Bigger intranets are not always better

by Toby Ward - Most intranets are awful; they're chronically underfunded, mired in politics, lack any meaningful governance, and use poorly implemented technology.

The average rating of all the intranets that we at Prescient Digital Media have ever evaluated and scored is four out of 10 (and we've worked with several dozen Fortune 500s and just as many SMB intranets, and an equivalent amount of in-between clients, from all industries). Lately, given the advance of content management, social media and other related technology, we're coming across intranets that are rated three or lower. We've rated more than 100 intranets, and done so with a scientific and thorough methodology matrix that evaluates and scores more than 400 heuristic and strategic attributes of a standard intranet.

Ironically, the bigger your company, the more likely your intranet is god awful. While there are always exceptions to every rule, there are several contributing reasons to the bigger-the-bad intranet rule:

  • Organizational complexity
  • Technology complexity
  • Politics
  • Funding

Organizational complexity

Bigger companies have more silos, facets, and people that can't necessarily agree on what a single, strategic intranet should look like. Without an outside, third-party non-partisan counsel, it's difficult to coordinate the needs and visions of multiple stakeholder groups, departments, divisions and functional units of a large, sprawling enterprise. Among the many problems:

  • Who owns the intranet?
  • Who is going to pay for it?
  • Who gets the final say on design? Information architecture?
  • How do we accommodate multiple languages? Information needs? Technologies?

Technology complexity

The bigger you are, the bigger your needs and requirements. The bigger your needs and requirements, the more complex your technology needs. For example, enterprise content management systems, enterprise information portals, enterprise search, CRM, ERP, and integration of all the aforementioned systems with many dozens of other standalone applications require big, expensive, complex technology and integration. Adding to the increased complexity are dreaded corporate politics.


What did the IT manager say to the HR manager? Nothing, they don't talk to each other. I'm being deliberately facetious, but in most organizations, this reality is not far from the truth.

Ever met an IT manager that sees the world the same as an HR manager? Or an IT manager and an HR manager that view the intranet through the same lens as a communications manager? It's extraordinarily rare, like a Komodo Dragon, and the dynamic can be as equally as vicious. But don't stop there: in a large organization you also have managers and stakeholders in finance, operations, sales, marketing, legal, various business units, etc.

The picture is becoming clear: it is most difficult to find common ground and consensus amongst differing stakeholders and dynamics, each with their own needs, opinions and approaches to your organization's challenges, and each with competing visions and priorities.

The biggest challenge facing most intranets today is not technology, not even funding, it's organizational politics.


Lastly, everyone's favourite dilemma: funding. Most intranets are chronically underfunded, and undervalued.

We're presently working with one significant, very well-known company and brand that has made no real investment in their intranet in some 10 years. And they're a high-tech company, but they're not too dissimilar from most organizations: the intranet is ignored or neglected at the expense of employees, and instead invested in other areas, particularly the website, CRM, etc.

Why invest in a cost centre? It's the furthest thing from my mind in running Prescient, and it's no different in most organizations. However, the intranet is not the cost centre that most executives perceive it to be. The intranet is a business platform, that is more than just technology, it's people, it's process, and, when implemented and managed effectively, a living ecosystem that supports the entire business, and all facets of it. Until you change the mind of your executives, they will continue to view the intranet as a cost centre.

Small business intranets

Small businesses are typically fast, nimble and eager to root out and invest in technology that delivers competitive advantages. Most small businesses don't have half or a fraction of the problems listed above. What's more, many plug-and-play technology platforms for SMB intranets have become so robust and inexpensive that the smaller organizations have more than closed the gap on their bigger brethren, they are, in many cases, outpacing bigger enterprises.

I was recently playing with one such SMB solution, a solution that costs only $8500 for unlimited users, and was so impressed and shocked by its feature set and functionality – riddled with social media, advanced tools and search – that I've given serious thought to ditching our own SharePoint implementation for this SMB solution.

One vendor was quick to point out recently that even Microsoft has an answer to the SMB intranet solution: SharePoint Online. Unfortunately, MS has not lived up to their cloud promise and their current SharePoint Online solution is still a woefully stripped-down version of the underwhelming MOSS 2007. Welcome to the gap that many of the SMB intranet platforms have filled with inexpensive, rapidly deploy-able, and better than imagined feature sets.

Some experts will claim that some of the best intranets on the planet are from large enterprises, such as those at IBM, Cisco, AEP, BT, HP, Verizon, and dozens of others. Of course, as I said, there are exceptions to every rule. Most big intranets though leave a lot to be desired and per capita, small business intranets are generally better. This was not the case 3 or 5 years ago, but advances in technology have turned this paradigm on its head.

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Toby Ward, a former journalist and a regular e-business columnist and speaker, is the CEO and Founder of Prescient Digital Media. His white paper “Choosing an Intranet Technology Platform” is a free download.