What is an intranet? The definitive explanation


what is an intranet?

Q: What is an intranet?

A: An internal website that helps employees get stuff done.

That’s it. It’s what an intranet is in simple, everyday language. It’s also what you can say to explain an intranet to most employees (or to your retired uncle when he asks what you’re doing for work these days).

An intranet wears many hats inside an organization. It’s a website, communications channel and collaboration platform. It helps people work better by combining the best features of wikis, blogs, document and content management systems. An intranet makes it easy for everyone inside an organization to contribute, not just a select few. While the thought of a distributed author model may seem daunting (how do you stay in control of what’s out there?) the benefits can far outweigh the drawbacks. Empowering employees with a voice and the freedom to share ideas with their colleagues can be a positive step forward to a culture of collaboration that embraces our tech-savvy age.

Understanding internets, intranets & extranets

So what’s the difference? While the internet connects many people to many websites, an intranet is a website that connects people inside an organization. Then, there’s the extranet site, which connects people inside an organization with external parties, like partners, clients and vendors, to encourage collaboration and make it easier to share information.

What gets done on an intranet?

James Robertson, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on intranets, says that today’s intranet has five purposes:

  • Content (e.g. policy documents)
  • Communication (e.g. corporate news)
  • Activity (e.g. expense form)
  • Collaboration (e.g. project wiki)
  • Culture (e.g. noon-hour jogging club)

James also points out that the modern intranet is now much more than a place to store static corporate content—it’s becoming a key tool for organizational success. The five-purpose model can help frame your overall vision, define your intranet strategy and come up with a plan to engage your audience. It’s like writing an outline before you tackle that 20-page report.

Intranets: then and now

When intranets first came on the digital scene, they were basically just used to store company-wide data and broadcast information from a central location. They were not exactly built to collaborate. Since then intranets have evolved into a much more valuable tool for employees and organizations. What’s the reason behind this evolution, you ask? When the concept of Web 2.0 was popularized in 2004, it represented a huge shift in the way digital information was managed. Now, the way people live and work is drastically different. Social technology is as much a part of our everyday routines as our morning java (they actually go nicely together). The rapid rise of social media has changed how people get things done and interact with each other. Smartphones are everywhere. While it’s natural for executives to fear the impact of making social features available on their intranet, the reality is employees use these tools in their personal lives everyday and are capable of doing so at work, too.

Today’s intranet has so much more to offer than its previous counterparts. It enhances communication and collaboration by giving people the tools they need to be productive, informed and engaged. An intranet helps people work better, anytime, anywhere.

Evolving to a digital workplace

With more companies and workforces going global and the rise of social technology, people are working remotely more than ever before. Gone are the days when going to work only meant commuting to the office and doing your job during office hours. People are always connected and it’s no different in the workplace. Employees want access to information fast and they need it to accomplish tasks. People want and need flexibility to succeed.

There’s a steady shift happening to what’s referred to as the “digital workplace”, or all the technologies that employees use to do their jobs. This can be anything from email, instant messaging and HR systems to document management software and of course, intranets. While the term “digital workplace” is much more common now, it stirred up some controversy in the past. Despite this, signs are showing the term is here to stay. It’s being googled a lot. It’s also being called the internal communication “term of the year” by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) based on the new reality that people are working digitally more than ever before.

Workplaces can evolve by adopting the best digital tools to enable, support and empower employees. A well-thought out intranet site is a powerful digital tool that can help accomplish this mission by bringing together the resources employees need to do their jobs quickly and easily. Embracing the digital workplace can also have positive effects on a key organizational priority: employee engagement. According to a recent Deloitte survey of HR and industry leaders, engagement and culture have risen to become “the No.1 challenge around the world” for business leaders. Food for thought. Engagement starts with listening to employees, involving them in decisions, and empowering them to take ownership of their work.

So what does this mean for intranets?

  • Flexibility: content needs to be flexible across devices and adaptable to how employees work.
  • Teamwork: teams need to exist and function digitally.
  • Engagement & culture: usability, branding and design need to reflect an organization’s commitment to their people.

Now back to the question, “what is an intranet?” Simply put, it’s an internal website that helps employees get stuff done and work better. It’s a way of describing a digital tool that helps people who don’t know about intranets learn what they are. The workplace is shifting and intranets are a key piece of the digital puzzle.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2011 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

View the recorded webinar: Introducing ThoughtFarmer 8.1 Satsuma to learn more about ThoughtFarmer’s refreshingly engaging intranet.

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Join The Discussion

  1. Chris McGrath

    Thanks for the comment James, and you raise a point that I had considered including in this post.

    For simplicity, I purposely left out any discussion of what “internal” means. “Internal” is simpler than “restricted for use by employees and workers within a particular organization”. I think “internal” is still correct regardless of the delivery method (cloud or not), just as an employee is still an employee even when they work from their home office.

    And certainly a modern intranet is more porous than in the past. Vendors, consultants and clients may have access to a portion of the intranet. But the intranet is still an internal site — it’s not open to the public. The primary use case is still internal.

  2. James Royal-Lawson

    Totally agree with your message – the term Intranet is here to stay. I don’t see it vanishing any time soon. Trying to push a terminology change, such as “digital workplace” is a mis-focus of efforts – Although I acknowledge that “intranet” isn’t always well received at management levels… and “digital workplace” and “social business” do perhaps “press the right buttons” and therefore have their uses…

    What I disagree with though if your definition of an intranet. It’s out-dated and doesn’t reflect how many companies actually work. An intranet is no longer a walled garden defined by firewalls and networks – the cloud and tools such as Yammer have changed all that.

    We’ve discussed this a great deal as part of the Introduction to Intranets project.

    Here is the definition we have: “A collection of tools and websites that are restricted for use by employees and workers within a particular organization.”

  3. Wedge

    Food for thought indeed. There is a pressure to consider the ‘digital workspace / place’ terminology, and I understand that there is more to my online work-life than only the ‘corporate intranet’, but perhaps talking about certain apps / services and devices does take the discussion a little too far. I’m ambivalent, and I fear I will be swayed by what the masses adopt, and the word ‘intranet’ may well stick for a long while yet. Of course, I hang around with people who talk about the digital workplace, so ambivalent I may well remain.

  4. Richard Dennison

    I fear that if you insist on refering to the intranet as a ‘place’ … or even a ‘website’ (AND refer to it as ‘internal’) then you render it out-of-date and irrelevant in a stroke! The intranet has long been a ‘concept’ … this is how I defined the BT intranet in 2007:

    ‘… ALL the on-line information an individual generates and consumes and the services they use through the screen of whatever electronic device they need to perform their role for the organisation. This includes e-mail but excludes the applications that run on the various electronic devices used to access on-line information (e.g. the PC desktop real estate).’

    To be honest, I think the whole discussion about what to call it is a red herring … what matters is that when I turn my PC (or whatever device I use) on in the morning I can aeasily access the stuff I need to do my job to the best of my ability …

    My original post from 2007 on ‘what is an intranet’: http://richarddennison.wordpress.com/2007/12/19/what-is-an-intranet/

  5. @digitalJonathan

    So, here’s an odd challenge to your definition.

    Given the likes of Yammer and Chatter, does an intranet by definition need to be an ‘internal website’? Further (and I do accept that this likely a very rare example), the CERN intranet is actually an internet.


  6. Chris McGrath

    @richard thanks for weighing in, but i definitely disagree. your definition is pretty long-winded — i think most people would have trouble repeating it, understanding it, and remembering it.

    @digitalJonathan thanks for your comment too! i don’t believe Yammer or Chatter are intranets. For example, in Yammer, where do you put the “request time off form”? Is it automatically tweeted periodically? Yammer works best as a feature of a greater intranet. (I’m sure Yammer will continue to reinvent itself, but within 3 years every intranet platform will have Yammer’s current functionality integrated as part of the core product.)

    On the topic of “internal”, see my comment #2 above. “Internal” is a reference not to where it lives (i.e. in the cloud or on the company’s internal network) but rather to who can access it. And although some external people may have access, a primarily internal use case is what makes an intranet. (It’s great how open CERN is — wouldn’t it be great if all businesses could exemplify Cluetrain like they do?)

    • Richard Dennison

      I should have said that the definition above wasn’t for end users but for the intranet management team to understand the scope of the digital landscape we were cultivating …

    • Gabriele Sani

      IMHO, from the user’s perspective “digital workspace” is a better definition. (Even if with this I am suggesting that my job title is already obsolete!)

      First of all “digital workspace” is more immediate. In my experience, not everyone knows what an Intranet is, while anybody can figure out that a “workspace” is a place shared with your colleagues, and where you can find tools to work with.

      This may include tools that have nothing to do with a website like, for example, document workflows that accept approvals sent via blackberry, or virtual drives. Besides, the integration with email servers, external services (eg: Open Calais, Federated Search, or even RSS feeds), and online tools (Yammer, 4shared, Posterous) blur the boundaries between “internal” and “external” to the point where a single definition cannot be applied to all systems any longer.

      Anyway, I second Richard’s point of view: the discussion does not have too much meaning any longer. A modern intranet/digital workspace/whatever-you-may-want-to-call-it is what I use to do my job, and I need a specific device to access it. From here, you can specify what YOUR system is.

  7. symon garfield

    Hi, I totally disagree. An intranet is an internal internet. A set of computers that communicate via TCP/IP and hosts a wide variety of sites, applications and services. No way is it a single internal web site


  8. Paul Miller

    Hi Chris: Given that I have just finished writing a book called “Digital Workplace you might expect I have a vested interest in having this new term stick.

    That said, I think both terms are true. Intranets as a set of services will continue to grow, deepen and expand and we see that happening now. Just look at the range we had on IBF 24.

    However intranets are only part of the digital services in organisations and this wider world is growing and deepening fast too.

    The employee as Richard Dennison says could not care less about terms but it is true that intranets are increasingly part of a large digital environment inc live communications, mobile devices, telephony, HR services, cloud software and on.

    It is not that intranets are becoming the Digital Workplace; intranets are still intranets and getting ever more useful but if we close our minds to what is happening around intranets, then we run the risk of becoming marginalised. We understand Physical Workplaces and now we must understand Digital Workplaces as that is where most work happens now. This is not either or – but both.

    I have heard in the last 12 months of Digital Workplace as a term:

    being adopted passionately by various intranet managers in large enterprises
    built in as a new module in MBA courses
    being covered in books in the field of workpklace change

    Great debate – but as I said at the start I am probably biaised, having myself promoted the term strongly and now nailed my colours to the mast in my book…www.digitalworkplacebook.com

  9. Chris McGrath

    @symon i do agree that it’s not a single website from a coder’s perspective. from an end user’s perspective, though, the best intranets appear to be a single website.

    i also think your TCP/IP definition of an intranet is fine from a network engineer’s perspective. my definition, though, is superior from the average employee’s perspective.

    @paul thanks for weighing in. i like what you describe — “digital workplace” as a concept that *includes* the intranet, rather than a term that replaces it.

  10. James Dellow

    Nice post – this is a good time to be having this discussion. However, while we’re referencing past definitions I might point you at my 2005 post on the “intranet imperative”:


    Also, Digital Workplace (which I’ve heard coming out of the old school intranet community, while others are talking about Social Business and Enterprise 2.0) reminds me very of much of Forrester’s Information Workplace concept from about the same time – see:


    Personally I have no problem with the term ‘intranet’ but its worth exploring other terminology to generate discussion and understand what is changing.

  11. Jane McConnell

    Chris: Great conversation you have going here!
    Paul: I’m with you 100%. The intranet is part of the digital workplace. The main thing anyway is that within a single organization people have common understandings on terms they use!

  12. Sam Marshall

    Hi Chris
    Thanks for starting a great discussion. I was the author of the IBF report on the Digital Workplace (you can download it at http://bit.ly/9yfuy5).

    I must admit I haven’t seen any examples of people wanting to rebrand ‘intranet’ with ‘digital workplace’, rather, as Paul says, usually the intent is to say that we need to think about the intranet as part of a wider environment of collaboration, communication, services etc.

    I completely agree with you that ‘intranet’ as a concrete term has its value, and when talking to people outside the field it is a much easier idea to get acoss. But just because ‘Digital Workplace’ is a broader concept, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value in specialist discussions.

    I see ‘Digital Workplace’ as being a bit like how town planners may talk about “transport strategy” internally, but to the public they talk about buses and trains. Both terms can co-exist, but if planners only think about trains in isoltaion, then the public don’t get a joined-up experience between getting off the train and getting to the destination that matters to them.

    When benchmarking, we often ask intranet managers about collaboration and are told that they see it as outside their remit because it doesn’t happen on their CMS. That shouldn’t matter. SImilarly, E2.0 and Social Business are useful labels for one flavour of communication\collaboration, but they also run the risk of ignoring much of the nuts and bolts stuff an organisation needs to do which isn’t part of the current bandwagon.

    @jamesD Forrester’s ‘Information Workplace’ idea is indeed very similar, but their pricing model creates quite a barrier to their ideas being proagated widely!

  13. James Dellow

    @sam I do like your use of the urban planning concept in the maturity model you’ve built, although this leads us to some interesting contradictions related to the issue of planning vs emergence in human system. I’m not sure I agree that the ‘social’ bandwagon ignores the nuts and bolts of organisations. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  14. Kirk Fitzgerald

    I most closely agree with Symon. For my money, Intranet is an Infrastructural term that is internal. So basically… an Internal or limited portion of the Internet intended for a predefined group of individuals to which membership can be managed internally.
    I’d suggest that the ‘What should we call this ?’ discussion revolves not so much around what it is but what is delivered on it. The reference to James Robertson’s work and how he has had to amend it to add new Intranet purpose seems to clearly illustrate this.
    As mentioned, in their youth Intranet infrastructures basically only delivered limited function, distributing company policy or corporate news and providing some basic activities. Businesses within any given corporation happily used the Infrastructural term ‘Intranet” to define this since those functions generally were the responsibility of one business area (usually HR or Corporate Communications) to own and manage.
    So much more functionality is now being delivered via Web enablement. Not only the additional categories mentioned (Collaboration and Culture) but specific business required applications. That, in my opinion, is what has truly spawned this debate.
    A new term is needed so a business area can lay ownership claim to a portion of the functionality that is delivered, therefore gaining influence over how it is managed. It is much easier to re-label it with a different descriptor and make an argument for ownership against that then to change the past association of ownership over the “Intranet”.
    I believe that the term “Intranet” is a technical one (Infrastructural) that was allowed to be used to describe business functionality. If that were addressed and we recognize what we are truly attempting to label, the term Intranet will never need to be changed. These other terms such as Digital Workspace could come as go as needed depending on how any business wished to group and define what functionality is delivered on their own Intranet.

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