I wrote this in June 2005. The history of intranets is one of a slow burn of adoption (or innovation, if you like). But the pace of technology change is increasing, email is being challenged… is it time now to dust off the intranet imperative and think about about where we go next?
What exactly is an intranet?
The nature of intranets is changing. In fact the term intranet itself is rapidly losing meaning as the Internet interpenetrates organisations through a mixture of business-to-business marketing, extranets, hosted application services and of course personal use of the Web at work. The traditionalist view of intranets, one that concentrates on static information built around an impregnable information architecture, creates a risk for organisations that may be oblivious to the rise of collaborative and dynamic “application-nets” that connect users to people, places and things.
Consider for a moment – what exactly is an intranet? The most simple or basic definition defines it as a restricted, private computer network that uses TCP/IP (Internet) network protocols to facilitate data transmission and exchange within an organisation. But when we look at modern intranets (and extranets), this definition raises more questions than answers – for example:
- Restricted or private to whom – does this include business partners or even customers?
- What is the computer network – does it end at the PC on your desk, the mobile phone in your pocket or a kiosk on the shopfloor?
- Does data include self-service systems, rich media, access to Web – and video conferencing and business intelligence tools that empower staff to get their work done?
Clearly the potiential demands placed on intranets are moving well beyond their original scope of simple access to information and documents. In fact paralleling other changes in our working environments, intranets now need to support always on, always connected access and provide flexibility and interactivity on demand. The technologies to do this already exist and the key challenge for many organistions is how to manage the evolution of an intranet into a multifaceted application-net in a controlled manner.
Of course while you can choose to ignore this imperative, be aware that technology has a habit of winning. You may find your users taking the path of least resistance (like returning to the dreaded network drive) or they will pick their own user-driven tools that will ensure they can get the job done.
The Strategic View of Intranets
Organisations need to control how their intranets will evolve into application-nets. The right approach for achieving this control is a management response that starts with developing a strategic view of their intranet. This strategic perspective does not prescribe the exact future form of the intranet as an application-net, but it provides the basis for creating a system architecture that will facilitate it. The critical point of difference between this new architecture and the old approach is that the intranet imperative forces us to broaden our horizons in order to understand more fully the fit between people, places and things.
This new strategic view should be built from understanding four key elements:
- People and Process – understand who the current and future users of system will be, where they are located and what work activities the system must support;
- Content – not just documents and information, but the collection of applications and other data in the system;
- Infrastructure – The basic technical structure or features of the system (e.g. servers, networks, content management software, etc) and also the human support functions (e.g. helpdesks, trainers, technicians, etc); and
- Governance -– the management controls (standards, committees, etc) that deal with the form of the infrastructure and the nature of the content in the system to ensure it meets the needs of the organisation and its users.
But like any type of strategic planning, the application of this strategic view must take into account the overall context of the organisation. Steps for understanding the strategic context and incorporating it into the design of the new architecture include:
- Business and Technology Analysis – Develop a strategic understanding of the intranet and how this technology, at its most fundamental level, relates to the overall strategy objectives of the organisation;
- System Audit and Gap Analysis – Complete a review of the people, processes, technology and content that already exists within your organisation to identify the gap between where you are and where you want to be;
- Manage expectations – Negotiate performance outcomes with your stakeholders to link the evolution of the intranet to the organisation’s objectives; and
- Innovation – Look outside the organisation to learn from leading practices, understand the different options that are available in the market, and emerging trends.
These steps take us beyond simply asking how users will contribute and access information in the intranet and instead make us focus on the bigger picture, resulting in an architecture that is better aligned to the needs of the organisation.
From imperative to action
The intranet imperative is driven by unstoppable technology advances that affect how people work with and use information technology in the workplace. These include:
- Blurred lines between people, places and things – the distinction between intranets, extranets and Internet sites is changing;
- Rich media and interactive content – the scope of content has expanded to includes more than static documents, text and images;
- Always on, always connected – the working environment and intranets need to be delivered through new channels, such as mobile phone, wireless PDAs, voice and kiosks on the shop floor;
- Next generation networks – awareness, presence and locality will be built in; and
- User-driven software – users will take the path of least resistance and will pick less sophisticated tools if they get the job done.
Unfortunately for the average intranet manager or management team these changes will of course increase the complexity of dealing with already existing document-centric challenges such as information architecture, effective search and content quality. For example, expert designed information architectures will need to co-exist with those created by user communities. In practice what this means is that we will see organisations embrace different degrees of control, standardisation and integration in order to align their application-nets with the strategic goals of the organisation. For example, centralised authoring will live along side self-publishing systems such as wikis and blogs because it makes business sense rather that isolated decision to choose one over the other.
What may be worse still for some teams is that the technology of the intranet will no longer be isolated from other parts of the organisation. Under these circumstances the system architecture becomes even more critical as both a plan but also as a process for engaging with the rest of the organisation, both in terms of needs but also to create the right operational linkages. So, applying strategic thinking and designing a system architecture for your next generation intranet represents more that just a nice theoretical step but is instead a critical success factor.
We now understand that the nature of intranets is changing. Unless you use strategic thinking to broaden your concept of what constitutes an “intranet” into a next generation application-net, then you risk losing control as technology leaps ahead without you. You can prepare for this challenge by:
- Understanding why the nature of intranets is changing;
- Analysing the strategic context of your intranet today and what will be needed moving forward; and
- Designing a new system architecture that will facilitate this change so it is progressive, evolutionary and beneficial rather than chaotic, revolutionary and disruptive.