Digital Workplace or Intranet?

Is the digital workplace something new, or is it just packaging?

The digital workplace is not an intranet on steroids, or a replacement of an intranet; or the next great enterprise portal, nor is it SharePoint. The digital workplace describes a work place of digitally interconnected tools used to get work done. It’s that simple. And yet, that complex.

Digital Workplace Definition

Many will claim to be the first to use or define the “digital workplace” (what is it about words that have been in existence for dozens of years that when combined in a certain combination have consultants clamoring to be the inventor?); the reality is that it’s been present at all of our respective work places since the first browsers appeared on company PC’s in the 1990s. I first heard the phrase when IBM referred to their internal, online environment as the digital workplace around 2002.

Now don’t be distracted by some of the vendors out there; there are some horrific consultant-speak definitions of the digital workplace that are, in fact, not a definition at all but rather a jumble of new age terms used to sell naive IT and communications managers. One dreadful consultant definition actually says the digital workplace is an ‘approach’ to “a consumer-like computing environment that is better able to facilitate innovative and flexible working…”

Good lord.

Another vendor defines the digital workplace as a “… disruptive value-added differentiating element in a highly competitive market…”

I am not making this up.

The definition of a definition literally is  “definite, distinct, or clear.” These are not adjectives always employed by consultants looking to sell you an analysis report or a piece of software.

Needless to say, the definition varies depending on the consultant or salesperson, but as my colleague, Michael Rudnick, often says, “it’s how people get work done these days – using the sum total of all digital tools used in the workplace, including the intranet, enterprise portals, team sites, email, CRM, ERP, and any other acronym relating to the digital environment.”


Sounds like the intranet, doesn’t it? In fact, the original definition of the intranet was in fact striking similar:

“A private network, similar to the Internet and using the same protocols and technology, that is contained within an enterprise. It may consist of many inter-linked local area networks (LANs), desktop computers, ERP, websites and portals, and email system(s).” – Finding ROI white paper, 2003

Over time, however, the perception of the intranet evolved and in common vernacular has come to mean the internal or employee website or “home page.” This is not entirely accurate, however, common vernacular and perception are powerful, cultural realities.


Whatever happened to the portal?! Wasn’t the portal supposed to be the future of the intranet?!

The portal hasn’t gone away either, in fact, it’s very much alive in most organizations. However, the label is no longer de rigueur. Microsoft stop referring to SharePoint as a portal in 2010; many other vendors followed suit in recent years.

In fact, the definition of a portal is in fact a “door” or “gateway.” In other words, a door or gateway to most if not all of your digital tools. Sounds like the digital workplace, doesn’t it?

The portal evolved over time in the years following the turn of the millennium to be the “enterprise information portal” or “corporate portal” that was defined as:

“A primary website on the enterprise intranet. A web-based gateway to most, if not all, tools and information on the enterprise intranet.”– Finding ROI white paper

Sounds akin to the “digital workplace.”


Not unlike the intranet, which is, as I am fond of saying, two-thirds people and process, one-third technology, the digital workplace is far more than hardware, software and infrastructure. Technology is an enabler: a successful digital workplace and requires very active, engaged people, supported by thoroughly well-defined and documented processes and policies. This of course is not possible without a plan.

Ah, yes. The plan, or the strategy. We all need one, it’s true. But should a digital workplace plan take into consideration more than the intranet, such as an ERP? or CRM? Or even shared folders in the cloud (such as team sites)? The short answer is yes. The digital workplace is all encompassing.

The challenge that most companies face in ‘cracking the digital workplace code’ is simply that they approach the problem as a technical one – often with the goal of upgrading portal technology, or buying social software, or improving search. Another major workplace driver is that of major transformation – a merger or acquisition, a move to centralized shared services or a new leadership team that’s charged with shaking things up.

A digital workplace plan (or strategy) must exist as a means to connect the company business strategy (or transformation) to the way digital tools are being used. And the process by which the plan is created is often at times as important, if not more important, than the plan itself. And that’s because the plan is only as good as the confidence leadership has in it – which requires key stakeholders to be, well, stakeholders – with a vested interest and active participation in crafting the plan. Otherwise it’s a plan pushed upon people, which is always an utter failure.

Finally, an intranet or digital workplace plan and strategy must establish baseline measures or metrics (e.g. user satisfaction, ROI, etc.) for measuring its ongoing and future performance, and achieving its potential and value. Without measures (or KPIs), a plan isn’t a plan at all.

Forget the label

Don’t worry about the label. If you are being sold a digital workplace ‘solution’ then it must encompasses all digital tools in the organization, not just the intranet home page. Moreover, don’t be sold a solution; select a solution based on well-defined needs and plans, and measurable goals and objectives.

Regardless of the label – intranet, portal, digital workplace – don’t be fooled by the vernacular, focus on the people, the process, and the tools themselves, and how they all work together.  



Toby Ward is the founder of Prescient Digital Media, and the Digital Workplace and Intranet Global Forum conferences