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Intranets – huh – what are they good for…

May 13, 2010

…absolutely nothing. Say it again! Say again????

I have a startling and somewhat unnerving confession to make. I haven’t used a company Intranet in any capacity for around 3 years now. The Intranets have been there, in a fashion, but haven’t been remotely useful or worth even thinking about. Why is this unnerving? Well, it’s made me question everything I thought and advocated about Intranets for many years.

The organisations I’ve been working for are all successful and, in many areas, bucking the trends of the recession in their particular markets. In each, email, IM (primarily Skype) and shared drives are the established ways of working. I have found myself becoming adept at navigating shared drives, learning about the organisations from them and pulling out the information I need. On the whole, the people around me are even more adept at doing this. It’s what they know, how they’ve done it for years and what they do every day.

In a time of ever tightening budgets and laser sharp focus on measurable results I have had to examine and continually reassess the Return On Investment any changes to the Intranet is likely to have and is there really any business justification for changing the way things are currently done – If it works, why try to fix it?

It’s a tough call at the moment. During the last 3 years, I have seen and experienced how internal communications, project management, CRM, HR and marketing communications can run more than adequately using the combination of email, IM, shared drives and Office documents. Whereas I have used SharePoint extensively on projects in the past, I’m fast coming to conclusion that a few simple interactive Excel templates in a shared folder can be just as effective.

I used to support the sort of observations you see around vendor, implementor and analyst websites like An Intranet is an accurate reflection of the inner workings and ‘Corporate DNA’ of a company” but having seen businesses grow and prosper with barely a second thought given to an Intranet, I have to question this fundamentally.

If an organisation is practised at sharing and communicating information through long established methods and has evolved those as new capabilities, such as Skype, have come along are they really going to gain much more by spending a lot of time and effort on their old Intranets?

I’m fast coming to the view, that if you are ‘knowledge worker’ and have been communicating and sharing information for years – either online or offline, you simply adapt to the toolsets available. You apply the same underlying principles of simplicity, usefulness, context and lifecycle in a hyperlinked way but don’t necessarily need content to be sitting in a web browser under the banner of ‘Company Intranet’.

I’d be interested to hear how many people really believe their Intranet is so business critical that they couldn’t succeed without it? What am I missing here? Are there really killer Intranet apps that couldn’t be achieved in other ways?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 6:38 pm

    Your view is pragmatic, but it misses a longer perspective. Intranets evolved roughly 15 years ago. By means of comparison, the telephone began to be widely used around the turn of the last century – and it wasn’t until 1927 that direct dialing via rotary switches became available. Who could have anticipated the global reach of billions of mobile devices and the changes they have brought – and those to come?

    My point is that we stand at the infancy of intranets, so technology relics like file shares and email still are valuable in a tactical manner despite their shortcomings. Most organizations haven’t established their intranets strategically, and like a child learning how to use it’s skills and appendages, there will be many missteps and a lot of practice before they find a stride and add value.

  2. May 14, 2010 7:17 pm

    OK, so I’m from a small company in which 90% of the time we are all in the same building, so you could say we are the *least* to gain from an intranet (compared to, say, a big global geographically diverse enterprise). Yet our intranet is pretty invaluable. Could we live without it… yeah we could… but only in the same kind of way I could live without coffee.

    So what does our intranet do then?

    * Time tracking… all our billable time is tracked via a desktop app / web issue tracker and managed/reported via the intranet. ie. its how we get paid. Reports on time per project, cost overruns, what each employee has been working on etc.

    * Quote generation. Our intranet has a system for us to generated structured documents (proposals, quotes, etc). Saves me wasting all day with MS Word and having is f%*k up by numbered bullet points every time I blink. I can base a new document on a previous one, it can do all the pagination, layout, cost calculations, etc… I just enter in the content… it gives me a PDF

    * Summary dashboards of various systems, eg. commit logs of our source control system

    * Calendaring system, with holiday time / sick day tracking, XMPP / SMS / email notification. Syndication to iCal.

    * Issue tracking / ToDo lists. Both us and our clients and log issues, this all ties in with the time tracking system above.

    * General document sharing (shared drive-type stuff), but with better metadata 😉

    * Wikis for knowledge management on various free form technical areas.

    So all of the above could be done with discrete tools, and yes we used to do similar with the likes of Roundup, BaseCamp, etc. but our Intranet has now evolved (over about 2-3 years) to be something that really is part of our business.

    You mention your previous intranets have mostly been Sharepoint? I don’t know what they did, but most sharepoint installations I’ve seen *are* basically shared drives, with very little actual value add on them.

  3. May 15, 2010 12:19 pm

    @ Andy – many thanks for you comment. I agree that in the context of the telephone as a communications device, Intranets are in their infancy but I think if you look at uptake and usage of email and IM as well as the massive growth of Facebook and the iphone in more recent years – the Intranet, as a concept, doesn’t have much of an excuse for languishing at the bottom of the to do list. So would I turn these underperforming Intranets into something as popular as the Facebook approach? Absolutely not – from what I’ve been observing, a Facebook style Intranet would have a negative impact on productivity versus the relatively focused and undistracting environments of shared drives.

    @ Matt – that’s a good list of killer apps for an Intranet but I’m pretty sure looking through them you could achieve them with some thoughtful combinations of Windows SharePoint Services ‘free’ templates – By the same thought process though, even basic Excel 2003 templates can be quite powerful and there are masses of more sophisticated 2007 versions that rival much of the SharePoint functionality I have used in the past. So – functionality, with the simple ‘shared drive’ UI can be perfectly adaquate for many scenarios.

  4. May 16, 2010 8:35 pm

    Well I could achieve many of them with thoughtful combinations of pencil, paper and a carrier pigeon, but that kind of misses the point. As I said, we used to use a number of discrete tools, but over time we integrated them together to form the internet we now how. Some of them we replaces with built-in functionality when that worked out better.

    The thought of managing projects with a bunch of Excel spreadsheets accessed via a shared drive-like system, frankly, brings me out in cold sweats.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is… if all you use your intranet for is a shared drive, then yes maybe a shared drive-type system would work better for you. But surely the value is in expanding beyond that to encompass actual business processes and procedures that otherwise would be more cumbersome and time consuming to do otherwise?


  5. Michael permalink
    May 17, 2010 10:26 am

    In my experience, Intranets often come about because the shared drives end up a mess and they give an easy way to link people to locations hidden about 30 levels down in the drives.

  6. May 18, 2010 7:33 am

    Hi Matt,

    I’ve worked in an organisation similar to yours, where web technologies were central to what the business did on a day to day basis and technical literacy was very high.

    I’m sure you’d agree though, from your experiences with implementing web solutions for clients, that cultural and business process change are often the biggest challenges these type of initiatives face.

    When budgets are tight and focus on ROI is high the question of ‘if it works, why try to fix it’ gets bigger and bigger – and as I’ve outlined above I’m really struggling right now to justify putting valuable resources into an area that appears well catered for via other toolsets.



  7. May 18, 2010 9:16 pm

    James – you’re absolutely correct to look at the question of return.I had more to say, and rather than a too-long comment, I posted a mini case study here:

    Crititcal take-away: ‘Intranet-as-repository’ has little to no added value. Intranets need to support business processes and reduce complexity and friction if they’re going to achieve a return and add sustained value.

  8. May 19, 2010 7:16 am

    Andy – thanks for posting your experiences. You make a great point about providing a simplified layer to more complex ebusiness functionality and process. I am about to start pushing forward a similar type of initiative in my current role and I do see that as an opportunity to make the Intranet a useful and compelling destination that will draw people in on a daily basis.

    However, as you say observe in your own case study, this initiative comes with a big price tag and therefore a far more complex ROI analysis and business justification. What that means is that we will not be spending in other areas right now so in the short term at least, our shared drive remains our primary internal UI, Excel/Office templates our process tools and email/IM our communications platform.

    Many thanks for joining the conversation.

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