What Is an Intranet?

By Martta Rabago
Best practices
Featured Blog

All the Terms, Definitions, and Information You Need to Know

At Simpplr, we hear the question “What is an intranet?” quite a bit.  The confusion is understandable—Internet or intranet.  They seem similar.  So, what’s the difference?  If you are a business or organization looking to create a cohesive and collaborative work environment for your employees, the meaning is significant.  Let us explain what an intranet is, what are its advantages, and give you all the terms and definitions associated with it.  The more you know, the more you realize its value. Intranets can be understood and visualized as a smaller version of the Internet.  They are essentially web-connected sites on networks, such as Local Area Networks (LANs) or Wide Area Networks (WANs), just like the Internet.  However, intranets are designed for private internal company use and not public in nature. That means access to an intranet is restricted to a subset of users, such as employees and key company stakeholders.  The global Internet offers anyone access to connect and share information.  Companies, organizations, and businesses use modern intranets also to share information. Instead, it is more pointed to company news, updates, policies, and processes meant for employees or members.  But that is not the end of its usability.  Employees use them to stay in the know, find help with pertinent projects or needs and connect with their coworkers and leadership.  Ultimately, it can be leveraged by administrators and executives to create a more inclusive, productive, and experience-rich work environment for everyone. The History of the Intranet The earliest versions of business intranets housed basic company information and allowed for cross-functional communication.  Today’s intranets are far more sophisticated.  In addition to being the main window for critical corporate communications, the modern intranet is the emerging hub of the digital workplace, providing a gateway for other productivity applications.  The intranet also serves as a virtual watercooler for employees to connect socially while staying in the know concerning the company or organizational information. It is a de facto place to find the most critical messaging and documentation. At the turn of the millennium, solutions like SharePoint were rolled out to help with content collaboration.  At the time, organizations were starting to use networked drives frequently.  These solutions effectively put an interface on these repositories where organizations could put more context around stored content rather than a simple file name.  Since this was before SaaS applications, the first intranets ironically were not intra-connected.  They required a heavy IT lift to launch and maintain.  Poor user experience and costly maintenance.  Companies struggled to keep content fresh, and it often caused employees to abandon intranet portals to find manual workarounds. In the early 2000s, as Facebook and LinkedIn started to transform our personal lives, many social enterprise tools sprouted up in search to bring the same level of digital social collaboration into the workplace.  Many of these capabilities were legitimately game-changing in the enterprise.  Still, vendors struggled from being a solution in search of problems to solve, organizations.  In turn, they suffered to find a place for the technology.  They often became yet another point-tool that was used sporadically throughout the organization.  Other times, organizations tried to pretzel these social collaboration tools into their corporate intranet platform only to find the user experience was off, and they lacked many common-sense features. Today, the modern intranet is experiencing a renaissance.   In organizations with more than 500 employees, it is no longer efficient to communicate ad hoc.  There is a need for a digital workplace hub for employees.  It helps them stay informed on all mandatory communications, make sense of and integrate with their digital productivity tools, connect with internal experts and coworkers, find new up-to-date information, and socially interact across geographical locations and departmental lines.  The modern intranet took a purpose-built approach to all of these use cases and perfected previous generations’ capabilities.  Furthermore, as the world of technology has evolved since the initial intranet models, the modern intranet has been built to accommodate and leverage advances in cloud-based tools and connectivity, mobile apps and user experience, and artificial intelligence. The Value of an Intranet In its most basic form, a modern intranet helps employees connect better with coworkers and find the information they need to do their job.  Companies often measure the impact of an intranet on two fronts: first, by improving overall employee engagement.  Second, by boosting employee productivity. An intranet helps employees stay apprised about critical communications such as company announcements, strategy, and events.  They can also find and connect with the subject matter experts across the organization.  It provides a platform for social communication between coworkers, sharing personal news, and discovering shared interests.  It can build a company culture where people feel included.  Some believe that an intranet gives employees a level of equality where ideas are daily voiced and heard without bias.  An intranet allows access to critical information, data, knowledge, and documentation to complete business tasks.  By providing a centralized source of truth, your company’s intranet creates transparency and trust.  Lastly, it enables collaboration between coworkers, particularly across departmental lines or in disparate office areas.  This aspect is vital if a company has a considerable remote work population. An intranet helps the company in many ways.  It tightens consistency in company culture across a distributed workforce and in times of rapid expansion with steady and reliable messaging and engagement.  It drives employee engagement with a digital workplace that encourages employees to connect and communicate with the rest of the organization.  A business can gauge company-wide sentiment and energy on the company’s momentum and strategy by measuring engagement or launching surveys for employee feedback.  Efforts like these aid in mitigating employees’ flight risk by documenting tacit knowledge, history, and processes.  Are there drawbacks to an intranet?  Both monetarily and time consumption costs would be the first area of concern.  This concern holds especially true for older intranets because of their complexity and outdated or lack of features or tools.   Often this means there is a need for deeply involved administrators.  Due to the difficult implementation and management, process companies try to avoid incurring such a burden not understanding the benefits of a modern intranet.  There is also the issue of platforms causing a poor user experience limiting adoptions and use. As for Simpplr, we believe simplicity, ease of use, and cutting-edge tools mitigate this for our customer and their users.  Overall, an intranet improves productivity by making it more efficient for employees to find the information they need, especially when onboarding new employees.  The ability to generate a faster onboarding experience improves overall time-to-productivity.  It can also reduce an organization's support costs by encouraging self-service, streamlining common support and mandatory processes, making it easier to complete administrative tasks.  For example, HR workflows, IT support processes, or financial approvals.  Eventually, an intranet drives the adoption of other productivity tools by becoming a ‘go-to’ hub that connects the rest of the digital workplace Associated Intranet Definitions Now that you understand the value an intranet can bring to your organization or business, you should familiarize yourself with the associated vocabulary.  At Simpplr, we’ve come to appreciate that though we can throw out a lot of intranet terminology, we want you to be a success, and that can’t happen without the knowledge of appropriate definitions.  Here is a list of intranet terms and definitions that can help you navigate the industry.
  • Ready-made intranets: Intranets that come with preconfigured UI, capabilities, and workflows with technology can be deployed quickly without excessive configuration.  Gartner refers to this as Intranet as a Service. Examples include, yes, you guessed it, Simpplr. It is an excellent example of ready-made intranet software.
Why it’s important: The technological approach you take for intranets will highly influence how your program gets structured.  Organizations should carefully weigh the pros and cons of deployment options.  This process often gets overlooked.  Consider that ready-made intranets typically come with tested user experience, incorporate design best practices, are easier to administer, can be deployed faster, and benefit from regular product updates and enhancements.
  • Platform-based intranets: A base technology platform configured into an intranet with IT or systems integrators development and maintenance. Examples include SharePoint, Confluence, Google Sites, and Salesforce Communities.
Why it’s important: Added customization allows organizations to create capabilities they can’t get off the shelf, but they typically take longer to implement.  Some sources say an average of 1.2 years, and they often suffer from poor User Interface (UI).  These platforms ultimately require an ongoing dependency on IT resources, so consider the operating costs in addition to the added process complexity.
  • Federated administration: Intranets that have federated administration capabilities distribute access controls and usage rights so that multiple people contribute and maintain the intranet.  For example, a site manager on the HR team can autonomously update content within their domain without needing assistance from a central resource.
Why it’s important: Intranet technology has improved over the years with better usability, administration, and access controls.  Once your intranet no longer depends on a single (often technical) intranet gatekeeper, your intranet can operate at the speed of business. The organization can then share joint accountability to make the intranet a fresh, living, and social system.
  • Digital workplace: According to Deloitte, “The digital workplace encompasses all the technologies people use to get work done in today’s workplace–both the ones in operation and the ones yet to be implemented.  It ranges from your HR applications and core business applications to e-mail, instant messaging and enterprise social media tools and virtual meeting tools.”
Why it’s important: Intranets are often positioned as the hub of the digital workplace, meaning most of an employee’s productivity apps should either integrate with or be accessible from the intranet.  Some intranets position themselves as digital workplace software to portray more expansive and contemporary positioning.
  • Governance: A set of policies and an administrative structure that enables decision-making and planning processes.  Governance allows your intranet to sustain ongoing meaningful internal communications.
Why it’s important: Simpplr Research has proven time, and again that poor intranet governance models are the primary reason intranets ultimately fail.  You can have the best underlying technology in the world. Still, your intranet program is at risk unless your organization has come together with clear objectives, thoughtful planning, and intranet ownership processes.  If you’re looking for a comprehensive checklist for creating and running a governance team, download our Ultimate Governance Planning Checklist.
  • Technology Integrations: First, it’s important to understand the associated intranet definitions before moving into intranet technology.  Integrations are a big part of today’s modern intranet because they help tie together an employee’s digital workplace and help drive intranet engagement and adoption.  Some of the most common technologies (and definitions) are integrated with intranets.
  • IT ticketing and helpdesk software: Simply put, a ticketing system is a piece of  technology that receives a service request from an end-user for support or other assistance. Examples include Zendesk and Service Now.
Why it’s important: Many employees come to the intranet to find solutions to issues already being solved and documented.  By integrating with the ticketing system, users have a single place to access support documentation (typically through search) and submit new internal cases.
  • Cloud-based content management providers: This is software used to create and manage digital content, like documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, while providing the necessary sharing workflows and access controls. Examples include Box, Google Drive, Office 365, and Dropbox.
Why it’s important: These solutions have greatly complemented the modern intranet.  Now that documents have moved from our desktops to the cloud, intranets that sync with the cloud version don’t have to upload new versions every time there is an update.
  • Identity & access management (IAM): An IAM is an organizational framework that includes policies and technologies ensuring that the appropriate people have the necessary access to a company’s or organization’s technological resources. Examples include Okta, Onelogin, and Ping.
Why it’s important: This technology means we don’t need to type in a password and has evolved with other cloud-based technologies.  With less sign-on friction, more employees use your intranet.
  • HRMS & talent management solutions: A human resources management system (HRMS) is the software system of record for human resources functions.  It includes benefits administration, payroll, recruiting and training, and performance analysis.  Examples include Workday, ADP, SuccessFactors, and Oracle.
Why it’s important: An HRMS is the employee system of record, and it’s simply best practice to rely on it to know who’s an employee and what their access level should be.  As intranets become more prescriptive based on an employee’s tenure, role, and location, HRMS integrations become tighter.
  • Enterprise search: Enterprise search systems index data and documents and search for them from various sources such as file systems, intranets, document management systems, email, and databases.  Examples include Coveo and Lucidworks.
Why it’s important: There is a constant tug-of-war between trying to make the intranet an “everything hub” across the organization versus having the intranet focus only on trusted, curated, in-demand information.  Search integrations that go after different systems try to bridge this conflict and provide users a compromise, so the intranet doesn’t become a content dumping ground.
  • Social collaboration tools: Imagine if your instant messaging and legacy social networking capabilities merged.  These predominantly team-based chat apps keep conversations organized into groups, often called channels or rooms. Examples include Slack or Chatter.
Why it’s important: Enterprise social networking and chat tools have gone through significant disruption over the past few years.  As a company like Slack is rightfully considered an internal communication tool, lay audiences often ask how Slack is different from your intranet.  Slack is more about real-time, team-based workplace messaging and collaboration, whereas intranets are built for critical, curated, company-wide news.  Modern intranets, like Simpplr, appropriately integrate with tools while preventing information overload. Intranet technical terminology Now that we’ve defined what the intranet means and its technological integrations, we’re moving onto the technical terminology of intranets.  The terms below are technology-specific to help you understand the essential components of a modern intranet.
  • AI-based search: AI-based search or smart search allows employees to search and find the information they need quickly.  User testing shows that users prefer to find information either through their intranet homepage or directly through the search navigation.
Why it’s important: Search is a large part of the intranet user experience. If it’s inaccurate or doesn’t return the desired results, employees will eventually abandon the intranet.  But not all smart search is equal.  We can’t speak for the search functions in all intranet platforms, but we can talk about Simpplr’s smart search technology, which uses AI and machine learning approaches. Some terms associated with AI-based search are: 
  • Stemming: describes words that stem from a user’s search term
  • Relevance: the process of parsing the search query to the results while indexing the documents for better and faster results
  • Recency: Returns the most recent results in chronological and most recent versions of documents
  • Predictability: Autocompletes search terms by predicting terms based on the user’s entered prefix
  • Popularity: The process of indexing and scoring documents based on multiplying the value by weight categories
  • Information architecture: Information architecture refers to the way information is displayed, organized, and structured to make the intranet (in this context) simple and intuitive for users to navigate.
Why it’s important: If you have to train employees to use the intranet, then you’ve already failed.  Products need to be intuitive upon initial use because users have a low tolerance for complexity.  In addition, if your intranet is hard to use, your intranet will suffer from low adoption and usage rates.  Why even bother to have one if no one uses it?
  • Sites: Sometimes known as Channels or Spaces. Sites are how information is shared and structured with varying levels of permissions.  For example, if you’re working on a team project, you can create a site for your team to share project-related files and updates.
Why it’s important: Sites allow you to organize and share information with specific teams or groups of people.  It’s important to have public vs. private sites whenever appropriate.  For example, all employees should have open access to the HR site, whereas Accounting should have a private site to shield private information.
  • Daily active users (DAU) or monthly active users (MAU): Active users indicate that your employees are interacting with the intranet.  DAU measures the total number of people who engage with your intranet on a given day.  MAU is the number of unique users who have engaged and performed an action within your intranet in the last month (30 days).
Why it’s important: Determining and measuring daily active users/monthly active users help you predict the success of your intranet adoption.  If your adoption rate is low, ways to help you increase your adoption rate to keep your employees engaged.
  • Site or App administrator: The site and app administrator refer to users’ access roles within the intranet application.  The site administrator owns rights to individual sites (see definition above). In contrast, the app administrator controls underlying security and user management features like SSO (see below), branding elements, and other application-wide configuration settings.
Why it’s important: These roles are primary examples of federated administration.  As described above, federated administration removes the administrative burden from a single individual or department (most often IT).  Under this approach, knowledge, and engagement are distributed across the board, allowing constant communication to permeate the business.
  • Single sign-on (SSO): Often termed by its acronym SSO with various standards (e.g., SAML 2.0), Single sign-on simply is an authentication process that allows a user to access multiple applications with one set of login credentials.
Why it’s important: Internal communications professionals often ask us to explain this. Everyone in IT will know how to handle this, and pretty much every cloud-based enterprise application will play nice.  So, it’s typically not a big deal.
  • Feed or Stream: A web feed (or news feed) is a data format that provides users with frequently updated news or social content.  Content distributors can often syndicate news or social media feed, thereby allowing users to subscribe to or be prescribed specific content.
Why it’s important: It’s a common vernacular for modern social intranets. The Most Important Intranet Features While corporate intranet capabilities will vary from organization to organization. The new modern intranets demand new capabilities that weren’t commonplace in previous generations.  End-user demands have pushed the envelope of product design, creating a UI that is surprisingly familiar to social media in both use and experience. Often they include:
  • An immersive, contemporary user experience with a consumer-grade UI that employees intuitively know how to use.  A positive user experience makes it easier to drive intranet user adoption and decreases time spent training users.
  • Robust integrations with connectors to your other cloud-based applications help define the modern intranet as the hub of the digital workplace and not just another point tool.
  • Utilizing underlying intelligence with an AI-powered infrastructure and smart search capabilities creates data science, helping employees easily connect with the information and people they need.
  • Social intranet collaboration capabilities that connect and engage employees. These capabilities enable employees to collaborate across departments and physical locations.
  • An effortless configuration capability with point-and-click administration that requires no IT oversight with an intranet, technical resources no longer become bottlenecks, and administration can be distributed across departments and locations.
  • A strong content organization with document management integrations (like Box or Google Drive), document versioning, and flexible content management options make it easier for employees to find the correct information and prevents the intranet from becoming a dumping ground.
  • Interactive directories make it easier for people to discover, approach, connect, and get to know other employees. 
  • Applications with mobile capabilities connect and engage employees on the go. As the workforce becomes more distributed, an excellent mobile experience makes the intranet easier to access outside the office.
Best Practices It’s exciting to have incredible technology with the features and tools to make your intranet platform end-users successful.  However, without accompanying best practices, you may not see the type of adoption, usage, and engagement you hoped for.  That is why you must establish best practices.  Many of these are functionally non-technical. 
  • Establishing a Charter: If you think about it, your Internal Communications team is continually marketing and educating internally to your organization. They are responsible for keeping the entire enterprise aligned with your strategies by convincing everyone to embrace them and use tools to become better at what they do. Internal Comms also must find ways to keep employees engaged in the work environment whether they work virtually or in person. To accomplish this, everyone, from leadership to employees, must be on board to encourage participation and support of company initiatives. Without that type of commitment, you lose momentum. The intranet is an excellent way to attain these outcomes and goals. But are you prepared to go through the due diligence to find the best product for your business or organization.
  • Choosing a Governance Committee: Many companies begin with a planning committee comprised of members from different teams across the enterprise to ensure that all employees and stakeholders are represented.  They survey departments and employees to find what problems they need to illuminate and mitigate.  However, your company intranet must be more than a collaborative tool or a news app.  It must serve so many people with a variety of needs. That is why getting input on problems can help you best determine how the intranet can solve them, which design features can be chosen, and ultimately which platform suits you best.  Also, include executives in the process.  While they may not have overt active participation, they must have a voice and bless the project.  Without this procedural approach, you will never see the success and benefits of an intranet nor the return on your investment.
  • Choosing an Intranet Platform design: Every intranet should provide a simple UI that is intuitive and customizable. Ease of use ensures adaptability for employees and a greater user experience. That includes accessibility for everyone. Consider presenting content that is clearly and quickly consumable with a layout that promotes readability, including visual elements that hold interest. There is also the need for a hierarchy placing information in order of importance. Every piece of your platform works together for optimum efficiency, productivity, and desired results.
  • Governance and Ownership: It is essential to the success of your intranet to have an individual or core group who owns the responsibility for the curation of content. This individual or group is usually a member of the internal comms team, who oversees company-wide content and manages the predetermined policies on inappropriate behavior and activities on the intranet. Though many people can have administrative access, there should be one voice that holds accountability over your platform. As always, consider a backup manager just in case. Every role and responsibility should be assigned ownership. Without it, confusion can ensue.
  • An inviting Home Page: Your home page is the first thing that every employee sees. That means it must include a welcoming message that includes your mission and calls to action. The home page is also a place to encourage the discovery of products and people.  It can be organized to promote information based on teams, geographic location, or even employee function or position. Obviously, it must be visually inviting with prompts and directions for employees to find critical information and news. Most of all, you want to have your brand upfront and center. While there should be a brand theme across your intranet, the home page is where it will be seen first. It should be instantly recognizable without overwhelming the page itself.
  • Managing Content: After your guidance owner or group decides on the governance of content policy, they should establish a development road map and content calendar. There should be a cadence that guarantees the editing and publishing of content regularly to keep the momentum going. You must ensure that the content published aligns with your company message, mission, and internal communication strategy. Additionally, executives must actively provide resources and contribute content to communicate their message for the team or departmental initiatives. Lastly, employees will want their voices heard. So, provide plenty of models, templates, and examples to follow. Employees' engagement is a priority, and their news matters the most.
  • Accessibility: Your intranet should be as mobile and agile as your employees with today's technology. No one can ignore the disparate and remote work reality that every company or organization faces. To fully immerse your employee into processes and culture, the remote work environment must be as engaging and mobile as they are. That means apps and tools should be available on cell phones, mobile devices, and laptops. 
  • Metrics and Measurements: Content should be reviewed regularly to understand what information is seen and in demand. Built-in analytics can provide insight into the why and how your employees engage content. That includes your HR, policies, and procedures for your company. When you know the gaps in employee engagement, you can quickly remedy the situation. Archived information is another area of attention. You do not want your intranet to become the hidden dumping ground for old content. By establishing a baseline, and then benchmarks and measurements, you can find out what pieces draw the most traffic. Next, can you improve the content, or will it need to be removed? Every protocol helps measure the value of the data and information and lets you know the needs of your employees by understanding what they are looking for.
Each of these pieces contributes to the overall effectiveness of establishing your intranet. They will work together to provide the most interesting content and build it to reveal more wants and needs. For a more comprehensive governance planning list, check out what Simpplr suggests for best practices. Conclusion If you’re new to the world of intranet software, we hope that this intranet terms and definitions guide provides] guidance as you learn more about what modern intranets can do and why certain features are valuable.  Ultimately, choose wisely when selecting or migrating to a new technology platform for your intranet initiative.  Note: We tried to limit the intranet terminology to what people have asked us for.  If you’re looking for a longer list, check out another intranet glossary here. Let Simpplr tie everything together for you. To see the modern intranet in action and better understand what a modern intranet can do for your organization check out our Simpplr intranet product demo.

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