Off-the-shelf intranet: Why building an intranet is still a bad idea

When enterprises decide their intranet needs an upgrade, the first question they ask is “should we build it ourselves or buy an out-of-the-box solution.” Over the years, this question has become easier to answer, but some enterprises are still considering homegrown solutions. Find out why that’s still a bad idea.

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The hidden costs of homegrown intranets

According to Forrester, “The appetite for custom-built, homegrown intranets is dead.” Yet, some enterprises still consider building homegrown intranet solutions over buying a turnkey or off-the-shelf solution.

Why is the appetite for homegrown intranets is dead? Primarily because the market has evolved and transformed expectations of what an intranet can and should do. Today employees expect consumer-grade digital experiences from their workplace technology and meeting those expectations is the difference between engaging and frustrating a modern workforce. Where 20 years ago, options for buying an off-the-shelf intranet were limited, and build was the de facto option, today the SaaS intranet market is brimming with opportunity.

"The intranet market has undergone a major reinvention over the last few years. New, cloud-native platforms have shattered the stereotype of static, clunky, internal portals. Since The Forrester Wave™: Intranet Platforms, Q2 2020, customer demand has decidedly shifted away from “build” to “buy.”"

Forrester, Intranet Wave 2022 Report

'The Forrester Wave™: Intranet Platforms' report flat pages


The Forrester Wave™: Intranet Platforms

The Forrester Wave™: Intranet Platforms report is an essential guide for enterprises developing their digital workplace strategies and assessing intranet platforms. Download it for an in-depth summary into the 12 intranet providers that matter most and learn more about why Unily is a Leader.

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Today’s intranets or employee experience platforms (EXPs) are dynamic solutions that have evolved over the last twenty years to cater to well-defined enterprise needs. They offer the ability to launch at speed with a range of pre-built features that require no technical development to get off the ground. And for those enterprises that think they need something so bespoke a product can’t meet their needs, modern EXPs allow for limitless development and customization.

Where the main pro of building a custom solution used to be that it allowed you to meet specific enterprise needs, today that’s no longer true. An off-the-shelf solution is just as customizable as a homegrown solution. Plus, you get all the other benefits of a turnkey intranet like proven value, faster time to launch and tried and tested suites of native features.

Yet still, we see some enterprises considering building a homegrown intranet over buying a pre-built solution. So, let’s look at the important considerations to make before deciding to build your own intranet. 


Intranet trends 2022

To kick off 2022, our experts share their insights on the forces, changes, and trends that they see shaping intranets, workplace transformation, and employee experience in 2022.

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Key things to consider before building your own intranet

#1. Time to value

How quickly do you want to launch your new solution? Chances are if you’ve identified the need for a new intranet, that’s because you’ve reached the ‘burning platform’ stage i.e. there’s an urgent need for change. If that’s the case, the first thing you need to consider is the comparative time to launch between a custom homegrown and turnkey solution. An Out-of-the-Box intranet can be launched in as few as 4 weeks, in contrast, it can take upwards of 9 months to get a homegrown solution to the point where you can even start adding content.

#2. Technical resource

The second important consideration when it comes to deciding whether to build or buy an intranet is: how much technical resource do you have? Today intranet teams can be as small as one person IF it’s an off-the-shelf solution. If you’re looking to create a custom intranet, you need dedicated resource available for anywhere from 12-24 months. As well as being costly, another problem that build projects often run into is the reassignment of their IT resource as business priorities change. This means even if you have headcount for development at the outset, it is vulnerable to business change, and could ultimately be pulled away at any point.

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#3. Upfront costs

The cost of developing a custom solution over an OOTB solution is often the clincher. Many people assume that a custom solution is the more cost-effective route to take since it only requires an initial outlay. This is a myth! Yes, an OOTB solution requires yearly licencing which can be a detractor, particularly to IT teams watching their ongoing budget.

While an ongoing investment in intranet licences might seem unpalatable, the harder pill to swallow is outlaying vast upfront costs to build a solution that doesn’t work. In 2007, the British NHS suffered this realisation when their £11bn investment in a new custom Healthcare Records System was scrapped after exceeding the budget by £4.7bn. Realizing that they lacked the technical expertise to develop a homegrown solution after four years of failed attempts, the NHS finally opted for an off-the-shelf solution. Heed their tale!

#4. On-going maintenance

Another big factor to consider if you’re exploring building an intranet is the ongoing maintenance and growth of your platform. What technical resource will you have available to you to evolve and develop your platform over time? An intranet that stays the same as it was on day one is an intranet that’s destined to fail. As your business matures, and employee needs change, your intranet must grow with it. If you’ve chosen the custom route, that means continual reinvestment at a high cost with no proven results. In comparison, OOTB intranets are being developed continuously to meet the emerging needs by expert teams that invest in innovating to outpace their competition. Furthermore, they are designed to be used by non-technical people, which means communicators have the ability to respond to changing needs with immediacy and without assistance from IT.


Life after intranet launch

The first step always seems the biggest, but there’s still a long road ahead. Episode 6 of the Unily podcast sees our very own expert in life after launch, Customer Success Manager Sanika Gentles, join Paul Seda, Kaitlin Auriemma, and Matthew Boyd to talk about the key drivers of your employee experience platform’s success; now, and long into the future.

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#5. Support

The final question to ask yourself before going down the custom intranet road is, are you ready to go it alone? If not, you’re looking at costly investments in consultants that can support you to develop an intranet that meets your needs. You’re also looking at a lot of stabbing in the dark.

What an OOTB solution offers you that a custom intranet can’t is extensive support. From customer communities like Unily’s Universe portal that let you connect with peers with similar goals and challenges, to Customer Success Managers and Implementation and Support teams that work with a host of enterprises to mature platforms and bring visions to life. When you pick a turnkey intranet you not only know you’re selecting a product that’s undergone extensive beta testing and refinement before being offered to users, but you also benefit from the expertise of a business that’s sole focus is solving the challenges you have.

The bottom line on build vs buy intranets

Ultimately, the biggest question you need to ask yourself before embarking on a custom intranet project is: what is my core business? It’s very unlikely that your business is looking to be the next big employee experience platform or intranet product provider, so why direct your resources this way when the market is so bright with options? If you wouldn’t build your own CRM, ERP or HR system, why would you build your own Employee Experience Platform?

The bottom line is, if employee experience is important to your organization and you understand the benefits a modern intranet can bring, then there are solutions out there, ready-made to meet and exceed your needs. Don’t stab in the dark thinking that you need something so custom you couldn’t possibly buy it off the shelf – invest in a platform that’s been proven to work, will evolve over time, and still brings you the same customization opportunities a homegrown platform would.

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