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Employee Intranet

What Is An Intranet And Do You Really Need One?

Written by
Charlotte McIntyre

From artificial intelligence to machine learning, virtual reality and augmented reality, there’s lots to get excited about in the world of technology right now. This is especially true in the workplace, where digital transformation (helped along in no small part by the pandemic) is going to great lengths to streamline operations, enhance the customer experience and free up employees to focus on more creative and innovative work.

With all this future-esque tech in play, you’d be forgiven for wondering why on Earth we’re still talking about intranets? Surely, with all of the gadgets and gizmos we have at our fingertips now, these clumsy, dusty old relics can be left in the 90s where they belong?

But there is another way of looking at it.

The world of work has changed rapidly over the last two years. More and more businesses are adopting hybrid working models, and a large portion of the workforce are actively choosing to work remotely more than ever before. What’s more, flexible working arrangements and asynchronous work are also becoming more popular and look set to endure well into the future.

Given that teams are more distributed than ever, the core aim of an intranet seems to solve a lot of the challenges thrown up by hybrid and remote working. But, before we look at that, let’s rewind for a second and go back to basics.

What Is An Intranet?

Intranets are private networks used within businesses and organisations to securely communicate and share information with employees. No one outside of an organisation is able to access content within a company intranet, instead all of the content shared within it is private and protected.

Along with Tamagotchi’s, mood rings and Forrest Gump, intranets were a product of the 1990s. Their aim was to solve content management challenges brought about by digitisation and increase employee productivity by making documents easier to circulate and access.

Intranets vs The Internet

It’s probably fair to say that intranets became a go to for businesses thanks to the internet. Throughout the 1990s, the internet was revolutionising every aspect of everyday life from culture to commerce. Described as a ‘Wild West’ by Gartner in 1998, it quickly became a universe in and of itself, crammed full of information readily available to everyone at the touch of a button.

As more information and resources were digitised, businesses were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it all. Not only was it difficult to organise, it was pretty much impossible to keep it up to date as things changed so rapidly.

The intranet was a tonic to this. Just as search engines like Google helped internet users find information faster and more reliably, intranets provided a secure, logical repository for company data, information and communications. The aim of which was to help employees be more productive and connected, particularly knowledge workers.

The key difference between the internet and an intranet is that the internet is a public network that is open to anyone and not owned by anyone. Intranets, on the other hand, are privately owned networks that can only be accessed by authorised people within an organisation.

The First Intranet

The first ever intranets to burst onto the scene in the early 1990s were pretty much static websites. Often, they consisted of one or more pages of information accessible to only those who were authorised to do so.

Then came Intranet Genie.

Intranet Genie was an intranet program developed by Frontier Technologies in 1996. Rather than a static website, this new software was a client server application made up of both server software and software installed on each client computer that could be used for sharing documents, internal communications and employee collaboration.

In the press release, Frontier said Intranet Genie was:

“Designed to act as a single source for finding information inside and outside of companies, based on…its universal meta-data interface. [It] is targeted at small and medium-sized companies that are seeking to do business via the Internet, but do not have large budgets to invest on in-house computer network experts.”

In one fell swoop, Intranet Genie turned intranets from expensive, technical endeavours into easy to implement, out of the box technologies with the power to easily bring about digital transformation. Brave new world!

Evolution of The Intranet

As with all technologies, intranets have evolved over time to become both more simple and more complex at the same time. As the 1990s wore on, more players entered the game with the aim of reducing the cost of both development and implementation of intranets, both of which still remained somewhat of a sticking point for some businesses.

Then, in the mid-2000s the way we collectively thought about and used the internet changed again. Where previously it was a place to find and retrieve information, as the noughties wore on users started to realise the potential of the internet as a place to create, store AND retrieve content. Once again, intranets followed suit. Clearly what worked for everyone on a large scale (i.e. in the internet) would also work on a slightly smaller scale (i.e. within a corporate intranet). This gave rise to a number of new features, most notably the ability for users to create and publish their own custom pages and content within intranets.

In more recent years, intranets have once again followed the trend of what’s popular on the internet. And it’s fair to say the most popular platforms on the internet right now are social media platforms. Now, we don’t just use the internet to retrieve and publish information. We use it primarily to socialise and connect with communities of like-minded people.

What started with emails, then forums, then instant messaging platforms has now evolved into social media platforms which make communicating, collaborating and sharing information easier than we ever imagined. So, it’s no surprise that intranets have followed suit with the rise of social intranets with built in applications and widgets aimed to better support collaboration and communication, both synchronous and asynchronous.

The Future Of The Intranet

So, what can we expect for the future of the intranet?

Well, it’s fair to say we have a lot to look forward to.

Controversial or otherwise, Facebook’s rebrand to Meta in late 2021 gives us a key insight into the future of the internet and, by extension, the future of intranets. During their annual AR/VR conference in October 2021, CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave us a first look into Meta’s virtual-reality vision, aptly named the ‘metaverse’.

Augmented reality and virtual reality are just the tip of the iceberg of current and emerging technologies that will (once again) change the way we work and live forever. Other ones to watch include:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Machine learning
  • Blockchain
  • 5G
  • Serverless Computing
  • Biometrics
  • Robotics
  • Natural Language Processing
  • Quantum Computing

While we might like to think that the intranet is dead, that’s just not true. The intranet is evolving once again with the times, and these continual evolutions consist of exciting new features that can continue to riff on the core aim of the original: to solve content management challenges, increase employee productivity and enable collaboration across a workforce.

Advantages Of An Intranet

There are clear advantages of an intranet, many of which can be inferred from the above. Along with the internet, these clever private networks are constantly levelling up to meet the challenges of modern workforces, even before they arise in some cases. Here are just a few of the advantages distilled down into a digestible list…

Easy storage and retrieval of information

We live in a world filled with information. We have access to everything and anything on demand. But that can be quite an overwhelming prospect, particularly in unfamiliar situations or if you’re not sure exactly what you are looking for. In the workplace, intranets aim to solve that problem by bringing together all of that disparate content in one place. Whether you use Google Drive, Office 365, emails, or personal devices, an intranet brings it all together and makes it accessible without the headache of searching.

Better internal communications

Getting internal communications right is difficult. Too many employees get overwhelmed and stop engaging with them all together. Not enough and employees, particularly remote staff members, feel out of the loop and separate from your organisation. An intranet can help organisations strike the right balance when it comes to internal comms, with many featuring a central dashboard from where internal news and communications can be consumed.

Some (like HulerHub!) go one better by including audience management features which give admins the power to roll out different content to different audiences for a more personalised experience.

An improved employee experience

If you’re looking for ways of enhancing the employee experience, an employee intranet is a great tool in your arsenal. As these platforms are so flexible, they can be a key ‘go-to’ throughout the employee journey and at crucial employee experience touchpoints. For example, intranets can be put to good use during onboarding as a central location for all of that ‘need to know’ information for new starters. What’s more, it can also be used in the ‘messy middle’ of the employee experience journey, by connecting to your learning management system or learning experience platform to highlight relevant eLearning content.

Flexibility on demand

Intranets can be home to a whole world of information. They can integrate with forums, instant messaging systems, and popular software to make knowledge management a breeze, as well as facilitate better communication and collaboration.

Probably one of the best advantages of an intranet though is its flexibility. As technology evolves, so do these platforms, with pick and mix features available so each dashboard can be completely personalised to your organisation, or even down to each single user.

Employee empowerment

Empowered employees are more productive, creative and innovative. But employees only feel empowered when they are given the tools to manage themselves and do their jobs well.

Intranet software can be used to help empower your employees, especially if they work remotely most or some of the time.

Intranet Challenges

You can’t have the light without the darkness right? Of course, there are some disadvantages to intranets, especially when they are outdated or not used as they were originally intended. Here are some intranet challenges and how your organisation can overcome them with your implementation.

Too much information

As an organisation’s knowledge base expands it can be harder and harder to find data or content in an intranet that’s overflowing with stuff. Even more so if information isn’t up to date. The upshot of this is that employees usually pull away from their company intranet and devise their own methods for finding what they need.

How to overcome this:

The first way to combat this issue is by having a robust plan of action when it comes to managing content within your intranet. When documents or data are out of date, there must be a system in place for the content to be updated in a timely manner to ensure the intranet is the first port of call for employees. As many intranets have intelligent search functions built in, surfacing content with the help of keywords is rarely ever a problem. However, sifting through conflicting documents on the same subject is likely to be a big one!

Secondly, give your employees the opportunity to personalise the content within their own intranet dashboard. With the HulerHub employee intranet, each user has their own ‘MyTiles’ area which they can populate with their own bookmarks to different information. They can even personalise each tile with .gifs or images to make it truly their own. We’ve found this is a fantastic way of helping employees spotlight the things that mean the most to their own work, while still having access to everything else they might need in a separate area of the software.

Lack of accessibility

The world has changed. With more of us working remotely now, older iterations of the intranet aren’t well equipped to meet the needs of a distributed, mobile workforce. This includes frontline workers, as well as remote workers and those working asynchronously in different time zones.

When employees don’t have access to consistent information, comms, and knowledge, they can quickly disengage from an organisation, which rapidly leads to low levels of engagement. What’s more, not having real-time access to information can slow down productivity and make a business less agile, which can really hinder growth!

How to overcome this:

The only way to get past this challenge is to choose an intranet that is accessible from anywhere on any device. While previously intranets have only been accessible on a local network, the game has changed in recent years with the rise of cloud computing. Cloud-based intranet software can be securely used from any internet enabled device, which means that it can easily be accessed by frontline workers on tablets and mobile phones as well as remote workers on personal devices.

Too much reliance on IT

Some intranets are more complex than others. This can sometimes mean that to update them or upload content you need to rely heavily on IT or an appointed ‘champion’ to do things for you. This can be a real challenge for businesses looking to be more agile and growth focused, especially in remote-first or hybrid working models.

How to overcome this:

Many modern intranets are built to be more intuitive and user-friendly to those with less technical experience than the IT department. HulerHub, for example, requires no specialist knowledge to use. There’s no coding, and populating the intranet platform is as easy as copying and pasting a link.

When planning your intranet and masterminding your strategy for driving intranet adoption, it’s important to take into account how user friendly your software is. Doing so will ensure high engagement from the word go.

Must-Have Intranet Features

What should you look for in an intranet? It’s easy to get side-tracked by all the bells and whistles, not to mention the jargon that can leave your head spinning. To help you, we’ve come up with our top 5 must-have intranet features.

Clean, Easy to Use Interface

It’s likely your HR teams are dealing with a multigenerational workforce, all of whom have different experiences and expectations of technology. Above all else, your intranet should be easy to use for everyone. And that all comes down to the user interface and how intuitive the software is overall.

It’s important to realise that if your intranet is too difficult to navigate or use, your employees won’t use it. Ultimately, intranet software should make the lives of your employees easier, not harder. So keep this in mind when selecting an intranet provider.

Flexible Integration Possibilities

An intranet should offer seamless integrations with the tools and tech you’re already using. After all, the whole point of it is to bring everything together. If it can’t do that from the get go, you risk losing precious time to migrating everything over to the new platform.

When you’re scoping out a new intranet platform for your organisation, be sure to consider how it will work with everything else, and whether you’ll need to make any changes to make it work with your current setup.

If it’s likely to take a long time to set up, it’s probably not worth the investment in the long run!

Audience Management

Internal comms can be powerful when done correctly, but not without being relevant to the employees who receive them. When everyone gets everything all at once, it can be overwhelming and hard to see the wood for the trees. That means key messages can get lost in the noise, and employees can go ‘internal comms blind’.

A far better way of executing an effective internal communications strategy is to target employees with internal communications that are most relevant to them. This can be difficult and time-consuming to do manually, but with audience management features within an intranet you can easily segment your workforce by team or other categories in order to target them with the most relevant comms.

Dynamic Search

Your employees don’t know what they don’t know. And when they don’t know something it’s likely they’ll do one of three things:

  • Ask a colleague
  • Spend a long time looking for the answer
  • Ignore it totally

All of these courses of action are likely to be time consuming, disruptive and unproductive.

Dynamic search features help users to surface contact even when they don’t know what they are looking for by tagging content with keywords.

Personalisation

Everything’s better when it’s personalised. Over time intranets have become more personalised; many allow for organisations to infuse their company branding into the design, which can go a good way to help create a feeling of belonging among users.

But what about personalisation for users? Often the work tech we use has no scope for personalisation. Yet, all of our personal tech is deeply personal to us:

  • Netflix suggests TV shows and movies we might like based on our viewing history
  • We can use our own pictures to customise the wallpaper on our mobile phones, tablets and computers
  • Spotify can create playlists we will enjoy based on what we have listened to the most
  • Facebook will show us a selection of ‘People You May Know’ based on our connections

Personalisation is all around us. So why not in our work tech?

Analytics

Data is a powerful thing. It can help you spot trends and anticipate challenges before they become big problems. Data can also help you measure the success of your internal communications and keep tabs on the content, tools and software your employees are using on a daily basis.

There are lots of different metrics to track in relation to employee engagement and employee experience. Within an intranet, the overarching goal is to help your employees reach what they need as and when they need it, regardless of where they are. The analytics dashboard of an intranet should show you how engaged employees are in relation to your internal comms and company content.

Intranet FAQs

What’s the difference between an intranet and an extranet?

Intranets and extranets are similar, but not the same. Crucially, intranets are private networks accessible by only those within an organisation. Extranets, on the other hand, are digital platforms which can be accessed by third parties. For example, an organisation may have an extranet that is accessible to customers and clients.

Is an intranet the same as a digital workplace?

While all of the different technologies, software and digitised content your business uses is known as a digital workplace, an intranet is technically a repository for all of that. A place for everything to live and be discoverable by employees within an organisation.

It is perhaps more apt to compare intranets to digital workplace platforms, which aim to do the same thing.

Aren’t intranets old and outdated?

Some might be. But not all. Intranets have traditionally evolved with the internet, and that continues to happen today. The reason why many get a bad rap is because they have become neglected or outdated over time. Either they’re not kept up to date or they don’t have the capacity to evolve with the times.

New iterations of the intranet are very much ahead of the curve and open the door to a whole world of possibilities including higher employee engagement and boosted productivity.

Kickstart Your Intranet Journey

If you’re looking to start your journey to a better intranet and all the positive things that brings for your business, check out our employee intranet software. HulerHub is the front door to everything your organisation needs. Better still, it offers a whole host of personalisation options, audience management, analytics, internal communications features and second to none organisation of everything your employees rely on in the course of a working day.

To see HulerHub in action and discover how it can support or replace your current intranet, book a demo with our team today.

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