Intranets - A Place to Work, Not Search

The capabilities of intranets have evolved at an increasingly rapid pace, to become a rich and holistic software platform - a far cry from their humble beginnings as hard to use and unattractive content management systems.

Nevertheless, some companies have been slow to respond and obtain the value that intranet software can provide - in short, businesses still view an intranet as a place to find information, rather than one in which their staff and partners will perform a significant amount of work.

Several factors have driven growth of intranets:

--The abilities of modern browsers and associated technologies such as Ajax and JavaScript frameworks to deliver the capabilities of highly functional software in a browser-based environment
--The rise of cloud computing and delivery of software as a utility, encouraging a web-based mindset at various levels of the business
--The requirements of staff to access corporate data from mobile devices

However companies have in some cases been slow to leverage the capabilities of intranet software, largely due to:

--Lack of involvement of web teams in higher level corporate strategy
--Lack of general understanding of intranets
--Slowness to embrace a rapidly changing world
--Inertia due to investment in local software, associates' skills, infrastructure, and data
--Training and generational issues in the workforce

Modern intranet and extranet platforms:

--Reach out to various groups of employees within the business and deliver interfaces, information, and functionality appropriate to employee needs
--Offer appropriate processes to key suppliers and partners
--Engage with users rather than push information for them to simply consume
--Deliver custom intranet software applications that either leverage the intellectual property of the business or at least provide effective review of processed data

The scope of modern intranets has become so expansive that it is increasingly hard to actually define. This is largely because:

--With the exception of some specialized transactional intranet software used primarily by vertical sectors such as banks, and older generation software used to create local files (MS Office for example) almost all software purchased for a company is now web-based
--All web-based software used by a company is permission-based, and therefore is technically an intranet/extranet application
--Modern intranet vendors include major areas of functionality in their offerings that used to be the exclusive domain of point solution software companies

Of particular note is that modern intranets will often include not just content and document management systems, but also business processes, project-based and sales data - all of which were previously only available from specialist vendors that required significant investment and created islands of information.

A General Analysis of Modern Intranet Software

When analyzing a company's utilization of web software and infrastructure, it is useful to first evaluate three simple levels:

1. The Information Layer
2. Business Processes
3. Custom Applications

1) The Information Layer

The information layer is the modern equivalent of the business requirement to search for and use the latest versions of all relevant information. Progress in intranets to address information management has been the most rapidly absorbed by businesses. Most company intranet software platforms have functionality that at least address the following aspects of information management:

--Corporate pages
--Corporate documents and policies
--Corporate news
--Executive messaging
--Corporate branding
--Social groups and soft news

However, even the domain of the information layer within intranets has been enlarged to embrace:

--Information built up from informal collaboration channels
--Information created and consumed on external sites beyond the corporate firewall
--Skill sets of people
--Engagement and user activity data
--Task-based information such as project management
--Sales-related information stored in CRM-related islands

With time, the use of the information layer has become more complicated and dense. This truly increases the need for a thoughtful information strategy, delivered through an easy-to-manage intranet software solution. If companies want to leverage the collaborative use of technologies such as this, top-level decisions about corporate culture and management must first be made regarding the information layer's appropriate use.

2) Business Processes

The incorporation of business processes onto intranets often generates significant value due to:

--Increased efficiencies
--Increased visibility and accessibility
--On-demand reporting
--Adoption and ease of implementation of service levels

Business processes can be as simple as requesting purchase orders, reporting accidents or quality assurance risks - or as complex as end-to-end onboarding and service desk implementations across the business.

In addition, intranet software facilitates:

--Dashboards for various levels of management
--Engagement with suppliers and customers through extranet processes

3) Custom Applications

The evolution of modern web-based platforms to become true development frameworks with significant APIs used to be the final area of adoption, but it is increasingly an initial sales stage during which a range of businesses recognize the considerable value of customization.

The accelerating growth of intranet software can be attributed to:

--The benefits of making custom data created by intranets' custom applications available to all appropriate intranet users
--The evolution of modern development processes leading to decreased project risk, lower budgets, and higher speeds to deployment
--Efficiencies, error reduction, and scalability of web-based platforms compared with local databases and application-based data
--Removal of dependencies on users who created the original application but have since moved away from the company or who no longer wish to maintain applications
--The recognition that some of the intellectual property of a company is expressed in superior knowledge of a specific data set and a method of analysis

Custom intranet software applications promise a leverage of knowledge that has always provided firms with a competitive advantage. A significant enabler of growth within intranets and custom applications has been the changes in web-based development practices. These are mainly centered on:

--Significant growth in web-based prototyping capabilities
--Evolutionary changes in agile development processes that reduce specification uncertainties and compress delivery cycles.

Conclusion

Through modern web-based platforms, companies have at their disposal the ability to transfer much of their information, processes, and custom applications to a single, holistic framework that can provide information and software to staff, customers and suppliers across the extended enterprise.

Technologies are rapidly evolving to support this transition. Companies need to put in place partnerships with competent intranet suppliers to evolve strategies and invest in people to ensure that the business leverages the opportunities offered by this fast moving environment...

About the Author:
Nigel Davies, Managing Director & founder of Claromentis has been involved with corporate software for 30 years. He has lived & worked in Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and the US, & brings this global perspective to all business relationships. His current three-year goal is to establish Claromentis as a significant supplier of information management, business process management & custom development products to over 1,000 organizations.

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