The Challenges, Evolution, and Success Factors of the Enterprise Intranet

Enterprise Intranets are an often overlooked corporate asset. These powerful tools represent the knowledge, relationships, and processes of a company, yet for the most part they go under-resources, under-appreciated, and given third-class citizenship to the public site and customer or partner extranet. We know they are important as they are a direct reflection of your corporate culture.

If a company’s competitive strength is it’s employees and how they work together, the intranet is a valuable tool. Secondly, with many baby boomers in the United States retiring in the near future a great deal of corporate knowledge will be lost, how will you capture and distribute this tacit knowledge?

The Challenges of the Enterprise Intranet:
There’s a few major reasons why the intranet is not fully utliized, it really comes down to corporate prioritizies and resources.

1) Leadership not employee focused. Web strategy is often owned by the Marketing department, or a dedicated web team, they have specific business goals to hit, and they are often aimed at marketing or customer focused –not employee focused.
2) Little love from IT: IT often owns the infrastructure, systems, and applications that the Intranet sits on top of, and they often are focused on ERP project and leave the intranet in a ‘maintaince and manage’ mode.
3) Value not recognized: The intranet management team (if you have one) is perceived as a corporate cost as it can’t directly generate revenue further perplexing the problem
4) Too many cooks in kitchen: Many constituents from Marketing, HR, IT, and every business unit make decisions at an enterprise level difficult, unwieldy, and often not worth the effort.
5) Decision makers oblivious: Management and decision makers don’t use the intranet, they rely on administrative staff for scheduling, sometimes emails, and any intranet tasks, the pains and opportunities are rarely seen.

Evolution of the Enterprise Intranet
Intranets have a variety of stages as it evolves, I’ve listed out the natural growth pattern that I’ve seen.

1) Disparate: The early stages of an intranets birth often lies in the hand of a forward thinking rogue that sets up a server beneath their desk and initiates the first behind-the-firewall website. Later, many others follow his lead and create their own intranets on modified workmachines, and then finally they are put on servers and supported by IT. These often horrific looking and abandonded websites have a disparte user experience, look and feel, and content. There is little or no consistency resulting in a fragmented experience for users.

2) Common User Experience: As the company realizes the importance of sharing information on a web repository that’s available globally and 24/7 (unlike email) the push to unify the disparate intranet into a common user experience occurs. Outsourcing to a design firm or to marketing will yield a look and feel, navigation and information architecture form. Likely, hopefully the birth of a dedicated intranet team occurs, who manage the ongoing program. They provide direction, strategy, processes, and styles for content and the experience.

3) Unified Content Management System: Unfortunately, just because the front end of the website and the processes are starting to solifidy this doesn’t mean the right tools are in place. For the intranet team to manage all the content updates, create versions, and obtain reporting becomes unrealistic. As a result, the need for the right tools are needed. In the past, these webpages may have been static created and managed by tools like Homesite, Dreamweaver, or raw HTML, the need for what you see is what you get software is a requirement. The Intranet team needs and wants to empower business owners to manage their own content within the framework of the enterprise intranet. Typically IT is resourced to obtain the CMS tool, which will likely glue into existing architectures and systems, sometimes without the consent of the experience of the user base.

4) Personalization and Enterprise Search: With the access for business groups to publish at will with their CMS system, massive content is created and documents of every flavor are uploaded. The intranet begins to progress to a great deal of information, but leaving a very unwieldy experience for users, as a result the push for ‘portal’ type of personalized homepages may emerge, where content is delivered based on team, location, and rank. More difficult than easy, this undertaking is often not completed to the full enterprise. Enterprise Search, a tool that looks at all internal documents and data repositories emerges and starts to scan, index, and serve up information for users.

5) Collaboration: Popular in the last few years, businesses started to realize that employees needed to work together on knowledge projects and the right tools to span distance and time were not available. A large influx of collaboration tools invaded the enterprise, allowing teams to share and work on documents together and in near-real time. While helpful to many, the promise of ongoing collaboration isn’t for every user, as the complexity of features can be mind-boggling.

6) Socialization: Fast forward to today, the enterprise intranet are starting to see social features, (some call this Enterprise 2.0, but I prefer to focus on outcomes) where employees can go beyond collaboration on ideas and start to tell others about themselves, connect with others, and share information. The social capital of a company (the contacts and influence within a company) starts to become realized and the need to share contacts, knowledge across the enterprise (regardless of location or team) starts to emerge. There are many challenges that come with this, as the data starts to move to application service providers if IT doesn’t respond and data, security, and personal information leave the firewall. IT departments that are too slow to keep up end up doing clean up as business units can easily deploy their own intranet using tools like blogtronix, ning, and a variety of others.

7) The future: It’s sure difficult to peer into the next 5 years, expect rich smart phones to start to access the intranet for secured users as collaboration and communication occure on the road, at home, and during weekends –the workplace (along with the intranet) goes with us.

Success Factors for Successful Enterprise Intranet

1) A centralized body that controls the User Experience. A group that can define the design, look and feel, user interface, navigation, taxonomy, and information architecture of a site. They are also empowered to enforce this regardless of polical structure.
2) Business and personal users have freedom to publish: Although the constraints for consistency are setup, the business teams are empowered to control their own content, to quickly publish, and to modify at will. A balance is needed between them.
3) Expiration of content: The worst thing that happens to an intranet is the layer and layers of retired content that is overlayed on it. The intranet team should auto-review content that hasn’t been modified after X quarters or years, identify the creator, ask if it’s valid and remove if not.
4) IT gets ahead of the need: IT needs to move away from thinking of the intranet as a system to maintain, but as a system to grow, develop and constantly build on top of. Failure to do so will result in business teams finding their own third-party software, installing or running on a remote server.
5) A social sandbox for employees: Currently, many employees are sharing their personal and business lives on third party social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and to some degree LinkedIn. In many situations the opportunity for self-expression or to share personal information (even in the context of the workplace) is not supported by the enterprise. Companies should provide a social networking like service for employees to connect, share, build and further relationships on the intrarnet. Clearly delineate this is separate from the other area of the website, but give freedom for unique ideas to spread, grow, and be built.

So where is your intranet? which Challenge? What stage of evolution? Which success factors are present
For each of the three sections above which relate to you or your clients? Share with me in the comments:

Related Resources:

  • 12 predictions for Enterprise Web 2.0 in 2008
  • Enterprise Irregulars
  • Business and I.T. Must Work Together to Manage New “Web 2.0” Tools
  • Facebook as a Corporate Portal Platform?
  • Project portfolio management and IT governance

  • My intranet background: I don’t talk about it as much now, as I’m more focused on social media, but it’s still a passion. But in the past I’ve managed a global enterprise one for Hitachi Data Systems, aligned one at World Savings (now Wachovia) and did UI design and management at Exodus and Cable and Wireless America. Details on my profile.

    22 Replies to “The Challenges, Evolution, and Success Factors of the Enterprise Intranet”

    1. The ROI of an Intranet is not to dissimilar to email: for it to work, everyone has to use it. The more people that do, the greater the ROI. I honestly can’t see how Intranet’s, as we know them, can survive in a meaningful way. As you mentioned, it’s about “employees and how they work together,” so I think the success factors you list above work for the old definition of Intranet, but not the new one. We’re going to have re-frame things and collaboration and productivity have to be central. That’s the people and work part. As well, I’d argue that #2 under success factors is a much bigger. Beyond giving employees the freedom to publish, they need the freedom to connect, self organize, collaborate around plans, processes, ideas, projects, and the active topics of the company. Even control of their user experience (#1 success factor above) should be given to them. They should be able to see their work and activity the way they need to. Sure, Marketing can control generalized branding elements, but the UI needs to be customizable so that people can focus on what’s important to them in a way that most makes sense. One size doesn’t fit all.

    2. Very helpful insight Sam.

      For success factor 2: I should expand it to include the social aspects you mentioned, you’re right. The reason I didn’t spell that out is because success factor 5 clearly suggests that as a need.

      I’ll argue that the user experience should have some restraints, take a look at the difference between LinkedIn (very controlled) Facebook (semi-controlled) and MySpace (little control).

      I opt that intranets should be more like Facebook, and less like the other two.

      What do you think?

    3. Hi Jeremiah,

      i love your thoughts on this, but I couldn’t surpress the feeling that I do not hope that any company that takes itself seriously is in any of the first 3 stages… What are your thoughts on that?

    4. Jeremiah,

      Yes. MySpace is the wrong direction. Facebook is exactly the level of modular UI control I mean. LinkedIn is wrong on the UI scale for a “new intranet” collaboration platform –that would indicate a level of control that would suck the life out of everything. There has to be balance applied to a social productivity platform. Too much regulation, control, and standards and it will just end up another river rock that people work around, not in.

    5. Hi Jeremiah, great topic. One thing I have noticed about decent intranets is that they have a central location for new hires. Building a relevant and useful new hire intranet area requires cooperation between HR, IT, facilities and other departments with frequent updates.

      I don’t know if you can argue that the chicken comes before the egg, but perhaps comanies with intranets lacking this area could consider such an area as a beta/POC for a more successful, user driven intranet.

    6. Jeremiah,
      This is a great topic and one of my corporate pet peeves. I have yet to see a intranet that takes advantage of 20% of the medium’s potential. I am amazed in today’s world of global companies that not even our successful public companies consider an integrated suite of simple tools to enable greater collaboration among employees. In fact, in some cases they make it more confusing to employees.
      One observation in the Success Factors. While I agree that a centralized body is valuable to set the user experience, the initiative needs more leadership than this. It needs a person dedicated to managing the program. Their role is beyond setting and implementing development specifications. Their primary role should be to facilitate enterprise adoption of the internet.
      Adoption can be accomplished by regularly communicating with employees by blog, email, and in person to talk about how to use the services on the intranet and relating “effective use” success stories.
      Bottom line is that without a dedicated champion, often the best tools wallow under-utilized.

    7. I think we need to stop thinking about the intranet as a web site and starting thinking about it as a community of employees.

      At Jive we don’t have an “intranet” in the traditional sense. We have a collaboration platform where employees have discussions / debates about topics, documents that describe plans and best practices, and blogs where employees share information and links ranging from personal to professional.

      The key is that everyone uses it: the CEO, the executive staff, and each employee. By putting all of the information needed to be successful in one community, people will use it and participate.

    8. This is a great compendium of ideas, Jeremiah.

      Significantly, many of the issues you discuss focus on governance, not on technology. Increasingly, I am thinking that the single most important feature that any intranet should have is the ability to reflect the constant changes that go on within an organization and in how it relates to its constituencies.

      Having a “expiration” review process that considers content, function, and relationships would be part of that. And how the intranet reflects ongoing changes would also drive both governance and technology features.

    9. Great posting and insight!

      I’ve worked at large corporate companies, mid-sized companies, agencies, and start-ups and they all had a so-so intranets. One internal study we did estimated a lose of $10,000 per day on employees struggling to find relevant data on the intranet, chasing down the most up-to-date document, and deciphering bad search results. This study helped us prove the RIO.

      At one place we moved much of the public website content to the intranet just so we can use the funding we had in our Marketing budget. 😛

      The best results I’ve seen is when the company used blogs (per department) then tied them all together through a Google Mini.

      Word to the wise …custom intranets (home-grown) = non-stop maintenance = disaster!


    10. Sami Vittamaki’s FLIRT model for successful collaboration is an excellent thought tool for evaluating the merits of any project. I’ve used it numerous times to engage new collaboration partners who are new to the process.

      The ROI is highest when the most value can be gleaned from each participant, and channeled into the larger picture.

    11. Great post with very precise analysis. I think we will start seeing more of enterprise intranet partly due to the pressure from social media. As more and more enterprises embrace social media and seeing it as a potential and benificial tool, we will see enetrprise intranet take a “firat class” citizenship status. IBM is planning to launch itSs W3 Intranet: Inside IBM Intranet (

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