Intranets 101: What they are and why they matter

Whether you’re familiar with them or not, it’s important to understand that effective intranets are incredibly valuable.

Suzie Robinson is a reports consultant at Clearbox Consulting. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

If you’re new to internal comms but have been in the world of work for a while, you might have come across an intranet already. Often named something like “The Hub” or “Insite” or left just as “SharePoint,” most businesses have something in place for reference materials and news. Whether you’re familiar with them or not, it’s important to understand that effective intranets are incredibly valuable, but where they’re unloved, they can end up being ineffective and a source of complaint.

Without an effective intranet, you’re likely to find that people aren’t kept informed of what’s going on, only finding out important information through the grapevine. Documents will be saved somewhere, which you might be able to find or have to ask someone (no idea who) about – then when you find a policy the file names are something like ‘FINAL’ or ‘use this one V2.7’.

So, how do you go about creating and maintaining an effective intranet? Let’s lay some groundwork first…

What is an intranet?

Simply put, an intranet usually looks like a website that’s for people who work in an organization, which aims to improve users’ day-to-day working lives and address business needs. However, there are some caveats and points to expand this simple definition. For example:

  • The website is likely to be on a desktop browser, but mobile versions are common now too.
  • The people who ‘work in’ an organization don’t have to be employed there, it could be contractors or even suppliers who also make use of an intranet’s resources.
  • It also doesn’t need to be one single organization – parent and child companies (a New York hotel in a hotel chain for example) can be supported by the same intranet.
  • Of course, intranets must also be simple to use by everyone (end-users and admins alike).

Ultimately, intranets should help people do digital things that relate to their job, employment, or fellow colleagues. If you get this right, you’ll be on the correct path toward making an effective intranet.

What can they offer?

The technology offered by intranet platforms has evolved significantly in recent years, but there are seven core categories that most features fall into. In summary, these are:

  • News – Ways for people to manage, see and share information that might be need-to-know (e.g. announcement about changes to a pension provider) or nice-to-know (e.g. charity bake sale).
  • Reference information – Somewhere to store and find evergreen (e.g. parental leave policy) and time-sensitive (e.g. the latest product catalog) reference materials.
  • Navigation – Menus and other browsing features that help people move around the site organically but logically, as well as ways for people to see how the company itself fits together.
  • Business tools – Links to or integrations with common tools, as there will be plenty across every digital workplace – such as room booking and expense claims. Alternatively, an intranet could provide certain business tools itself (such as H&S forms or electronic payslips).
  • Social tools – Giving people ways to share their thoughts and opinions, such as via comments, reactions, and discussions.
  • Search – A solid search is vital to intranets so that people can find pages, documents, people, and anything else that might be integrated.
  • Collaboration – Less common now that tools like Microsoft Teams have been introduced, but intranets can facilitate formal and informal collaboration (such as a digital ideas box).

All of these capabilities must be delivered to people in a way that suits them best, such as on desktop and / or mobile, and in a user-friendly way. People are so used to social media apps, or websites with high investment, that they expect a similar experience from business tools.

What can’t they do?

The above list is everything an intranet can do, but not necessarily everything it should do.

An intranet will live inside your digital workplace – the landscape of all digital tools in use across your business. It will need to complement and facilitate those tools around it, while filling the gaps left elsewhere. It’s inadvisable to try to do everything that’s possible in your intranet as it’ll be overwhelming, and ultimately put people off using it.

How can I build an effective intranet?

First, start with a strategy for your intranet. This is where you will capture the purpose, scope, measures, implementation, and optional extras that will articulate what your intranet does, how it will evolve, and what impact it will have on the business. Think about what service your intranet will deliver to your organisation, not what features it’ll offer (or even what technology it’s built on).

If you’re thinking about overhauling your intranet or introducing a new platform, then there are two areas that are worth exploring as part of your strategy:

  • User needs. Talk to colleagues about their day job and what they struggle with, don’t necessarily ask them about the intranet as this could railroad the conversation and keep future opportunities hidden. Conversations can happen via formal channels (like an all-staff survey) or informally (such as via a Slack channel).
  • Business strategies.  Almost every department will have a multi-year strategy, so have a look at these to identify where an intranet could facilitate, store, or generally support what they’re trying to achieve.

From here you can consider either choosing new technology to support what you’re trying to achieve, or work out how you will develop your existing site to meet future needs.

Just remember – the intranet is there to help people’s day-to-day working lives and address business needs. Keep this in mind as you explore opportunities and focus on those areas that will truly make a difference and quickly. Anything that’s lower value or harder to achieve can be introduced later in the intranet’s life, because if you get it right it’ll be around for many years.

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