to one another, share some of the data /like employee info), have a similar look & feel and usability to ensure your employees know how to use them and are not wasting time with constant context switching.

    That’s why Intranets appeared in the first place. Their objective was to bring together a series of internal business processes into a consistent, coherent and integrated environment. I think that, even if the Intranets “die” right now, they will pop up again in the future.

  3. Whether you call them intranets or internal social networks, there’s no doubt that social collaboration enahnces communication and engagement, especially as organizations become more geographically disperse. Let’s not forget that empolyees are already engaging socially in their personal lives and now EXPECT to be able to do the same at work. I don’t think adoption is going to be an issue. The hard ROI on this is scarce at the moment, but it will come.

    There are problems with enterprise social solutions however. They take gobs of money to implement and they don’t integrate well with the rest of the business (more time and money). Most organizations simply can’t afford this strategy. The other major issue is that social conversations, including shared documents, are just another form of content that needs to be managed. Creating social silos isn’t the right answer. I think the next wave of social solutions need to be integrated with WCMS platforms (full disclosure, we have just such an open source social CMS at DotNetNuke) in order to offer an affordable solution to a broader range of organizations. Things get really interesting when shared social content can be weaved into the fabric of other functions on an internal (or external) website designed to promote engagement and collaboration.

  4. I think it’s more accurate to say the evolved rather than died. You could write a description of the internet in the mid-90’s and say that’s gone away too, but it doesn’t mean we’ve said goodbye to the net does it?

    Social technologies are great, and they add a dimension to intranets that was mostly lacking before, but they’re not a full solution – you still need decent content management, document management, workflow and services integration too.

    As for intranet wikis – they’re a very rare breed, and often end up being used like any other CMS, rather than in their original collaborative spirit.

  5. I see an “intranet” as any internal portal which allows people access to corporate information and applications. Where the intranet failed was that it never really because the technology home for employees as hoped. People simply went to email for that. But the intranet has been there always, though underused. We do log into the “company portal” to access company documents, forums, check schedules etc. With the advent of social media, and they fact that the information design is so intuitive, the intranet could well make a comeback, but under a new “social avatar”.

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