Are intranets electric?

electricThe word “intranet” appears to be slowly losing territory in blogs, company names, conferences, yearly surveys and on Twitter. The obvious explanation is that “digital workplace” is the new buzzword, with a wider definition, but there could be another explanation.

I have been told that, when electricity had just been invented, a new position appeared in organizations, the “Electricity Manager”.  This manager was responsible for finding out exactly what you could do with this new invention. Could you use it to make existing production processes more efficient? Or would this allow you to create completely new products? And how did the company have to set up their own electricity production?
Nowadays electricity is so common that we no longer think about it, unless there is a power failure. You also do not have your own electricity production anymore. You take it “from the grid” and may have a generator only for emergencies.
To be honest, I do not know if that role really existed, but it sounds plausible. I could find nothing on the internet about it :-).

What I do know, because I was there,  is that around the turn of the century other new positions appeared, the “Manager New Media” and “Manager e-Business”. These managers were responsible for finding out exactly what you could do with “that internet”, apart from creating a company website.  Could you use it to attract new customers or consumers? Could you make our internal processes more efficient? Would the internet allow you to create new products or new services?
That role is now almost extinct.  If there is still anyone with that job title, it is because he or she has to focus on  the “how to use it” rather than on the “if”. For the odd marketeer a tv commercial may still be the icing on her or his job cake, but most have realized that you can reach your audience better via the internet. And by the way, all those sites are generally stored on the internet.

Is that also happening with “intranet”? At this moment we are still fighting over ownership, platforms, design, and even still teaching people how to use it. We have “Intranet Managers” who are finding out how to manage content and content owners, how to align the design with the company branding, how to manage employee-generated content and how to increase adoption. We host intranets at our own servers.

But hopefully soon we will realize that the intranet, or the digital workplace, is an essential tool for employees to do their daily work, a tool that has become so common and so unmissable that we only think about it when it is down or being upgraded. Perhaps the intranet, like electricity and internet, will become a commodity that we just expect to be there and work. That is the other reason that I think the word “intranet” is starting to become less used.

Will the intranet still be hosted on our own servers? Perhaps only if in the case of very regulated industries. At the moment, many intranets already have 3rd-party applications running on external servers or in the cloud, so why not everything?

Will we still spend so much effort on visual design? Or will we use our intranets out-of-the-box, like email and spreadsheets? Perhaps a logo and some company colours are needed, but now that smartphones and tablets are becoming more used in the workplace, we will have to adapt our approach to visual design, and focus more and more on function, rather than form. (And shouldn’t form follow function , always?)

And what will happen to the “Intranet Manager”? Will she or he still be “managing an internal website” or will the intranet become so integrated and business-critical that the “Digital Workplace Manager” will finally be able to focus on usability, collaboration, employee conversations, efficiency and business improvement? I really hope so! 
James Robertson has written an excellent post about the change in roles from Intranet Team to Digital Workplace Team .

If you are interested in that discussion, why not join the Intranet Career Path group on LinkedIn?

Image courtesy of Suat Eman at

Title inspired by “Are Friends Electric” (Tubeway Army/Gary Numan)

2 thoughts on “Are intranets electric?

  1. James Robertson December 7, 2012 / 4:11 am

    I agree that we should be re-thinking the role of the “intranet manager” whose job is just to maintain an internal website.

    My thoughts were that instead, a “digital workplace team” is required, to focus on delivering new solutions:

    What I’m less convinced about is that we’ll start using “intranets out-of-the-box” with less focus on design.

    When we look at the overall “employee experience” — EX (to match the “customer experience” — CX), it’s clear that staff want simplicity. More than ever! So the goal remains to create a single seamless environment that provides staff with all the tools and information they need to do their job.

    Dumping SharePoint with default design, alongside Chatr, SAP, etc. That’s not going to cut it…

    Thanks for the great post!


    • Ellen van Aken December 7, 2012 / 9:21 am

      Thank you for your reaction, James! I really liked your article about the digital workplace team, and have added the link to my post. Great minds think alike :-). As for the out-of-the-box part, we are all addicted to email and spreadsheets, which have no design at all but are extremely functional and fulfilling a need. Is design (and I do not mean usability essentials but banners, pictures, colourful “fluff”) needed to hide the fact that an intranets/digital workplace is not functional or usable enough? That is what I meant. I see your point so will think some more about this – it may make a new post!

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