What is an intranet? The definitive explanation

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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 definition 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? How to you define an intranet from other related tools? And what is an extranet? While the internet connects many people to many websites, an intranet is a website that connects people inside an organization. As for the extranet definition, it is a site that connects people inside an organization with external parties, like partners, clients and vendors, to encourage collaboration and make it easier to share information. A simple way of remembering the difference of an intranet vs extranet, is that an intranet is for your employees, and an extranet is for stakeholders.

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. That’s the intranet definition.

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

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