This five word rhetorical question kicked off a fascinating thread on Facebook when I asked it the other day. It got me thinking again about intranets, what they are, and if we need them or not.
It seems so straight forward doesn't it. An intranet is an internal web site where a business publishes its corporate messages isn't it? If you are lucky you maybe have some functionality in there like claiming expenses or booking transport. If you are really lucky maybe you have some intranet front ends to some of your business tools. If you are really, really lucky you might have some social tools with which to engage with other staff.
But to me an intranet has always been something very different. It is the use of internet protocols inside the firewall. It is networks of servers making services available to browsers. It is not a fixed, managed space, but an ecology of tools where the fittest survives and where you work hard to make your tools simple and their effect profound. This gives you a fighting chance of making your intranet more like the internet, and indeed of eventually blurring the edges between the two.
Just look at the rate of development on the internet compared to your average intranet. Is it any wonder that people, who by now almost certainly have their own smartphones or tablets, and therefore ubiquitous access to the internet, prefer the greater functionality and better productivity that they find there? And it is not just youngsters. I heard recently of a couple of financial businesses whose boards are using Whatsapp to communicate with each other rather than facing the poorly designed internal alternatives.
Editor's note: I also know at least one senior executive in a alrge company who doesn't answer email but uses What'sApp
This is where it gets messy. These senior people are using unofficial apps outside their intranet and IT's control. But can you force people to use the less effective tools you offer when powerful alternatives are a swipe away? Can you force them not to use their mobile apps to communicate and share with colleagues? For that matter where does your intranet stop and start? What's inside and what's outside and who gets to say which is which?
Even something as fundamental as file sharing is all over the shop these days, especially if you are dealing with people outside your intranet environment. As a freelancer I often have to share documents with corporate clients. Nine times out of ten the document doesn't make it through the firewall, mostly because the file size limit is set cripplingly low, so I stick it on Dropbox and send them a link. In all sorts of ways the boundaries between the inside and outside are becoming more fluid.
I reckon that we have to assume from now on that the internet and the intranet are one and the same thing. Some sites and servers are more secure than others, some are yours and some are on the internet, but the movement from one to the other is unconstrained. People can move from one to the other and find the best app or service for what they want to do.
As with most things the challenge with doing this is about power and control. Or maybe it is more about influence. Having really useful services and lively work focussed conversations on your own tools, wherever they are, is the way to make people use them - not banning their access to better alternatives.
By giving up the perception of control, and working with people to give them what they need, we end up having more influence. By relaxing about what's inside or outside our firewalls we get closer to users and their needs. Helping everyone enjoy greater flexibility, while being better informed, makes it more likely they will do the right thing. And giving up on the idea of an intranet can't happen soon enough - if it hasn't already.
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