What Is an Intranet and Is It Still Relevant in 2021?

An intranet is like an internal Internet that allows employees to communicate privately. It’s a dusty relic of remote collaboration software.

When you think of an intranet, your mind might immediately jump to SharePoint, and for good reason! SharePoint is the OG option and was rolled out in 2001 to serve as an internal document storage and distribution system. 

In the last two decades, intranets (including SharePoint) have evolved to be a bit more of a digital town square or portal for companies to share internal-only updates and org charts, in addition to acting as a file storage and sharing database. (If the phrase digital town square makes your eyes roll, well, it was a simpler time.)

What is the difference between intranets and the internet?

Intranets are private digital spaces only available to specific users (usually granted via single sign-on/SSO, IP address, or other company credentials) containing internally-facing information. On the other hand, the internet is a public digital space open to anyone in the world and contains nearly the total sum of human knowledge.

Think about the difference this way: a company will have a public-facing website on the internet that serves as a marketing or informational property, but that doesn’t share anything classified. It might also have a private intranet, which it uses to communicate organizational changes, anniversaries, payroll dates, and strategy decks. The two spaces serve very different functions.

What are extranets, and how are they different from intranets?

Extranets are semi-public networks companies use to communicate information with specifically authorized 3rd party groups, like contractors, vendors, partners, influencers, and, potentially, customers, without granting those groups access to the company’s internal network.

While all employees may have access to an intranet, they may be excluded from an extranet depending on role or function. 3rd party groups will have access to specific files on an extranet but will have no access to the company intranet files.

Internet/intranet/extranet access examples:

  • A PR manager has access to a company’s intranet to search for next month’s target list and has access to the extranet to share guideline documents with influencers
  • An administrative assistant has access to every file in the company’s intranet but no extranet access
  • A contractor working on a specific project only has access to 10 files in the company’s extranet but no intranet access
  • An unidentified internet user has access only to publicly available company information on a marketing website

Why is an intranet important?

There are still many benefits to maintaining a traditional company intranet, but there are many next-generation platforms that can match those benefits while offering many more. Here’s what one can do for businesses:

  1. Provide visibility across teams

An intranet is a great way to make information available to an entire company. Since every employee automatically has access, it’s easy to share updates from company leadership that apply to everyone. And because many solutions also offer division and/or team-specific subsections, it can be an excellent way to catch up on what other teams are working on to stay aligned.

  1. Offer a centralized place for document and content storage and retrieval

An intranet can be a centralized place for employees to store their important documents and information in a way that makes them easily searchable by anyone who might need them. Rather than finding and sharing documents from systems like Microsoft Office or Google Drive, users can upload them to a portal and make them broadly available.

  1. Simplify permissioning

When combined with SSO or purchased as part of a software suite, it can be as easy as a few clicks for administrators to create authorized users or revoke access entirely.

What are the downsides of an intranet?

You might have noticed the phrase “can be” in each of those benefits. That’s because those benefits are only available under ideal usage conditions. In reality, traditional intranet offerings often suffer from low adoption rates for the following reasons:

  1. Intranets require employees to navigate to another destination to access information 

“Intranets are designed to be easily accessed” is an assumption unsupported by real-world usage. U.S. employees switch between 13 tools an average of 30 times per day. We are overwhelmed with tabs, apps, channels, and information—and context switching between these different tools increases the already high cognitive load of working in a distributed environment. Intranets are portals that companies must actively push employees out of their existing workflows to visit and use! 

The intranet: Get out and stay out!
The only way to access an intranet
  1. Intranets often need IT administration to update, scale, and maintain

Traditional intranets are admin-heavy. They require specialized IT knowledge to maintain, sometimes forcing them to remain multiple versions behind the UX and security curve. Something as simple as updating the “front page” can require multiple steps, and spinning up a new section for a just-formed team can take quite a while if the intranet doesn’t come with a built-in wiki section. Ideally, an intranet CMS allows for easy-to-update employee communications and documentation.

  1. Intranets don’t cut through the noise of information overload

Whether in the office or remote, employees are overwhelmed by the kind of rapid-fire knowledge sharing that takes place in chat and video applications like Slack or Teams. Intranets don’t create a suitable alternative for those applications (or even serve as a good complement to them!) and only add to information overload instead of reducing it.

  1. Intranets get stale almost as soon as content is published

You have to “feed the beast.” Wait, what? Here’s what we mean: Intranets are only as good as the content housed within them, and to entice employees to visit the intranet, content teams often resort to clickbaity methods to coax intranet usage. The other problem with stale content is that it’s often untrustworthy, leading employees to start to disregard what they find, eventually stopping searching altogether.

  1. Intranets don’t foster coordination across companies 

Let’s face it, the digital town square of yore doesn’t cut it anymore. They’re as much a communication space as that sad ‘90s era mall that closed down in your town last year. Today, internal communication, collaboration, and coordination occur where employees already connect: in their “virtual HQ” located in Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Can an intranet be hacked?

Intranets, like all credential-based systems, can be hacked using social engineering tactics. Additionally, since old-school portal solutions aren’t always SaaS platforms, they might be running on older versions (remember how they’re heavy IT lifts to administer?). Any outdated version of software is a security vulnerability, so hacking is a genuine threat, leading to confidential information and documents made publicly available (or held ransom!). Learn more about combatting emerging cybersecurity threats.

Intranet security and hackers
It didn’t work out super well for Jurassic Park

In 2021, can the intranet evolve to fit into remote and hybrid teams?

In theory, an intranet has always been ideally situated for remote or hybrid teams. After all, it’s a central piece of digital real estate accessible to everyone at a company and can act as a bulletin board and information clearinghouse that doesn’t rely on shared physical spaces. 

But because they’re portals, intranets were best suited to a time when employees might only need 2-3 apps to do their jobs. And because the UX and search experiences are often cumbersome, they’re not ideally suited to the realities of hybrid and remote work, which require fast, in-context answers with a minimum of asking around.

Can intranets evolve to fit these requirements? Yes! But as with any evolution, the next generation of intranet solutions look a lot less like portals and a lot more like constant companions that meet people where they work (both in terms of physical location and tool stack).

Top 4 intranet best practices

If you’re committed to using intranet software, there are a bunch of ways you can ensure everyone is getting the most out of it. To get the most out of your investment, follow these best practices:

1. Reach workers where they are

We’re all in the digital workplace now—and in an increasingly remote (or at least hybrid) workforce, it’s critical for everyone to stay on the same page. Use your portal to foster employee engagement by posting updates and information regularly. 

If used correctly, an intranet can be one of the few collaboration tools the entire company can access, alongside your chat system. Why not see if you can integrate the two? When integrated with something like Slack or Teams, information and documentation can be pushed to anyone (or everyone) when they need it most.

2. Reduce time wasted finding important information

The best way to get the most out of your setup is to treat it as a single source of truth for all employees. Letting your intranet get cluttered with old and outdated information is going to slow down and frustrate anyone searching for something specific. Let’s face it: people don’t usually have time to browse.

If your setup has a content management system that makes it clear when a document was last updated—or, even better, if it can flag potential duplicate content—searchers will have a much better time finding what they need.

3. Keep your team productive by preventing time-consuming interruptions for key employees

It happens at every company: a few subject matter experts (SMEs) who hold lots of information are frequently interrupted by colleagues who need answers. Instead of being interrupted over and over again, it’s better in the long run for SMEs to add their knowledge to your single source of truth (ah-hah! it pays off!) to make it accessible by anyone who needs it, when they need it. A little more effort upfront can have huge time management implications down the road.

4. Avoid wasteful context switching to keep employees productive in the tools they use every day

Integrating with your chat platform is great, but integrating with all of the other tools employees need to do their jobs? Way better. But because a traditional intranet is limited to a portal, a chat integration that brings you back to the portal might be all that’s offered. Look into next-generation solutions that can serve information contextually in any web-based tool.

How do you create an intranet that engages and improves productivity?

If your current intranet is suffering from low adoption, don’t panic! Check out this specific action cycle designed to help you build buy-in, identify a replacement (if you need one), roll out the new approach, and create a sustainable solution. Learn more about creating urgency in change management.

  1. Make a plan for adoption

First, figure out what you think went wrong the first (or 47th) time. What were the major factors preventing long-term, widespread adoption, and what are some specific ways to resolve them? 

  1. Set goals

 There are two kinds of goals to set: 

  • Timelines
    “Employee feedback gathered by June 1st”
    “Decide whether to keep or replace our intranet by July 31st”
    “Rollout new guidance/tool by October 1st”
  • Measures for success
    Include regular and stretch goals
    Regular goal: People use the intranet at least 1x/week for 6 months on average
    Stretch goal: People use the intranet at least 1x/day for 6 months). 
  1. Seek employee input

Ask people how they feel about the solution they’re using. Do they like it in theory, but find it too cumbersome to use? Have they used different solutions or approaches at other companies? Do they wish they could use what friends at other companies are using? Learn how to create an efficient tech stack.

  1. Select an intranet platform

If your current platform’s issues are unresolvable, do your due diligence and find a new intranet provider. Look into employee recommendations, and search on review sites like G2 and TrustRadius.

  1. Assign tool ownership

Determine who will be responsible for the overall success and rollout of your new intranet (or approach). Learn why you might want to use a knowledge manager.

  1. Configure your selected tool

Time to get your team settings, spaces, and permissions figured out!

  1. Develop the content

This might involve importing documentation from elsewhere, creating entirely new resources, or completely rewriting existing content. Learn why bite-size information is best.

  1. Employee initiatives to improve adoption

Try to go beyond boring all-day trainings (it’s not exactly a secret that no one likes them); if training is required, look into modular self-service options instead. For more exciting options, put together some swag or a party!

  1. Measure success

Remember those goals you set? Time to check ‘em.

Go beyond the intranet with these key requirements:

If you’re ready to create a truly great end-to-end digital employee experience, you already know that you have to go beyond the intranet. The latest knowledge management and company wiki solutions take everything great about intranets and make them even better. Here’s what you can look forward to:

Amazing UX

The staid, overstuffed, ‘90s (and not in a cool way) look of the traditional intranet is best quickly forgotten. Guru has a simple—but intuitive—user experience designed to serve trusted answers whenever and wherever employees are working.

Strong search capabilities

You should be able to find what you need without knowing all the details. In the Guru platform, that means searching on keywords, tags, or Collections and finding exactly what you need.

Integration capabilities

Context-switching kills productivity. That’s why Guru overlays every website via a browser extension and has native integrations with Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other communication and collaboration apps your team is already using, so you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to use it. 

Keep information accessible everywhere

No matter where your employees are or what tool they’re using, getting an answer should be simple. Get served context-specific knowledge before you even know you need it with Knowledge Triggers, or take knowledge on the go with the Guru mobile app.

Analytics

Guru’s deep analytics allow admins and authors to continuously evaluate the setup for company-wide knowledge gaps and inefficiencies, in addition to giving detailed product usage analytics. 

Track how users engage with content 

The worst feeling is putting work into something—and then having no one even see it. Guru allows you to see not just who has read your Card, but how many times people have copied or favorited it. Not sure what people are looking for and can’t find? Use search analytics to see what people are looking for and eliminate those content gaps.

Ensure compliance requirements are met and kept organized

Don’t stop at seeing who’s read a Card once. Send a Knowledge Alert in Guru when something changes and track who’s seen and acknowledged it. It’s an easy way to make sure nothing is getting lost in an overstuffed inbox or 50-page document.

Easy adoption 

A great intranet solution should make employees want to use it. After rolling out Guru, not only has “Did you Guru it?” become a standard response, but companies see a long-term return on investment thanks to high adoption.

Intranet FAQs

Question: What is an intranet?
Answer: Intranets are digital spaces only available to specific users (usually granted via company credentials or a private network) that contain internally-facing information and documentation.

Question: Why do companies use an intranet?
A:  Companies use intranets to share and communicate documents and information, including organizational changes, anniversaries, payroll dates, and strategy decks.

Question: Can an intranet be hacked?
A: Intranets, like any credential-based system, can be hacked using social engineering tactics. Additionally, since many intranets require version updating, out-of-date systems often contain security vulnerabilities, making hacking a genuine threat. 

Question: What are intranet softwares?
A: A classic example of intranet software is SharePoint. Modern intranet-type solutions include Guru, Confluence, and other company wikis.

Question: What are the main features of an intranet?
A: The main features of an intranet include information storage, document storage, search, collaboration space, integrations, and permissioning. 

Question: What is an intranet site?
A: An intranet site is a private portal that allows employees to see internal news, updates, and documentation. It can serve as a company knowledge base, conversation and collaboration space, and leadership communications channel.

Question: How do you create a company intranet?
A:

  1. Step 1: Make a plan for adoption
  2. Step 2: Set goals 
  3. Step 3: Seek employee input
  4. Step 4: Select an intranet platform
  5. Step 5: Assign ownership
  6. Step 6: Configure your selected platform
  7. Step 7: Develop the content
  8. Step 8: Develop employee initiatives to improve adoption
  9. Step 9: Measure success

Question: How do intranets work?
A: Users access the intranet by using company credentials, IP address, or VPN to access confidential internal information, communications, and documentation.

Question: When was the intranet invented?
A: The term intranet was coined in 1994, but the most well-known intranet software (SharePoint) was launched in 2001.

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