Nobody asks for it by name.
Organizations across the world send thousands of engagement surveys with questions detailing key benefits that might help improve employee experience. ‘A better intranet' doesn't get top billing—it barely registers. But it probably should.
As teams continue to work faster and become more distributed than at any point in history, it's never been more crucial to have a company home in the cloud.
While we redefine and reimagine the employee experience for the modern era, it follows that we should also redefine the tools and scaffolding that support it.
So, what is an intranet? How has it evolved, and most importantly, what will it become?
An intranet is a private network dedicated to a single organization and its employees. The details of how that network is constructed and deployed have changed over time.
In years past, an intranet would be deployed on the business premises (on-prem) as a Local Area Network (LAN). In contrast, modern intranets are often deployed using cloud architecture.
So, while a few structural elements have changed over time, the essence remains the same. An intranet is most accurately defined by who it's designed for, and who has access to it.
An intranet is a closed system, owned, operated by, and only accessible to members of its organization.
The internet is an open system that isn’t owned or operated by any one single entity. Anyone can access it as long as they have a connection.
Sometimes there's a need for structured, secure communication and information sharing between an organization and third parties. Extranet software solves for this by designating a walled portion of an organization's intranet network to this sort of limited third-party access.
Think of it like a barbecue: only a select group of guests are invited to the barbecue, and an even smaller group is allowed inside the house.
Even though they’re not often thought of as an extranet, Slack's 'Slack Connect' feature or ‘Guest Access’ in Microsoft Teams are both good examples of how an extranet works in a modern context.
These features allow you to invite someone who isn't part of your organization to participate with select employees, but only in a special designated area of the platform.
Although Intranet technology predates the 1990s, it was during this time that it made its way out of labs and into a growing range of organizations. With that in mind, we'll begin here.
Employee intranets in the 1990s could be summarized by a sense of inflexibility, limited use cases, limited features—and just like internet sites of the time—compromising on design and user experience.
During this time, intranet networks were fundamentally top-down communication tools, with a collection of links and limited avenues for relay chats. They were used for things like:
Early intranet portals were typically built in-house. Company branding, interface design, and overall user experience were lean and unpolished at this early, nascent stage.
During the dot-com era and the internet heyday of the early and mid-2000s, traditional intranets experienced an equally stark transformation.
Instead of one-way flows of information, interactive intranets emerged.
Instead of being built in-house for a narrow range of use cases, turn-key intranet solutions built by specialists appeared. Tools like Sharepoint made their debut as configurable point solutions, and the
Publications of the time heralded the years between the late 1990s and the early 2000s as the inflection point where connected offices went from being a tiny minority to a near majority.
Early versions of custom corporate intranet applications came into the picture during this time, offering limited self-service features for employees and third-parties.
As these systems evolved, interactivity increased.
Just as they were the golden years of the “web 2.0” social media movement, the 2010s also brought along the birth of the social intranet.
Throughout the 2010s, interactivity, not just between employees and the internet, but also between the intranet and other third-party software integrations, defined intranet development.
During the 2010s, intranets began to look less and less like insular information repositories with limited applications, and more like a fully-functional digital workplace.
User profiles made it easier for remote workers and co-located employees to connect with one another. Communication and collaboration tools grew more connected and integrated into the experience.
This evolution was so stark in contrast to previous models that some technologists were ready to proclaim the death of intranets at the hands of social networking. In reality they weren’t going anywhere—just evolving to accommodate an increasingly social, interactive medium.
If the 2010s were the birthplace of the modern digital workplace, the 2020s are its proving ground.
In the late 2010s and early 2020s, needs for real-time communication evolved into needs for real-time collaboration. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic wholesale shift to remote work it triggered, distributed teams were already becoming more prevalent than ever.
As a result, the 2020s are characterized by a focus on communication, collaboration, and success for both co-located and remote employees.
An even greater importance is placed on integrations, with Office 365, Slack, Zoom, and GSuite connections becoming must-haves for communication and collaboration across the world—but also across the hall.
While remote worker experience is a crucial consideration, they aren’t the only employees using intranets in the 2020s. At a rapidly shrinking company size threshold, essentially everyone is.
We’re relying more and more heavily on intranets as tools for fostering organizational culture and employee satisfaction. As a result, the role of intranet admins has also grown in the 2020s. They’re now company culture leaders, internal communications experts, event coordinators, protectors and sources of important company information.
With so many people using these tools, it became crucial for them to adopt the same sort of people-first design and user experience you might expect from a modern consumer application.
Just like those applications, intranets designed for the 2020s thrive in the intersection between form and function. They're beautiful, portable, and instantly available anywhere.
Much has changed since the early days of intranet platform development, and nearly any modern intranet solution is equipped to address familiar disadvantages of older intranets. But each solution takes a slightly different approach, and as time goes on, new benefits and drawbacks emerge.
Intranet software design has a significant influence on user experience, so while there are common themes, the benefits and drawbacks truly depend on the one you’re using.
So, keeping in mind these themes will vary greatly from system to system, let’s start with some of the most common advantages of an intranet, and how to maximize them.
With only 20% of employees engaged with their work globally, and 74% looking for new work in some capacity, it has never been more important to foster employee engagement.
Intranets can’t solve an employee engagement crisis on their own, but they can provide a mechanism to address it. They can also provide a foundation to support ongoing engagement.
Here are a few examples of ways intranets can and have been used to support employee engagement organization-wide.
If organizations don’t actively show appreciation for their workforce and the contributions they make, it’s unlikely they’ll inspire employee engagement. Some of the simplest ways to show that appreciation are:
An organization is nothing without employees. Each contribution those employees make, whether large or small, has a material impact on that organization’s success. Intranets offer several ways to celebrate those contributions and the people who make them, like:
Fostering employee communication and personal connections was crucial to building engagement even before distributed teams became the norm. Now it’s even more important to provide avenues for colleagues to build camaraderie. Modern intranets often support this through features, like:
Effective knowledge sharing is one of the greatest challenges for organizations as they scale. Without a system of record, employees are burdened with dual responsibilities of finding the right information, and validating it as well.
A well-designed and thoughtfully implemented intranet can relieve some of this burden for employees, as well as leadership, by providing some essential tools.
Employee productivity hinges on quick, reliable access to people, information, and other resources. Intranets can provide a single, structured source of truth employees trust. Instead of passing multiple file renditions or communications back and forth, there’s just one version everyone has access to.
This often leads to less time spent double-checking, less effort overlap, less frustration, and more crucial work getting done.
As a sizable number of employees work remotely now and will continue to for the foreseeable future, security’s importance only grows. With information so easily shared instantly across multiple mediums, it’s crucial to have tools in place to keep sensitive internal communications internal.
And therein lies a major challenge: practical security measures that are easy to implement onsite aren’t always feasible in a digital workplace. Despite this, you still likely need to share sensitive company information with employees.
This is an area where intranets can be uniquely helpful.
While any system is only as secure as the people who participate in it, some intranets offer security-focused tools that can make it easier for users to avoid mistakes, like:
Tools like these can help employees avoid making security mistakes, and keep internal communications internal.
As collaboration continues moving out of the office and across the airwaves, it’s essential to have a wide range of tools to get your work done. The problem arises when none of those tools live in the same place or talk to one another.
This is another area where having a centralized digital workplace can make all the difference. Instead of collaboration apps existing as an island unto themselves, they’re focused and centralized in one place with things like:
Instead of competing against your favorite tools, the best intranets can work in harmony with them—even increase their usefulness.
Intranets are uniquely positioned as internal communication tools because they reach an entire employee population in a way that email, instant messaging, and even in-person interactions can’t always achieve.
Company culture may be difficult to distil into the language of a plain-text, or even an HTML email, intranets offer a means of delivering a curated online employee experience with tools like:
Instead of managing an ever-increasing list of channels to send a message to, some intranets can help ensure every message you send reaches employees with that key information no matter where they are or what communication tools they prefer.
While intranets offer great potential advantages, there are also some common drawbacks. Just like the advantages, these drawbacks depend on the solution in place.
Whether you’ve developed your own system internally, worked with an agency to build one, or bought one off the shelf, many elements will be unique and proprietary. This can mean challenges lay ahead if you ever need to transfer to a new system.
Even a change in organizational structure can wreak havoc on a system that was designed around one specific structure. There are several ways to address this—some of which are dependent on the intranet you use, and some on the way you use it.
Thoughtful data modeling and forward thinking can go a long way toward avoiding these issues, as well as having a flexible platform to work from in the future. This brings us to the next potential disadvantage: management overhead.
Even the best Intranets require thoughtful implementation and strategy. While you may be able to roll out a new design tool, a Slack app, or even a new video conferencing service without a dedicated strategy, an intranet often needs someone (or a team) to manage:
You can avoid overburdening your team by using a platform designed to address and overcome these challenges. Depending on the size of your organization, this usually means leveraging a purpose-built solution, rather than engineering and maintaining your own intranet software internally.
Human Resources Information System (HRIS) or Human Resources Management System (HRMS) integrations can automate user management by provisioning and deprovisioning users—even pulling info from their HRIS profile directly into the intranet.
Single Sign-on (SSO) integrations make it easier for IT teams to manage authentication, and helps them rest easier knowing the implementation meets their security standards.
An intranet can be an incredible value, but they’re almost never cheap. The purchase price is just a portion of the cost, which includes the human resource cost of onboarding, setup, customization, and ongoing maintenance.
Whether you build your own intranet software in-house or purchase a turnkey solution, an intranet is usually a notable expense. The difference between an intranet being expensive and a crucial investment is the amount and type of use it gets.
Because they’re leading the process, intranet purchase and implementation decisions are often weighted heavily on the needs of administrators. While that’s not inherently a problem in itself, it can be a big mistake if end user experience takes a backseat.
End users are crucial stakeholders, and usually outnumber admins by the hundreds (or even thousands in some organizations). If end users don’t find the tool helpful, they’ll only use it as long as they’re obligated to—and when that happens, you end up with a lonely intranet.
Luckily, there are a number of ways to address some of the most common issues that end users struggle with.
Not all bad intranets are slow, but it’s probably safe to say that all slow intranets are bad. If users face a clunky experience every time they try to use the system, they’ll eventually abandon it, and then you’re back to where you were before with disparate information scattered across different apps.
Some applications are quick when there’s not much data, but bog down under heavy usage once they’re filled with users, resources, and information.
As you evaluate options for your own organization, ensure the tool you use is not only fast, but scalable enough to match your current headcount and grow with you.
Information is only useful if you can find it. Poor search performance is a common complaint for end users, especially with more dated intranets. That’s because search is a surprisingly hard thing to get right.
You only get a few chances before users decide a tool isn’t going to satisfy their needs. If they search for key information and don’t find it, they’re not likely to waste their time again in the future.
Some of the best intranet software features universal search: a way to search across people, resources, events, and third-party applications. Even among those search tools, there’s a significant range of quality.
Consider the search experience as a key factor, because it’s likely that search will be a significant portion of the actions users take.
Features don’t solve problems automatically. It’s critical for those features to be accessible and intuitive for users with multiple backgrounds. After all, if a tool isn’t used—or worse, it’s misused—there’s little benefit to having it.
If you’re exploring options for an intranet, consider the end user experience. Will people find the interface delightful or dreadful; brilliant or boring? The answer will have more impact on the platform’s success in an organization than you might think.
If employees find the system easy, even enjoyable to use, they’re more likely to use it. The more they use it, the more effective it becomes—not only as a top-down method of disseminating vital information, but also as a tool to build stronger personal connections, share information laterally, collaborate, and innovate.
Stale content is the distinctive feature of a lonely intranet. If the same information is presented every time a user logs in, there’s less incentive to check back again.
In contrast, if every time you log in, there’s a new event to check out, a group to join, a conversation to take part in, or a project to collaborate on, logging in becomes something to look forward to.
Organizations with lively, vibrant communities are the ones that inspire frequent, active usage.
While there are numerous ways to make sure your intranet isn’t a ghost town. The first is to have an internal communications content strategy focused on engaging employees regularly. Secondly, get others involved. Help them to understand the value of sharing engaging posts, regardless of the department they work in.
To address this, some intranets also allow for integrations that feed a stream of content like announcing new hires, updates from company properties like social media channels, and more.