The Future of Intranets

Seeing as it’s the new year, I figured its time for a prediction or two!

I believe that 2011 is going to see a significant change in the way we look at intranets. To try and figure out what these changes might be, let’s have a look at two big trends we’re seeing.

1. External tools empowering the workforce

People everywhere have embraced not only online services such as Facebook and Twitter (500m+ and 175m+ registered users, respectively), but also consumer tools such as the latest smartphones (50m iPhones sold up to April 2010 alone). These aren’t just the tools your employees want to use, but also the ones your customers enjoy using. Many of them are using these tools to develop and maintain relationships, solve problems, or build communities - the latest big thing, Quora, being a great example.

Is this a drain on time and resources? Maybe for some, but in this ultra-competitive age companies can’t afford to ignore the benefits. Making internal services and information more broadly available on more devices means:

- your customers can make direct contact with the right people in your organisation more quickly, leading to greater customer and employee satisfaction and reduced call centre costs
- your staff become aware of customer needs more quickly and in the right context, allowing them to adapt your business more quickly
- your staff can spot emerging trends and demands more quickly, and this information can be used to support appropriate strategic responses, as well as generate new sales opportunities
- the company will be seen as tech savvy, increasing the prospects of new clients doing business with you.
- this company profile helps with attracting and retaining talent - giving staff this freedom is liberating and exciting!
- time wasted trying to locate important information is greatly reduced
- time and money spent trying to protect non-sensitive information can instead be focused on protecting that which is of genuine strategic importance
- internal projects which might benefit from input from external sources are more likely to be successful

The highly motivated employees most likely to make a difference to your business - especially the emerging generation - will depend on these tools to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Indeed, we need to learn from digital natives as they join the workforce taking all this for granted.

2. Continued emergence of open source

While we did our fair share of intranet design work in 2010 using large intranet tools, such as Microsoft Sharepoint and SiteCore, we’re also noticing an increasing reluctance to use these tools. Whether this is because the licences are so expensive, or the tools are painful to configure, it doesn’t really matter - companies are becoming more receptive to alternatives. And this comes at a time when open source has come of age, with powerful open platforms such as Drupal and Django being used for just about everything else. Why not intranets?

There are many reasons - poor interoperability with other existing systems comes to mind - but one of the main ones is inertia. Many companies have invested a huge amount of money in the existing solutions, and change is slow, painful and expensive. But for those on a more limited budget - or those starting with a clean sheet of paper - the options are starting to open up. We’re certainly investing effort in this direction in 2011.

So, what does all this mean?

It’s time to reassess the purpose and nature of the intranet. It used to be that intranets were all about internal communications, and making sure secrets were kept that way. Certainly both of these factors remain mission critical.

But now the monolithic approach to intranets is holding many businesses back. As demonstrated above, if your company isn’t taking advantage of the benefits of appropriate transparency and connectedness, your competitors will be. Intranet projects going forward will be less about creating a single internal system, and more about managing and supporting several systems - only some of which will be under your direct control, and the remainder will need to take external access into account.

The good news is that there is already an established process for designing these new systems. User Centred Design has always started from the position of enquiry; of trying to find out what communication patterns are needed or currently exist and then seeking to improve them - not start from the technology and work backwards from there. If we start by abandoning assumptions, especially those around conventional intranet design, it will have a massive effect on the fitness of your business going forwards.