Intranets are like Churches that no one visits

There is a possibility to re-think corporate Intranets and not make places that no one wants to visit but need to be forced to. Enough has been learnt in the consumer internet world that corporates leverage.

A children’s fable talks about a crow who wanted to be a peacock. Sticking the feathers of the peacock onto his body and strutting around did not get the crow accepted as a peacock. The moral of the story was to be comfortable in ones own feathers. Intranets have reflected that story since the beginning. They have always lagged the innovation in the consumer Internet and senior management have agonised why Intranets have rarely demonstrated the vibrant engagement consumer web has achieved despite adding all the bells and whistles in repeated iterations.

With every new evolution of the Internet, organizations rush to tear down the previous avatars of their Intranets and rebuild with all the bells and whistles that they see everyday in the consumer world. The next Intranet is launched with much fanfare and after the initial euphoria, the number of visitors drop steadily. Given the fatigue involved in creating the Intranet, the employees have to endure a long agony before the next effort is undertaken with often the similar results.

The question that we pose here is, “How do we stop building Intranets like Churches that nobody visits or needs to be forced to?”

The Church is a good metaphor. A Church has a very clear sense of purpose. It has a clear message for its patrons, a set of rituals which are practised that the patrons know and respect and a set of services that it provides that everyone is clear about. Every church is built uniquely to reflect the culture of the place. This ensures regular participation in the Church, and patrons find time to visit it despite the demands of daily life. The Intranet is similar in the sense that it enshrines the core message and purpose of the organization and offers a set of expected services to the employees. Why then do we Intranets become shells where employees visit only because they are forced to?

The tyranny of portals

Intranets have been held hostage by prepackaged portal solutions which aim to address the problem out-of-the-box. They come with all the bells and whistles pre-built, but do not have the means to reflect the vision and culture of the organization. Typically the features are poor cousins of the consumer internet world which continue evolving at a furious pace. Business leaders rush to implement intranets with a profusion of features and end up wondering why people didn’t like them. This is akin to building a glorious church, but forgetting what the soul of the church is. The Intranet needs to have clarity in reflecting the vision and culture of the organization. The only way to do this is to take a leaf out of the consumer web, listen carefully to the users, and put in place a structure that evolves with the users.

From taxonomy to search

Google showed the way to move away from the world of taxonomies and rely on a clean interface for search. While search is a hard problem to solve for an enterprise with a variety of roles and content security issues, it still needs to be solved. Moving away from taxonomy based portal solutions to search-based solutions will provide enterprises with flexible and scalable infrastructure in the long-run. Understanding search patterns of employees and incorporating the learnings into the system constantly, organizations can build an intranet solution that learns and evolves every day.

App marketplaces

Intranets are typically portals with a profusion of applications clamouring for attention. That too is a solved problem in the consumer world where we have moved into application marketplaces. This has enabled legions of developers to innovate specific to the needs that they are concerned with and provided a consistent way in which they can be discovered and used by consumers. Intranets could be transformed into application marketplaces with the same capability of both production and discoverability.

Verizon’s recent acquisition of Yahoo amounts to an admission that the all encompassing “portal” has lost its relevance in the modern internet.

An Intranet has the potential to be the embodiment of the culture of an organization. Organizations can learn from the successful experiments in the consumer internet and move past their traditional biases to incorporate the evolutionary nature seen in the consumer world. Enterprises need to create an environment in which this nature of rapid evolution can be triggered sustained.