The Intranet Identity Crisis


Looking for a clear and simple path to a new intranet? Download our free Intranet Buyers Workbook to learn 10 key steps in evaluating intranet solutions.

In my last ThoughtFarmer blog post, I put forward the notion that the Intranet suffers from an identity crisis. Many companies and institutions we speak with understand that their Intranet is a tricky problem, but depending upon their professional background and point of view, they’ll define that problem differently, either from a technical, information design, productivity, or social capital/engagement perspective. And in doing so, they frame the discussion for how the “problem” of the Intranet is to be approached, considered, and ultimately “solved.”

I witnessed this over and over again at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference in both presentations and in discussions with participants. Executives, IT managers, communications directors, and HR leaders tend to focus on what they know best and how they relate to the Intranet, through the four lenses mentioned above.

Of course, what makes the Intranet a fascinating design task for people like us, the developers of Intranet systems, is that it’s the perfect collision of all of these things.

What other corporate asset has the responsibility of improving service delivery, retaining organizational knowledge, reducing travel, encouraging culture and employee engagement all at once?

I’d argue there is nothing like it in the enterprise. This is the challenge of the Intranet.

We have come to conclude that the most successful model of the intranet exhibits a high degree of sociality. Or said another way, it’s a human-centred intranet, focused just as much on the people interacting in the system as the content stored there. We believe the intranet articulated in this fashion exhibits behaviours remarkably similar to a complex adaptive system. And in my last post, I stated I’d elaborate more on the characteristics of dynamic systems, information ecologies, and intranets, which I will in good time.

But first, we need to talk a bit more about the intranet’s identity crisis.

The Four Purposes of the Intranet

The purpose of the intranet is rarely questioned by companies – and that’s really a shame. What’s it good for anyways?

If you’ve worked with us for any period of time, you’ll have heard us use one of our favourite questions to challenge the assumptions of our clients, “To what problem is the X (in this case where X = the Intranet) the solution?”

James Robertson, a leading intranet consultant and content management expert with Step Two Designs in Australia, presented his 4 Purposes of the Intranet in a presentation at the IA Summit in Miami in April 2008.

Robertson outlines four basic purposes:

  • Content
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Activity

Content is defined as the publishing and storage of information on the intranet (corporate policies, forms, procedures, project information, etc.). Communication is traditionally seen as the broadcast model of employee communications, the sending of corporate messages from headquarters to staff. Collaboration is defined as the still-maturing field of web-based project collaboration tools, allowing teams to work together, share documents, and produce project artifacts. Finally, Activity describes the self-service applications that use the web browser as a delivery mechanism to connect staff to mission critical business systems (payroll, timesheets, issue-tracking systems, financial, HR, and ERP applications).

Set against this four-purpose framework, the traditional Intranet’s focus has clearly been delivering a Content and Communications platform for employees. It is not uncommon to find organizations with distributed publishing models and centralized content management systems that allows for employees to publish content into a centrally defined information architecture utilizing standardized templates and visual design. Internal communications staff use the intranet to publicize internal news items and corporate initiatives to staff, in a few-to-many broadcast model. Activity can also feature prominently on the intranet with links to various line-of-business applications launching from the intranet and connecting to employees’ desktops through the internal web channel: payroll, benefits, ERP, expense reporting, and timesheet systems being a few examples.

Collaboration is still an emerging area where internal websites are being used in modern enterprises. Mini-project sites and document repositories are increasingly popular, while communities of practice cluster around intranet-hosted discussion forums.

In analyzing the four purposes of the intranet, Robertson argues that while traditional investment has been made in the intranet as a Content and Communication platform, the real benefits that drive business value reside in its ability to be a Collaboration and Activity platform. Increasingly, organizations around the world are recognizing this and are re-framing the purpose of their intranet, enhancing its design and functionality to drive business transformation, affect change, and generate value.

Robertson’s Four Purposes, originally presented as a brief 13-minute PowerPoint presentation at the 2008 IA Summit, is the result of more than 15 years of thought and active practice in the domain of intranet, content management, and knowledge management consulting. It is a great starting place, but does not provide adequate depth in understanding for charting an effective intranet strategy. The concepts outlined by Robertson, in particular those of Communication and Collaboration, require further attention to be better understood and put into context.

In my next post, I’ll tackle some of the issues we have at ThoughtFarmer with the traditional ideas of Communication on the Intranet.

Looking for a clear and simple path to a new intranet? Download our free Intranet Buyers Workbook to learn 10 key steps in evaluating intranet solutions.


Join The Discussion

  1. Jon Husband

    What other corporate asset has the responsibility of improving service delivery, retaining organizational knowledge, reducing travel, encouraging culture and employee engagement all at once?

    Nicely put, Gordon.

  2. Andrew Wright

    Interesting blog. I come across this problem often when consulting with organisations about their intranets. When I ask the question. ‘Why do you have an intranet and what business issue is it addressing?’ – the answers are invariably motherhood type statements such as ‘we want to improve communication or manage our knowedge’. As a result of a poorly defined purpose, intranets can sometimes evolve into an amorphous mass of useless content that doesn’t really help anyone and in fact hides the content that is valuable..

    Gerry McGovern sums it up nicely in his blog where he says giving control of a website to a communicator can be like giving a pub to an alcoholic. He makes the point that news created on organizational websites and intranets needs to be brutally action-oriented and to-the-point It needs to help people do things. See the full artiicle here:

    I think that at the core of every intranet should be the single goal of helping staff work more effciently and effectively. All decisions around intranet design, content & application development should be prefaced with the question ‘How is this going to help our staff work better?’ In my experience, by asking that one simple quesion, at least 50% (if not more) of your intranet content be removed.

    Around this single goal are 8 possible intranet business drivers: Business Processes, Knowledge Management,Collaboration, Change Management, Continuous Improvement, Portal to data & applications, Employee Engagement and the Environment. There are good business reasons for each of these drivers – you can read more about it here:

  3. EphraimJF

    The theme of this article is an important one for many folks thinking strategically and holistically about intranet development.

    Catherine Grenfell at Step Two Designs wrote a great artilce titled “What do successful intranet managers have in common?” which articulates the broad set of skills need to implement a modern intranet:

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