What is an intranet?

An intranet can look and operate very differently depending on the organization and user it is created for, but there are some commonalities that apply to every internal digital workplace. An intranet is designed to serve as a private network for employees within an organization and centralizes information, documents, and capabilities through one unified platform. In this piece, we explore how intranets have evolved, key features and capabilities they possess, and best practices to drive productivity and employee engagement.

Woman looking at an intranet on her desktop

Definition of an intranet

At its core, an intranet is a private enterprise network, created to boost employee engagement, maximize productivity, and facilitate knowledge sharing throughout an organization. Features and functionalities are tailored to meet the needs and expectations of a specific company, but most intranets include a centralized a homepage complete with news and updates that relate to the organization. Intranets can also store resources, such as onboarding documents and HR guidelines, as well as a user directory to encourage team members across the enterprise to connect.

Just as the internet as a whole encourages users to connect and share information with one another, an intranet facilitates the exchange of ideas and input, but within a smaller subset of users. Much like the internet’s evolution, over the past several decades intranets have transformed from fairly standardized and rudimentary platforms to highly customizable experiences that empower employees to maximize their performance capabilities within their enterprise. The changes and developments within the space are outlined below:

The history of intranets

Intranets first emerged in the 1990s, around the same time the World Wide Web exploded into prevalent commercial use. The first intranets were singular welcome pages that contained only basic information about an organization. Given the limited options regarding customization and design, pretty much every intranet used at this time looked more or less the same and featured flat, text-heavy pages with traditional blue hyperlinks. Intranets of the 1990s were basically digital bulletin boards that featured simple company communications with no tailoring abilities, organization features, or options for users to react or respond.

By the early 2000s, several features were added to intranets to help optimize user experience. Help desks were introduced around this time, which allowed employees to perform simple transactions such as performing basic HR functions or looking up colleagues in a directory. Although intranets were still primarily a company information tool, the introduction of improved search features helped streamline efficiency and provided a first glimpse at customization.

It wasn’t until approximately ten years ago that intranets began to transform from one-way information centers to platforms that host conversations and empower dialogue between employees and stakeholders. During this time, basic social functions such as discussion forums and blogging tools were added in order to encourage employees to engage with the content their intranet hosted. Additionally, developments in document management facilitated smoother collaboration by centralizing information and contributing to the creation of specialized sub-groups and communities. Forms also began to be utilized, allowing employees to self-serve and removing some common source of silos from the workforce.

With the latest round of technological developments, intranets have fully evolved into powerful two-way communications platforms that optimize efficiency while also driving engagement throughout an enterprise. Nuanced social features such as @mentions, #hashtags, and commenting have replaced the rudimentary interactions of years past to facilitate virtual conversations that are expressive and authentic. At the same time, users can stay up to date on their peers’ activities through news streams that provide real-time notifications, which are often tailored to personal interests through a series of algorithms and sophisticated analytics. New design capabilities and specialized tools have ushered in an era in which user experience is an utmost priority. Modern intranets are designed to work in partnership with other applications to provide a personalized, best-in-class experience for every user within an enterprise.

The modern intranet: noteworthy features

As discussed previously, the modern intranet is leaps and bounds ahead of digital workplaces from years past. Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution with standardized design elements, stakeholders now have the power to create nuanced intranets that express their unique brand identity through customizable design features, curated content, and relevant social channels. Below we outline some of the unique features that distinguish modern intranets and the capabilities they possess that help set enterprises up for success.

Communications tools

Modern intranets drive conversation throughout an enterprise with the help of a handful of features. Digital workplaces enable users to create quality content efficiently through rich feature sets and intuitive front-end editing processes. Once content is published, leaders can monitor engagement with the help of analytics that provide insight into each document’s reach. Broadcast centers enable stakeholders to send out email newsletters and cross-device web notifications while the addition of one-click translation ensures that every employee is kept up to speed, regardless of potential language barriers. In addition to content creation, intranets optimize information sharing by providing users with high-quality directories that help employees connect to their organization at large.

One-of-a-kind social reactions

Social interactions give users the opportunity to communicate directly with peers and leaders in an authentic and customizable manner. Features such as @mentions and #hashtags are embedded across all content to help drive conversations across the intranet. These interactions can be powered through a variety of different social platform options including Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Yammer, Salesforce Chatter, or Slack. Thematic, targeted, and private social channels put users in control and ensure private matters remain confidential.

Mobile responsive options

Modern intranets are not reserved solely for office desktops. Instead, digital workplaces can now be accessed through mobile devices thanks to native mobile apps that present users with a fully responsive web interface. Push notifications can be utilized in order to receive real-time updates and drive users back to the intranet. Mobile developments are particularly critical for engaging front-line staffers, such as employees who work in retail or manufacturing, as these workers may not have computer access on a regular basis. Many enterprises struggle to engage their employees on the field, but a mobile intranet can help bridge communications gaps and instill a sense of connectivity throughout an entire organization.

Maximized security

Cybersecurity is an increasing priority for many enterprises as the threat of data breeches looms large. Intranets can help keep information secure by offering comprehensive security options and testing capabilities. Features such as Face ID or fingerprint ID, authenticator apps, and vulnerability scanning can maintain peace of mind and safeguard enterprises against potential security threats.

Seamless integration and connectivity

Microsoft Office is no longer the beginning and end of the business technology stack. Instead, there are a multitude of tools and applications, each designed for specific tasks and deliverables. Intranets cut down on silos and drive efficiency by facilitating third-party integrations that allow organizations to seamlessly connect with other applications and platforms. From YouTube to Skype to Salesforce, modern intranets place the tools employees need most at the forefront in order to optimize user experience.

Benefits of intranets

Given their array of personalized features and built-in tools, modern intranets can provide employees and enterprises with a host of benefits, some of which include:

Increased employee engagement

Countless studies link higher rates of employee engagement to revenue increases, improved customer satisfaction, and heightened productivity. Intranets can drive engagement by guiding employees through every step of their corporate journey, from optimized onboarding processes to streamlined communications pathways and development opportunities that are clearly outlined. Recognition features can ensure that every user is rewarded for their hard work while also encouraging peers to adopt similar best practices.

Heightened productivity

Modern intranets drive productivity by arming employees with all of the information, tools, and updates they need to perform their job with maximum efficiency. Integrations with third-party programs ensure every relevant application is only a click away. Simultaneously, customizable notifications features ensure that the updates an employee receives are tailored to their unique role and set of responsibilities.

Improved communication and collaboration

At large enterprises, some workers may struggle to determine the best point of contact for various questions or tasks. Modern intranets with high-touch user directories make it easy to search for coworkers based on role, region, or specialty, thus facilitating collaboration between coworkers and maximizing knowledge-sharing capabilities.

Reduced silos

Intranets can drastically reduce silos by providing users with high functioning search capabilities that generate results that are specifically relevant to their unique role within an enterprise. Additionally, communications feeds on an intranet reduce the need for company-wide email memos, which frequently inundate workers with excessive information that is not personalized or relevant. Intranets ensure employees can access the information they need without overloading users with news that does not relate to them.

Cultivation of a common culture

In addition to serving as a centralized hub for job-specific updates, intranets can also act as the home base for a brand’s unique employer identity. Intranet homepages are an ideal platform for featuring stories and content that directly relate to company-wide goals, beliefs, and values. Sophisticated design capabilities enable leaders to create personalized platforms complete with brand-specific logos and color schemes.

Common challenges

Despite the many benefits associated with utilizing an intranet, there are also a handful of potential hurdles that may arise. Some of the challenges that stakeholders should be aware of include:

Resistance to change

Across every enterprise, there are some workers who are excited about new innovations and others who are more reluctant to break from their routine. In order to get everyone on board, stakeholders need to approach intranet implementation as a development activity and view it holistically. Be sure to seek out and utilize employee feedback throughout the process in order to establish an intranet that truly puts the user first.

Lack of support throughout implementation

Introducing a new intranet is a significant change and for maximum effect, every employee needs to feel supported throughout the process. Provide workers with a multitude of resources including articles regarding implementation, a centralized FAQ page to address common concerns, and several points of contact to refer to for more personalized queries. Workshops and meetings tailored to specific roles and responsibilities can be an effective means to prepare different departments for the new workplace.

Internal management capabilities

Enterprises need to devise a team to spearhead the implementation process and announce the new intranet well in advanced so workers have time to prepare. The best intranets are a collaboration between multiple stakeholders, including representatives from human resources, IT, and communications departments, so strive to incorporate multiple backgrounds and perspectives into your team.

Intranets vs. extranets

The benefits of a digital workplace do not need to be confined to inter-office communications. Instead, enterprises can invite third-party collaborators into their communications platform through the addition of an extranet. The differences between the two platforms are outlined below:

Extranets allow permitted third-party users to access controlled components of an intranet. An organization may invite certain vendors, partners, suppliers, or customers to access part of their digital workplace in order to fulfill certain tasks such as tracking inventory or receiving pertinent data updates.

Intranets are designed specifically for internal communications and typically can only be accessed by employees within a single enterprise. These workplaces are designed to foster a sense of connectivity throughout an organization while also driving productivity, reducing silos, and encouraging collaboration amongst colleagues.

Intranets as the hub for workplace communication

Modern intranets have come a long way from the basic, one-page designs that were prevalent in the early 2000s. With an onslaught of innovations and increased communications capabilities, the features and functionalities of modern intranets now vary extensively. Yet despite these differences, all modern intranets are designed to optimize the workplace by serving as a centralized platform that inspires employees to engage and connect with their peers and their workplace at large.

Employee accessing intranet on his mobile device for a superior digital experience


11 ways a modern intranet can transform digital employee experience

Enterprises that aren’t fine-tuning their employees' digital experience now are setting themselves up for future failure. According to Gartner, two-thirds of business leaders believe that organizations that fail to upgrade their digital offerings within 2020 will lag behind savvier competitors.

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Connect your enterprise with a modern intranet

Intranets of the present age can drive productivity and empower organizations by instilling a sense of connectivity and encouraging maximal knowledge sharing. If you are interested in creating a thriving corporate intranet, get in touch with one of our intranet experts to learn how to get started today.

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