The Future of Your Company Intranet is: There is No Intranet

It is time to start thinking differently about the corporate intranet. Maybe you already do. Maybe you reached this point long ago. Good for you. I’m just getting there and this is where my thoughts are right now.

I’m going to define your current or past company intranet from a traditional perspective that says it is mostly used for official communication, there are one or more link farms on it pointing to either PDFs or outside resources, and you have to coerce people to go to it in some fashion.

Sound about right? I won’t talk about how it looks like crap, wasn’t made for mobile, and I am going to completely ignore the fact that way too many people only allow access to it from the corporate network.

I read this long post the other day about unfollowing people on Instagram or something like that I think — I read this thing but I don’t even use Instagram except as a way to see what my preteen daughter might be up to. It was about unfollowing folks on Instagram, but it was actually about more than that. What interested me about it and what held my attention was that it was about how information consumption is evolving (and about how it has evolved).

Four eras of content distribution were presented:

  1. The AOL Era, which was all about navigating to sites by URL
  2. The Yahoo Era, which evolved navigation to hierarchical menus
  3. The Google Era, which brought us the search box
  4. The Facebook Era, which brought us the activity stream or feed

From an intranet perspective, I think we are mostly at a 2.5: hierarchical menus with a bit of search bolted on top. This is fine. This is the present state of most of the web. There are sites; they have menus; you can search for something specific in the search bar near the top right.

Mega-menus and faceted search are not significant advancements in either hierarchy or search capabilities. They are just refinements of the current state. Any new menu structure, web device, or search trick (such as type ahead or recalling recent views and giving them prominence in results) isn’t anything more than an iteration on the current norm.

The activity stream era of intranets is alive but in it’s infancy. Activity streams don’t come as a stand alone feature either. To get a feed, you have to have feeders. Feeders have to be enabled to produce content, to share, to reply, comment, and like. The Facebook era of intranets is the enterprise social network. This evolution is about collaboration. Everything these days seems to be about social sharing and collaboration, so why should the intranet be any different?

Therein lies a bit of an issue, I think. Everything has collaboration. Everything has social (e.g., a profile, status updates, and the feed). Everything that is new is going to have mobile. And, these realities cause problems for the intranet because they are slightly at odds with it — they are not inherently a part of it.

Part of the issue I see with corporate intranets is that they are often treated like a single website. Maybe this is a result of the need to gain consistency and standardization of the intranet properties. But, maybe we should think bigger. More aligned to those digital experience or digital workplace thinkers. Maybe I am turning into one of those.

So, what if the next evolution of the intranet embraces this disparity? What if the intranet becomes the glue that brings these varied and siloed digital properties together? Not under a unified theme or within a single portal, but as a set of capabilities that are accessible and usable through a common interface. Maybe that interface looks like a search box.

What if when you logged in to your corporate intranet there was nothing more than a search box?

What if you didn’t even have to log in to a website to get to that search box? What if it just lived on your desktop? What if you could call it up with a keyboard shortcut like an application launcher? What if it was just an app on your phone? What if you could just type in what you needed and it surfaced? What if you didn’t even need to type?

Have you ever heard of folks giving their intranet a persona? What if the corporate intranet was a really smart mega computer that could interact with employees by whichever method they preferred? What if it welcomed me when I sat down at my desk, told me what my day looked like, let me know about new messages I’ve received, and fed me a few key metrics or stats that it knows I like to keep track of?

Once we get to the point that we have the capability to connect all of the varied, typically stand-alone applications in the workplace through a singular search box looking mechanism, the next logical step is to get rid of the text input field.

Why search for company holidays when I can just ask my intranet persona mega computer, “How many days off for Thanksgiving do we get this year?” Why open up email and calendaring software, entering in everyone’s names, searching for an open time slot including an available room, and setting up a call in number, when it would be so much better to give the command, “Schedule a meeting with my team about the future of intranets next week.”? Why look for a presentation, when you can ask for it by name, content, or when you last worked on it?

Everything that we can do today via search will one day be augmented by voice input. So much of what we consume on the typical, traditional intranet lends itself to a simple input/output based process such as asking a question and receiving a the most logical response.

Was the Starship Enterprise’s computer the ultimate intranet?

This future won’t replace collaboration. Hopefully, that is here to stay. This future won’t replace all applications either. What it will do, hopefully, is move the rudimentary, mundane tasks from the workers task lists and onto the capable processors of the friendly, artificially intelligent intranet of the future.