Q: What is an intranet?

A: An internal website that helps employees get stuff done.

That’s it. Simple, clear, everyday language. That’s what an intranet is and that’s all you’ll ever need to say to explain an intranet to most employees (or your retired uncle when he asks what you’re doing for work these days).

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In·ter·net & in·tra·net: Web between & web within

For those interested in the background of the term “intranet”, it’s helpful to splice up the word and look at how it relates to the larger internet.

Inter” means “between.”

Intra” means “within.”

The “internet” is a web between many networks.

An “intranet” is a web within a network.

The internet connects many people to many websites and many networks. An intranet connects people within a network. So your intranet is simply a website within your company’s network that (mostly) only employees can access.

What gets done on an intranet

James Robertson, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on intranets, says that intranets have 5 purposes:

  1. Content (e.g. policy documents)
  2. Communication (e.g. corporate news)
  3. Activity (e.g. expense form)
  4. Collaboration (e.g. project wiki)
  5. Culture (e.g. noon hour jogging club)

In 2007, when James first blogged about the purposes of intranets, he only listed three: Content, Communication and Activity. In 2008 he updated his list with Collaboration as intranets started showing serious evolution from static websites towards the place where collaborative work gets done. More recently, he added Culture as social intranets have become central to the cultural glue within companies.

Evolve our thinking, keep the basic terminology

Over the past couple of years, as intranets have become more collaborative, folks have argued over the term “intranet.” Should we keep it? Is it a dated term? Do we need a new word to describe this evolved “thing” the intranet has become?

The answer (my answer?): No, we don’t.

When “web 2.0″ came onto the scene we didn’t stop calling the internet “the internet.” Why? Because it’s still accurate. The internet is still a web between many networks. It’s the stuff we do on websites that’s evolved. Similarly, the stuff employees can do on intranets has evolved. But intranets are still internal websites that help employees get stuff done.

While all us geeks have labored over what exactly “web 2.0″ means, average users have simply adapted to the new types of websites available. Our moms are using Facebook and they’re using the internet to do it. It’s not important to them whether a particular site is web 2.0 or not. For them it’s just the stuff you do on the internet, some of which is newer than other stuff.

Instead of coming up with new terms for intranet nerds to use to talk about intranets, let’s keep it simple and straightforward. An intranet is an internal website that helps employees get stuff done.

Tomato, potato: “Intranet” vs. “Digital Workplace”

Some intranet people are interested in rebranding intranets as the “Digital Workplace”. But there’s no reason to do that — it takes a term that is understood (“intranet”) and replaces it with something so broad and generic as to render it meaningless. Isn’t a phone digital? And an office thermostat? And a watch? It’s a fine term for a consultant to use to describe their general services, but not a replacement for the term “intranet”, which has been in use for about 16 years.

Intranets are concrete. An intranet is a place. You can go there and when you get there you know you’ve arrived. An intranet can be social or not and can include lots of different integrated applications. But it’s still a place (as much as something on the web can be a place). When you show new employees the intranet they know it’s the intranet and they know how to get there.

But “digital workplace” is a concept. It’s an idea, a catch-all description. The term refers to the set of applications (mostly web-based) that you use to do your work. You can’t get to the digital workplace. You don’t arrive there. You dwell in it. “Digital workplace” is like the atmosphere while “intranet” is like a farm. You’re always in the atmosphere and it’s around you. But when you get to a farm you know you’re there. And when you leave you know you’re going somewhere else.

An intranet is an internal website that helps employees get stuff done. That’s a good definition. It’s simple. It’s accurate. It helps people who don’t know about intranets learn what they are. And when one of us intranet geeks uses the word “intranet,” the rest of us know what it means.