The Problem of 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.

“I have a problem. It’s my intranet. It’s terrible.”

Companies talk to us all of the time about their problematic intranets. Messy, out of date, confusing, unattractive, unreliable: we hear about all kinds of nightmarish intranets.

So when companies come to us and tell us about their intranet problems, we listen intently, ask questions, and listen some more. We do our best to understand the nuances of the company, their particular issues, their constraints, and how we could be of assistance. Often, we are part of their solution.

What’s striking about our customers’ stories is how the “fundamental problem” of the intranet is framed in those conversations. It is important to consider, but rarely questioned, for once the “problem” is framed in a particular fashion, certain strategies and solutions become possible, while others are lost.

We’ve seen several frames or lenses through which to view the “problem” of the intranet:

  • intranet as technical problem (issues of performance, content management technology, search engine technology);
  • intranet as information design problem (content structure, navigation, IA, usability);
  • intranet as productivity problem (measurement of gains made through self-service applications and access to information, ROI, enhanced efficiencies); and
  • intranet as social capital problem (employee engagement, culture, job satisfaction).

These frames relate directly to intranet ownership and governance, explaining why different areas of the business are responsible for the intranet and its management. It also demonstrates some of the common turf wars inside organizations as IT, Communications, and HR square off with different visions of what an intranet can and should be.

Problem solving is the domain of design, a small word that encapsulates a wide range of activities, ideas, and topics depending on how, when, and who uses it. As design theorist and academic Richard Buchanan notes, “No single definition of design or branches of professionalized practice such as industrial or graphic design, adequately covers the diversity of ideas and methods gathered together under the label.”

A useful distinction that helps with our conceptualization of the intranet problem is how Buchanan outlines four broad areas of design as a discipline. These are the design of symbolic and visual communications, the design of material objects, the design of activities and organized services, and finally the design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning.

These four areas of design are easily recognized by their corresponding outputs:

Design Genre Output
Symbolic & Visual Communications Typography & advertising, books, magazines,  film, photography, television, computer graphics, visual designs for websites (domain of graphic designers)
Material Object Everyday “products”: clothing, domestic objects, tools, instruments, machinery, vehicle (domain of industrial designers)
Activities and Organized Services Logistics, operations, schedules, bureaucracies, cause and effect systems (domain of management, process engineers, bureaucrats)
Complex Systems or Environments for Living, Working, Playing, and Learning Buildings, structures, streets, neighbourhoods, towns, cities (domain of urban planners, architects, systems engineers)

Source: Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Richard Buchanan; Margolin, V., & Buchanan, R. (1995). The Idea of Design. Cambridge: MIT Press

Of these four broad design genres, where does the intranet belong? Is it a classical piece of visual communications and graphic design, like a brochure? Or due to its technical nature, does it belong to a class of material objects, subject to fixing, like a car engine? Perhaps given the process automation that it affords, it might be considered as an organized service? Or is it really a complex system for working and learning?

Our hypothesis is that while intranets are traditionally seen and framed as a visual design and material object design problem, they in fact have more in common with complex systems than printed brochures, especially when it comes to social intranets and Enterprise 2.0.

Due to this complexity, the intranet design problem can be deemed “wicked” as initially defined by German design theorist Horst Rittel: “Wicked problems are a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”

Sound familiar? Many intranet design problems share these attributes. Wicked problems require different thinking and design skills to solve than typical problems encountered in the design of symbolic communications, material objects, or even organized services. The intranet, conceptualized as a wicked problem, also needs different approaches.

Challenging the assumption of “intranet as object” and reframing it as “intranet as complex system” is the first of a few key assumptions that need to be recognized and understood to ensure social intranet success. Framing the intranet as an object leads to trying to design an object and expecting it to behave like one, subject to standard cause and effect type statements. Framing the intranet as a complex system changes our perception of it: no longer is it a static thing, but a dynamic environment, one which responds to different attempts to control and shape it.

In future posts, we’ll elaborate more on the characteristics of dynamic systems, information ecologies, and intranets.

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. EphraimJF

    Whoa! What a great post! I don’t think I have seen this issue defined with such clarity and conceptual rigor. Thanks Gordon.

    It is not surprising to see this blog post from ThoughtFarmer, a company that produces a social, enterprise wiki-based intranet product. The social and wiki nature of the product offers many more opportunities for affecting organizational culture than a more traditional intranet based on a CMS, document management, or simple web-page generation.

    From the start of our own intranet project we saw that while implementing a new intranet required offering a new visual design, the intranet could substantially influence a culture shift. I recently heard Andrew McAfee say that while effective use of Enterprise 2.0 technology is more about organizational culture and management than anything else, simply implementing social, open technologies can be the tip of the wedge of a culture shift. Enterprise 2.0 technology like ThoughtFarmer can catalyze culture transformations in the right circumstances (though it can rarely cause much of a culture shift all on its own).

    The intranet problem should be understood as crossing multiple design genres and problem definitions and should touch heavily upon issues of organizational development (OD). Organizations ARE complex social systems and the artifacts of the organization play an imiportant role in setting the tone for culture and interpersonal relationships. Just as an office’s design and decor will influence the work environment, so too will an intranet’s visual design, information architecture, social tools and publishing model.

    It is helpful to see even an intranet implementation project itself within the context of a complex social system. Actively engaging organizational constituencies throughout the process of producing a new intranet not only builds stronger shared ownership of the end-product, but actually sets a tone for use of the new intranet.

    I look forward to future posts on this topic and hope to see this particular post garner a lot of comments!

  2. Paul Culmsee

    An excellent article indeed. A topic very close to my heart.

    There is a lot to take away from Ron Heifeitz and his notion of adaptive leadership. Heifetz describes technical vs adaptive (wicked) problems and uses the concept of the holding environment to facilitate adaptive work.

    The idea is this. Without some sort of ‘heat’, the organisation will stay with the status quo. But turn up the heat too fast, and there will be chaos, confusion and pullback (wicked problems symptoms). The holding environment is all about keeping the heat enough to push people out of their comfort zone just enough to prevent chaos. This is known as the productive range of distress (although many other metaphors exist)

    Now I do SharePoint projects mainly and I have found that art to intranets is to create and maintain this sort of holding environment. it has very little to do with technology either.

    I write about these topics here:



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