What is an intranet? The definitive explanation

What is an intranet? The definitive explanation

An intranet wears many hats inside an organization. But simply put, it's an internal website that helps employees get stuff done.

June 2, 2023

An intranet is defined as an internal website that helps employees get stuff done.

That’s it. It’s what an intranet definition is in simple, everyday language.

While intranets have been around for close to 30 years, some organizations are just recently discovering them. Driven rapidly by the pandemic, many workplaces discovered intranet software isn't just nice to have, but rather an essential platform for connecting employees in the hybrid workplace. After all, for many of us, work is no longer somewhere we go, but something we do.

An intranet wears many hats. It’s a website, communications channel, knowledge management tool, culture tool, 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—whether remote, hybrid, or in-person.

The difference between internets, intranets & extranets

So what’s the difference? How do 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, board of directors, 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.

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What gets done on an intranet?

James Robertson, an authority on intranets, says the 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.

Intranets: then and now

When intranets first came on the digital scene, they were basically for storing company-wide data and broadcasting information from a central location. Whether they were built or bought, they were not exactly designed for collaboration. Since then intranets have evolved into a much more valuable tool for employees and organizations.

What’s the reason behind this evolution? 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, and smartphones are everywhere. While executives once feared the impact of making intranets too social, the reality is employees use these tools in their personal lives everyday and are capable of doing so at work, too.

Today’s intranet enhances employee and 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 or hybrid workplace

With more companies and workforces going global and the rise of social technology, people are working remotely, or in a hybrid workplace, more than ever before. Gone are the days when going to work only meant commuting onsite and completing 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.

Workplaces can evolve by adopting the best digital tools to enable, support and empower employees. A well-thought out intranet site is a powerful platform that can help accomplish this mission by bringing together the resources employees need to do their jobs quickly and easily. Embracing collaboration tools like intranets can also have positive effects on a key organizational priority: employee engagement. 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.
  • Mobile: needs to be accessible for all employees including frontline workers and deskless employees.
  • Ease of use: platform needs to be easy to use for all users.
  • Customizable: an intranet needs to be customizable and flexible enough to suit an organization's needs.

So, what is an intranet?

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: While this post was originally written in 2016, the definition of an intranet remains the same. 

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