Intranets’ evolution: What a difference 7 years make

A glance back in time reveals a sludgy world of document dumping, arid training videos and the stock image du jour.

In the digital world, changes occur at a breakneck pace. A month is an eternity.

Seven years? Worlds can shift.

Let’s look at how best practices and innovations from 2008 compare with the latest design trends of 2015. Looking back can offer insights into where we’re heading next.

I’ve dug through the Brandemix archives and conducted a Web search limited to 2008 to determine what was trending then, and contrasted the results with this year’s innovations.

Then: Desktop-friendly
Now: Mobile-friendly

Intranets used to be accessible only to employees at their desks. That meant a large screen, often a Windows operating system, and standard dimensions and colors. Thus, the intranet had to look good on only one type of machine. After all, why would an employee check work information at home, in their free time? They certainly wouldn’t use a mobile device to browse a company’s intranet, given that the first iPhone had been released only a few months before.

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Of course, the iPhone changed all that. Now employees want to be able to check their benefits, schedules, sick pay and other information anytime. They also do it on an array of devices with at least three different operating systems. As the Nielsen Norman Group notes about this year’s Intranet Design Award-winners, “bevels, shadows and elaborate framing effects” have mostly given way to simple flat circles and rectangles, the easier to be tapped by a thumb. Responsive design is a must, because the intranet must look good on devices of every size.

Bank of America’s intranet, 2008

Then: Photo of the day
Now: Image carousel

In 2008, intranets were transitioning from utilitarian (and boring) text-only formats and starting to embrace multimedia, starting with photos. Many organizations posted a “Photo of the Day” that greeted employees when they accessed the intranet. Some pictures were from the company’s files or employee events, others were simply stock images-hardly engaging for visitors.

In 2015, many organizations are using image carousels to provide multiple photos to employees each time they log in. Here, the content drives the images—if it’s open enrollment for health benefits, the image might reflect health and wellness. It the winter holidays are nearing, the image may show employees exchanging gifts or spending time with their families. This makes the intranet home page much more relevant and engaging for workers and makes the entire site easier to navigate.

Then: One-way video
Now: Interactive video

Seven years ago, video was just making its way onto intranets. Back then, you could expect two kinds of content: Training videos and speeches from executives. Useful, but limiting. There was no chance for employees to respond or to post their own videos. The intranet was considered a one-way portal of information, with no thought of employees’ contributing to the conversation.

Today, the idea of social media has changed that philosophy. Rather than posting “official” videos of corporate events, some companies allow employees to post their own, because virtually every worker has a camera in their pocket at every event. The health company Klick uses video in a unique way: After an employee submits a question, an expert on the topic records an answer with an iPhone and uploads the video to intranet. This makes knowledge-sharing much more fun and interactive than a typical training video. Organizations have finally caught on and stopped making videos play automatically—a pet peeve of mine.

Adidas intranet, 2015

Then: Intranet as document dump
Now: Intranet as vault of knowledge

In the early days of intranets, companies would basically dump all their documents into their internal server. Press releases, legal documents, health insurance information, employee handbooks, old blog posts. Often it wasn’t indexed or categorized or searchable. Without a direct link, employees had to sift through a lot of blurry scans and weirdly formatted pages to find useful information.

Today, companies see an intranet as a repository of knowledge that can inform and engage employees. They take the time to scan and index documents and tag them with descriptive keywords, so that employees can access them easily. Some organizations have implemented federated search, allowing one search to run through multiple databases. Others, like IBM, have made employees part of their knowledge base by connecting experts in different fields. Rather than searching a “normal” database, workers search for a colleague who can provide the answers they need.

Jody Ordioni is president of Brandemix, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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