Whether you’re at the start of your intranet journey or well versed in what an intranet site is and should do, there are a lot of different terms used that can quickly become confusing. Understanding what these mean and what fits best with your business requirements is an important step for success in any intranet project.
So, what exactly is the difference between an intranet, a portal and an extranet? How can each support your organization in achieving its goals? Should you be looking to roll out one, two or all the above for your own project?
We explore the differences and similarities between each type, and how these can align with strategic and tactical objectives for your business.
Intranets have been in place, under one guise or another, since the widespread explosion of the internet in the late 1980s – 1990s.
Definitions of intranets vary by source, due to the vast range of functions and capabilities available. However, at their most basic level, intranets can be defined as private networks, accessible only to an organization’s staff. Commonly, intranets are used to:
- Communicate within the business: both top-down and bottom-up by distributing news and announcements, providing feedback and sharing information
- Manage documents and business information: intranets offer a centralized location to host, search and access vital business content
- Facilitate common business processes: through use of workflow and forms, an intranet can enable users to self-serve for many common business processes, such as booking holidays or reclaiming expenses
- Enable collaboration: functionality such as team areas, forums, blogs and social tools can support employees to work together effectively, regardless of their department or location
- Support strategic business objectives: these may span improved employee engagement and morale, embedding a business culture, increasing staff retention or encouraging better productivity and efficiency
At their most basic level, intranets support employees to do their jobs. In an increasingly globalized workplace, they provide huge benefits by connecting employees across organizations and providing the digital tools they need to perform and thrive.
From a strategic perspective, these benefits have measurable impact on the employee experience within the workplace. This, in turn, enhances the experience they deliver for customers – and ultimately contributes to bottom line benefits and business success.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand where the distinction lies between an intranet and an intranet portal is to step back and consider the definition of a portal in isolation:
The focus is on providing access, or an opening. An intranet portal, therefore, is an intranet platform or window that acts as a doorway to other sites, applications or tools outside of the intranet itself.
Intranet portals have come full circle since the earliest intranets came into being during the 1990s. The earliest editions were simple and basic in their functionality, often a single homepage that hosted company announcements, information and a few links to further information or the external company website.
This, in its simplest form, was a centralized portal for employees: a starting point from which they could navigate to other hosting points of company information. It’s perhaps easiest to consider these portals as a contents page or menu, that would direct users to where they needed to go.
As the intranet evolved, the focus shifted to intranets as private networks: standalone entities, which hosted company information on a single platform. Alongside this, the app economy grew. Employees increasingly utilized any number of external applications and tools to complete their day to day roles.
At this point, company intranets began to break away from their previous ‘portal’ status. The integration of these new applications with company intranets lagged, often due to perceived security risks and lack of development. Employees began the battle of multiple logins and platforms, with the intranet essentially more of many enterprise applications.
Intranet portals in a connected digital workplace
Employees have increasingly high expectations of the technology they use in the workplace. In fact, a trend towards improving ‘employee experience’ and viewing our staff as consumers has caused a shift in enterprise technology development in recent years.
The desire to improve user experience, maximize productivity and support employees to collaborate now means that the ability for applications to seamlessly connect to other systems is top of the priority list for many organizations.
Investment and development into integration functionality has scaled dramatically in recent years as a result. This ability to ‘integrate’ now means the concept of intranet portals is seeing a revival – but arguably in a very different way.
So, what does the term ‘intranet portal’ mean for the modern-day intranet user?
The answer lies in the functionality of an intranet. Rather than simply hosting a list of relevant links to point users out of the intranet to other applications – a process which would still require multiple user profiles, passwords and steps to authenticate – intranets now have the ability to seamlessly integrate with applications.
In simple terms, this means users can access multiple applications and tools from one place, often using a single login, without having appearing to leave their intranet at all.
(With integration functionality, your company intranet can serve as the hub for all business processes, applications and content: streamlining day-to-day tasks and improving the user experience. It’s an intranet portal or ‘doorway’ for your business, but on another level.)
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What does an integrated intranet mean in practice?
The answer to this question depends on what applications or tools your intranet is acting as a ‘portal’ for.
For example, if your organization uses cloud hosting to store all its documents, information and policies, integrating this with your intranet offers a centralized, searchable platform to ensure your employees can quickly and efficiently find what they are looking for from a single search box.
(An intranet with integration functionality serves as a central hub for all content. Interact integrates seamlessly with SharePoint, allowing users to perform a single search within their intranet and find all content and documentation in one place.)
Historically your users may have looked initially on the company server, then the company intranet, emailed around colleagues or dug into personal drives looking for information. In fact, McKinsey found that knowledge workers spent 19% of the average workweek searching for and gathering information.
Using your intranet as a portal to access that information can represent significant time and efficiency savings.
Using your intranet as a portal to other business applications such as WorkDay, ZenDesk or Salesforce will empower users to access dashboards and applications quickly. By integrating your intranet with Active Directory or HR software, your intranet can also bring together all relevant employee information, connecting colleagues and supporting better communication and collaboration.
Intranets vs. Intranet Portals – is there really a difference?
Increasingly, integration functionality and ‘single sign on’ is being expected as a basic feature of any high performing intranet – or, indeed, any form of technology.
We are now using our Facebook logins to register quickly with new websites or applications; our mobile phones to make card payments or control the heating and lights within our homes. In the workplace, the desire to eliminate productivity losses caused by the growing app economy means both employer and employee are looking for similar streamlined experiences from enterprise technology.
(A 2016 report by LoginRadius shows that 93% of consumer identity logins are performed using a social profile, such as Facebook. Users prefer a quicker and more efficient way of signing up to new applications or websites, rather than filling out their information multiple times).
As the tech marketplace continues to develop new and innovative ways to connect multiple applications, platforms and information, we would argue that the distinction between an intranet, which operates as a standalone application, and an intranet portal, which operates as a ‘doorway’ to other business applications, will become extinct.
The definition of an ‘intranet portal’ may have evolved from a simple list of links to something more advanced, but in effect, an intranet and a portal will be recognized as one and the same.
An extranet permits controlled access to authorized external users to a company intranet.
Essentially, extranets take the concept of an intranet to another level, allowing customers, vendors, partners or selected third parties access to a company intranet, or selected areas of it. Extranets offer the same benefits to users as an intranet: centralized hosting of content and information, ensuring a single version of truth and efficiency, alongside communication and collaboration tools.
This can prove extremely valuable in organizations where you need to share information or confidential data with a third party, by providing a more secure and efficient process than traditional channels such as email.
For example, an organization can provide extranet access for a supplier to manage ordering, tracking and inventory management, improving efficiency and lowering business overheads. In a collaborative industry such as healthcare, extranets can be used to bring together different care providers or Trusts to share best practice and improve patient care.
If your organization is undertaking a project that requires input from third party vendors, limited access can be provided to support efficient collaboration. With effective security and permissions settings, dedicated areas of your intranet can be opened securely to third parties, while protecting your company assets.
Intranet vs. Intranet Portal vs. Extranet
So… what’s the difference?
As the digital workplace continues to evolve, more and more organizations are looking to bring together dispersed or silo-ed employees and partners to communicate and collaborate more effectively.
The demand for streamlined processes and better collaboration means the terms ‘intranet’ and ‘intranet portal’ are already used interchangeably; going forward, this may become the case for extranets also. Intranets will have these forms of functionality automatically built in, answering the demand of the consumer. It will simply be a matter of choice as to how and when we elect to use those features.