Our guest blogger today is technology and social entrepreneur, Paul Miller.

It used to be the case that intranets were the “poor relation” to websites. All the funky stuff was on the corporate website and intranets scratched around for whatever was left.

Today, not only have the investment levels in intranets and wider digital workplace services increased relative to external corporate sites, the richer functional experiences are happening in the intranet world.

Regularly on IBF Live, the internet radio show I have hosted since 2008, we see live demos of intranets that take the breath away – ebay, IBM, Disney, Accenture to name a few – while corporate websites potter along covering media, investor relations, environmental, with the only new services being the addition of video.

Intranets are now highly complex digital work spaces, constantly accumulating content, people, collaboration and services while even on the consumer side, the most notable websites are focused on a small number of specific tasks done repeatedly.

Every time we visit Amazon what do we do? Find an item, look at it perhaps and then buy it – again, and again and again. No wonder that works well. Read more about the power of an intelligent intranet. Truth is intranets are now far harder to manage than websites due to their mounting complexity.

Oddly despite the inherent challenges faced by intranets usability authority Jakob Nielsen in the latest Nielsen Norman Top 10 Intranets 2013 Report says; “Intranets ought to have higher usability than websites…….because you control the environment. You know exactly who the users are—basically, the people in the next office”.

In the next office? Staff across modern organisations are often in more than 100 countries, working in 50 different functions, spanning local languages and work patterns and half the users are probably contractors and third parties. We may own the platform (just as website providers do) but intranet managers do not control the company, as any CEO can tell you on a daily basis.

Internet sites are getting simpler in fact (just look at Facebook, Mashable, BBC or Ebay) as they know well what key tasks matter to visitors while intranets are becoming more complex and varied. However, what is encouraging from NNG research is that employees’ average success rate when attempting basic intranet tasks is now 74% – compared to 75% 10 years ago.

While 74% for intranet task completion is below the 80% figure for public websites, we all know hundreds of millions of dollars have been ploughed into website usability driven by e-commerce giants to raise usability. Yet despite this, these highly resourced websites still only see slightly better task completion rates than do intranets. This is a testament to the ingenuity of tiny intranet teams.

But the scope and scale of intranets makes maintaining usability standards harder and we have seen that to be true in IBF benchmarking in the past three years as complexity battles with task completion. In many ways 74% is an achievement in the face of rising complexity.

In 2002 when IBF began benchmarking large scale intranets they were just internal communications systems and now they are business critical complex services that drive work. Intranets have become powerful digital work spaces, constantly accumulating content, people, collaboration and services. The task has got tougher but the power and importance of intranets has grown beyond recognition.

Five Lessons for Intranet Managers

  1. Remind senior executives that websites now do a small number of tasks well – while intranets have become bigger, richer and more adaptable.
  2. Intranets are “new economy” services inside old economy organizations – and deliver huge return on investment given their small teams.
  3. Intranets are part of the wider digital workplace and provide vital, flexible entry parts for all staff and contractors.
  4. What new hires see first digitally is the intranet, so make sure you make a good first digital impression.
  5. Keep watching the internet for new applications that can feature internally as staff love to see internet trends on their intranet.

Paul Miller is a technology and social entrepreneur. He is CEO and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group, which includes the Intranet Benchmarking Forum (described by Oracle as “phenomenon in its industry”), the Digital Workplace Forum, and DWG Consulting Services. He has been at the heart of the work and technology revolution for the last 15 years.

He is the author of ‘The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work’. Paul has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and was invited in 2012 to give a key note address to Microsoft’s HQ staff about the digital future of work. In May he hosts Digital Workplace 24, a 24 hour journey through the world’s digital workplace.