Why are Intranets Stagnant?

    April 5, 2006

The evolution of the World Wide Web over the last five years has been nothing short of astounding.

Intranets, on the other hand, haven’t progressed an inch since, oh, say 2001. While the web has witnessed the wide-scale adoption of social networking and the early stages of true web-based applications (like Writely and AjaxWrite), the intranet of 2006 looks pretty much the same as it did five years ago.

I know because intranet audits are a staple of my consultancy. I see a lot of intranets, and have since…well, since before the word “intranet” was adopted. I’m working on three of these audits at this moment. And although there are plenty of fine features and functionality, there is little to suggest intranet teams are adopting the characteristics of the “read-write” web.

Sure, blogs and wikis are finding their way onto intranets, but the number of companies employing these social computing tools is a bare fraction of the total number of intranets functioning today. As for the other elements of Web 2.0, I’m aware of less than a handful of intranets that have embraced notions like social tagging (as exemplified by del.icio.us (although I have heard of two companies taking initial steps in this direction), audience ranking (along the lines of Digg and Memeorandum, social networks ( like LinkedIn, file sharing services like Flickr and YouTube or AJAXish tools like PageFlakes (which has become my default home page).

All of these utilities make perfect sense forintranets, and most of them would be simple to implement. Simple, in any case, compared to, say, getting an SAP portal up and running. Social tagging would let employees find intranet content based on bookmarks their colleagues have asigned. One cmpany, for instance, calls its mailroom “Document Delivery Services;” there is no reference to “mailroom” anywhere on the intranet. If one employee found the DDS site and tagged it “mailroom,” other employees would be able to find it by searching the bookmark site for the word that makes the most sense to them.

Digg-like ranking would let employees prioritize company news and information based on what is most important to them. (The company could continue to push news it believes is so important that every employee should see it.) Social networks that emulate the likes of LinkedIn would let employees in large organizations make contact with others who can help with a project or assignment through trusted intermediaries. And personzlied web start pages like PageFlakes and ProtoPage do exactly what web portals do (at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time it takes companies to implement portals like the ones sold by Plumtree and Oracle.

Any of these kinds of services would make intranets infinitely more valuable, compelling, and usable for employees. So why aren’t intranet teams making the slightest move to keep up with developments on the web? There are several factors at play:

  • IT departments have invested too much time and effort into developing the infrastructure of the current iteration of the intranet and are in no hurry to move in a different direction.
  • Corporate IT staffs-some of them, anyway-are utterly clueless about what’s happening on the web. They don’t know online AJAX from the kitchen cleanser.
  • Communicators figure the intranet is working just fine the way it is; why fix what isn’t broken?
  • Corporate communicators-many of them-are utterly cluelessa bout what’s happening on the web. They wouldn’t know what Digg was even if they’d been dug.
  • Too much of an investment has been made in the existing portals that haven’t produced the kind of results most companies hoped for
  • The existing intranet hasn’t lived up to expectations in the first place; why invest time and effort in it now?

Most companies are struggling to retain a command-and-control structure for their intranets. Tools that put control into employees’ hands are antithetical to intranets where only authorized representatives of the company can contribute content.

There are, I’m sure, other obstacles standing in the way of intranet evolution. There are also, I’m sure, some intranets somewhere that have undertaken efforts to adopt some of these tools. I haven’t seen them; have you? Intranet teams should start taking a hard look at their stagnant intranets and how they can be improved-to the benefit of the organization through enhanced productivity-using the many elements that make up the read-write web.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.