Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Intranet’s Identity Crisis

What do you think of when you see the term “intranet“?

In a recent discussion with some company about the state of “intranets”, we came to the conclusion that the word intranet is kind of confusing. Apparently we were both thinking about something completely different, not in the problem it should solve, but rather what it looks like and how it works.

Wikipedia describes an intranet as:

An intranet is a computer network that uses Internet Protocol technology to share information, operational systems, or computing services within an organization. The term is used in contrast to internet, a network between organizations, and instead refers to a network within an organization. Sometimes, the term refers only to the organization’s internal website, but may be a more extensive part of the organization’s information technology infrastructure, and may be composed of multiple local area networks. The objective is to organize each individual’s desktop with minimal cost, time and effort to be more productive, cost efficient, timely, and competitive.

Reading the part about a “computer network that uses Internet Protocol technology“, I see some images of a typical 90′s terminal with a dial-up modem connecting to the company’s server. It doesn’t really sound like the typical “web 2.0″ collaboration software or social intranets apps to me. But maybe my own definition is wrong? The last part of Wikipedia’s definition, on a company website, comes closer to what I think a modern interpretation of the word would be. But still, a web site also sounds kind of static in this age of interactive web apps.

Because of recent the revolution of web apps and cloud technology, an intranet no longer needs to be physically hosted inside a company’s office building. Next to reducing IT costs (hosting, maintenance, hardware, etc.), it allowed for a lot of new innovation on the software side, as your data is always accessible and available from anywhere. And with the increasing popularity of cloud platforms like Google Apps, it looks like even the large enterprises (the traditional “laggards” when it comes to the adoption of new technology) are catching on to this idea.

So now the intranets, that used to be an internal network, can be called a “hosted intranet”, and is software in the cloud. It’s accessible from anywhere, but still “internal”, because your data is still private. But then what about the term extranet? If that’s the part of an intranet that’s “external”, isn’t the entire “hosted intranet” an extranet? Personally I see an extranet in the context of hosted intranets as the part of the hosted intranet site that’s accessible by people outside the company, or even public. Then again, when I read that sentence over, I’m not surprised people find the terms confusing!

Then there’s the whole website vs web app discussion. An intranet, whether in the cloud or not, is no longer just a website, or is it? All those “social” features like an activity stream, 3rd party web widgets, people profiles, and so on, they’re very much part of the modern intranet. So much so perhaps, that when people search for something like “a social network for our company”, they don’t expect to find just that, but also all the traditional intranet features with it (like pages, forms and workflows).

Another big difference between traditional intranets and the new generation of web applications, is the latter’s heavy focus on design and user interaction. A lot of the old generation enterprise software had to be installed, configured and updated by IT consultants, whereas all today’s (web) apps have user-friendly interfaces that can be used by everybody. That might be another reason why people wouldn’t search for an “intranet” when they look for a modern equivalent. So what would they call it? We’ve heard things like company wiki, online collaboration software, but even things like “portal” (which to me doesn’t sound much more modern than intranet though :), or “project management software” (even though they were referring to all the intranet’s functionality).

Maybe it’s time to invent a new term. How do you call your “intranet”?