Intranets don’t matter


Soon after the idea of ‘intranets’ appeared, Forrester Research (as any self-respecting analyst firm would) started surveying Fortune 1000 companies to find out who had implemented one. You can still find references to these surveys floating around the Web and I’ve plotted the data points I could find on to this graph.

If we use this as a proxy for broader rates of intranet adoption, then according to this Forrester data it has taken approximately a decade and a half to reach a point of mass intranet adoption. Considering the technologies involved and that the early intranets were quite simple, this sounds like quite a slow rate of adoption to me. Certainly I would have expected the rate of adoption to have accelerated over time as the technology and the body of knowledge about intranets improved. But this doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Reports of the 1995 survey said that while only 16% had already implemented an intranet at that point, executives told them that a further 26% were in the process of building one and another 24% were considering building one. Even allowing 1-2 years for those intranets to be implemented, we should have expected the level of adoption to hit at least 66% by 1997 – however, we have to wait until 2002 for this to happen.

Overall I see a story of steady adoption, but certainly not with any urgency.

My theory for this ‘slow burn’ is that intranets as we typically imagine them just don’t matter. In most cases, intranets have simply provided a replacement for existing functionality that was either delivered over the computer network (e.g. a newsletter sent out by email) or through some other physical method (e.g. a hard copy internal directory). My rough logic here – backed up by my own experiences in the field – is that if intranets provided more than just a passive benefit, then the rate of adoption would have been a lot faster.

Clearly if we want intranets to matter then they have to provide active benefits that actually contribute to how well the core business operates, rather than just efficiency. These active benefits are likely to be hard to replicate and will introduce new capabilities, perhaps even new products or services.

This doesn’t mean using your intranet to save money isn’t important, just don’t expect it to make your intranet matter. And this isn’t me saying it – just look at the data.