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What is an Intranet? Definition, Uses, Planning, Creation and Recommended Software

By Gifford on 2/23/2016

INTRANET: A DEFINITION

An intranet is a private network accessible only to an organization's staff.

Generally a wide range of information and services from the organization's internal IT systems are available that would not be available to the public from the Internet. 

A company-wide intranet can constitute an important focal point of internal communication and collaboration, and provide a single starting point to access internal and external resources. In its simplest form an intranet is established with the technologies for local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs)

Intranets began to appear in a range of larger organizations from 1994. The launch of a free webserver from Microsoft in 1996 helped make the technology accessible to a wider market. Open source application frameworks (such as DotNetNuke) began to emerge as individuals gathered to improve and leverage opportunities afforded by a less expensive entry price point.

INTRANET: USES

Increasingly, intranets are being used to deliver tools, e.g. collaboration (to facilitate working in groups and teleconferencing) or sophisticated corporate directories, sales and customer relationship management tools, project management etc., to advance productivity.

Intranets are also being used as corporate culture-change platforms. For example, large numbers of employees discussing key issues in an intranet forum application could lead to new ideas in management, productivity, quality, and other corporate issues.

In large intranets, website traffic is often similar to public website traffic and can be better understood by using web metrics software to track overall activity. User surveys also improve intranet website effectiveness. Larger businesses allow users within their intranet to access public internet through firewall servers. They have the ability to screen messages coming and going keeping security intact.

When part of an intranet is made accessible to customers and others outside the business, that part becomes part of an extranet. Businesses can send private messages through the public network, using special encryption/decryption and other security safeguards to connect one part of their intranet to another.

Intranet user-experience, editorial, and technology teams work together to produce in-house sites. Most commonly, intranets are managed by the communications, HR or CIO departments of large organizations, or some combination of these.
Because of the scope and variety of content and the number of system interfaces, intranets of many organizations are much more complex than their respective public websites. Intranets and their use are growing rapidly. According to the Intranet design annual 2007 from Nielsen Norman Group, the number of pages on participants' intranets averaged 200,000 over the years 2001 to 2003 and has grown to an average of 6 million pages over 2005–2007.

INTRANETS: BENEFITS OF AN INTRANET

Workforce productivity: Intranets can help users to locate and view information faster and use applications relevant to their roles and responsibilities. With the help of a web browser interface, users can access data held in any database the organization wants to make available, anytime and — subject to security provisions — from anywhere within the company workstations, increasing employees' ability to perform their jobs faster, more accurately, and with confidence that they have the right information. It also helps to improve the services provided to the users.

Time: Intranets allow organizations to distribute information to employees on an as-needed basis; Employees may link to relevant information at their convenience, rather than being distracted indiscriminately by email.

Communication: Intranets can serve as powerful tools for communication within an organization, vertically strategic initiatives that have a global reach throughout the organization. The type of information that can easily be conveyed is the purpose of the initiative and what the initiative is aiming to achieve, who is driving the initiative, results achieved to date, and who to speak to for more information. By providing this information on the intranet, staff have the opportunity to keep up-to-date with the strategic focus of the organization. Some examples of communication would be chat, email, and/or blogs. A great real world example of where an intranet helped a company communicate is when Nestle had a number of food processing plants in Scandinavia. Their central support system had to deal with a number of queries every day. When Nestle decided to invest in an intranet, they quickly realized the savings. McGovern says the savings from the reduction in query calls was substantially greater than the investment in the intranet. Web publishing allows cumbersome corporate knowledge to be maintained and easily accessed throughout the company using hypermedia and Web technologies. (Examples include: employee manuals, benefits documents, company policies, business standards, news feeds, and even training, can be accessed using common Internet standards (Acrobat files, Flash files, CGI applications)). Because each business unit can update the online copy of a document, the most recent version is usually available to employees using the intranet.

Business operations and management: Intranets are also being used as a platform for developing and deploying applications to support business operations and decisions across the internetworked enterprise.

Cost-effective: Users can view information and data via web-browser rather than maintaining physical documents such as procedure manuals, internal phone list and requisition forms. This can potentially save the business money on printing, duplicating documents, and the environment as well as document maintenance overhead. For example, the HRM company PeopleSoft "derived significant cost savings by shifting HR processes to the intranet". McGovern goes on to say the manual cost of enrolling in benefits was found to be USD109.48 per enrollment. "Shifting this process to the intranet reduced the cost per enrollment to $21.79; a saving of 80 percent". Another company that saved money on expense reports was Cisco. "In 1996, Cisco processed 54,000 reports and the amount of dollars processed was USD19 million".

Enhance collaboration: Information is easily accessible by all authorized users, which enables teamwork.

Cross-platform capability: Standards-compliant web browsers are available for Windows, Mac, and UNIX.

Built for one audience: Many companies dictate computer specifications which, in turn, may allow Intranet developers to write applications that only have to work on one browser (no cross-browser compatibility issues). Being able to specifically address your "viewer" is a great advantage. Since Intranets are user-specific (requiring database/network authentication prior to access), you know exactly who you are interfacing with and can personalize your Intranet based on role (job title, department) or individual ("Congratulations Jane, on your 3rd year with our company!").

Promote common corporate culture: Every user has the ability to view the same information within the Intranet.

Immediate updates: When dealing with the public in any capacity, laws, specifications, and parameters can change. Intranets make it possible to provide your audience with "live" changes so they are kept up-to-date, which can limit a company's liability.

Supports a distributed computing architecture: The intranet can also be linked to a company’s management information system, for example a time keeping system.

INTRANET: PLANNING AND CREATION

Most organizations devote considerable resources into the planning and implementation of their intranet as it is of strategic importance to the organization's success. Some of the planning would include topics such as:

The purpose and goals of the intranet
Persons or departments responsible for implementation and management
Functional plans, information architecture, page layouts, design
Implementation schedules and phase-out of existing systems
Defining and implementing security of the intranet
How to ensure it is within legal boundaries and other constraints
Level of interactivity (e.g. wikis, on-line forms) desired.
Is the input of new data and updating of existing data to be centrally controlled or devolved

These are in addition to the hardware and software decisions (like content management systems), participation issues (like good taste, harassment, confidentiality), and features to be supported.

Intranets are often static sites. Essentially they are a shared drive, serving up centrally stored documents alongside internal articles or communications (often one-way communication). However organisations are now starting to think of how their intranets can become a 'communication hub' for their team by using companies specialising in 'socialising' intranets.

The actual implementation would include steps such as:

Securing senior management support and funding.
Business requirements analysis
Identify users' information needs
Installation of web server and user access network
Installing required user applications on computers
Creation of document framework for the content to be hosted.
User involvement in testing and promoting use of intranet.
Ongoing measurement and evaluation, including through benchmarking against other intranets.

Another useful component in an intranet structure might be key personnel committed to maintaining the Intranet and keeping content current. For feedback on the intranet, social networking can be done through a forum for users to indicate what they want and what they do not like.

INTRANET SOFTWARE: COMMERCIAL OPTIONS

Microsoft SharePoint is the dominant software used for creating intranets. Estimates indicate that around 50% of all intranets are developed using SharePoint; however, there are many alternatives. Other intranet software platforms include (but are not limited to):

Autonomy Corporation
Atlassian Confluence
Bitrix24
Drupal
eXo Platform
Google Sites
Igloo Software
IBM Websphere
Hyperoffice
Jive Software
Joomla
Liferay
Lotus Notes
OpenText
Oracle Fusion Middleware
Plone (software)
SAP NetWeaver Portal
Sitecore
ThoughtFarmer
WordPress
Yammer

OPEN SOURCE INTRANET SOFTWARE

While there may be many open source options, you'll have to do your own homework. We at Atlantic Webfitters host, serve and support the DotNetNuke open source web application framework (as well as dedicate our time and energy traveling to DNN events where we collaborate with community members and contributors from all over the world.

Contact 1-902-800-2321 to talk with someone about your Intranet goals.
Gifford Watkins

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